Greek landscapes shaped Greek myth, which in turn influenced Greek history. So, to try to link myth and history with their associated sites, this blog takes readers on a journey through the Greek mainland, as well as to some of the Aegean islands and sites in Turkey which once were Greek. All the locations are accessible today, and visitors may use this blog as a companion. For armchair travellers, the brief evocations that begin each chapter are intended to capture something of their modern atmosphere.
Travel is instructive, but not essential, for Greek mythology still thrives wherever there are receptive minds, as a poem first published by the present author’s Humanity professor, Robert Ogilvie, makes clear: When I was one, in Shillingstone, June afternoon you spent In reading Homer. Twenty now Homer I read in Ghent. From Ghent to Shillingstone is far. It’s twenty years away. But clear-seen Ithaca is near. I’ll meet you there today.
Mount Olympus: Dion & the Home of the Gods
They say that Mount Olympus is the everlasting home, immutable, of the immortal gods. Gales cannot shake it, nor rainstorms drench it, and no snow clouds come near; but, rather, the high air opens out, serene and cloudless, bathed in the purest light. Here every day for all eternity the blessed gods lead lives of happiness.
On the fertile plain between the sea and Mount Olympus, Dion thrums with life. Tall clumps of trees -oak, ash and poplar, cypress, plane and agnus castus – chitter with the busyness of birds that flit between the branches with a sudden chirr of wings before alighting on a cluster of bamboo. Doves murmur in the tree-tops. Distant crows abrade the air. Iridescent dragonflies hover over the flat surface of the lake or dance around the pillars of a sunken temple, where water flows clear over weathered stones and tortoises loll, lazy in the sun. Straight paved streets stride off with an initial confidence, only to be overcome by lush vegetation, distracted by wild roses and entangled in a sea of asphodel. Elsewhere, anemones and poppies stud the rippling meadows as they flow towards the theatre. And rising up behind the ranks of benches – so close and yet remote, at once forbidding and apparently benign, its high peaks crowned with clouds, its slopes already burgeoning with grapes – is Mount Olympus, the legendary dwelling place of Greece’s gods.
In the Beginning.
For the Greeks, Mount Olympus was the ultimate seat of power. The gods whose home it was controlled the earth and skies, and all that lived there. Theirs was an extended ruling family, often beset by arguments and egos, sometimes capricious, sometimes fiercely loyal, but always jealous of their own authority and merciless against any who opposed it.
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But the Olympians did not always rule the cosmos. Nor was there always a cosmos to rule. At first there was only Chaos, a yawning void, infinite and empty, a lifeless place of endless darkness.
In the beginning came Chaos; next full-bosomed Gaia [Earth], an ever-safe foundation for all the deathless gods, who live on snowy Mount Olympus; and misty Tartarus in the bowels of the broad-pathed earth; and Eros [Desire], the most beautiful of all the deathless gods, who loosens limbs, seducing even the most clever minds and spirits of both gods and men.
Now that there was form and animating spirit, other entities quickly came into being. From Chaos came Night (Nyx) and Day; from Earth came ‘Ouranus, star-speckled sky, her equal, that he might cover her entirely’. Earth, too, was evolving.
She gave rise to long mountain chains, the lovely home of Nymphs, who dwell high in the mountains’ wooded glens. With no recourse to pleasant lovemaking, she bore Pontus with its rolling waves – the barren sea. But afterwards she lay in love with Ouranus and so gave birth to Ocean with deep-drifting currents.
The fundamental cosmic form was now in place, imagined by early Greeks as a flat discus-shaped earth surrounded by the freshwater stream of Ocean. Beneath lay Tartarus or Hades, the Underworld, soon to be home to the dead, while above stretched Ouranus, the sky.