Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Ancient Greeks climbing Mount Olympus

Why didn’t ancient Greeks just climb up Mount Olympus and notice that there were no gods pottering around up there?
Mount Olympus as seen from the Dion Archaeological Park, Greece
This is a pretty common question on Q&A websites. The answers are usually wrong. Here’s a selection (all sic):
Quora, Jan. 2017:
‘it’s a really hard mountain to climb’
‘some did climb Mt Olympus and felt the presence of the gods’
‘they were afraid to climb it’

Quora, August 2016:
‘a really difficult mountain to climb’
first climbed in 1913
‘would be kind of taboo’
there were actually three Mount Olympuses, ‘one in sparta, one in thay and one outside athens’

Stack Exchange, June 2016:
one correct answer, but also plenty of --
‘it’s impossible to ascertain for sure’
‘people didn’t climb mountains until the 19th century’
‘Olympus was first climbed in 1913’

The Straight Dope, February 2009:
‘it would be blasphemy’
anyone who did climb ‘probably would have "seen" [the gods]. A sceptic's account would have been ignored’
they probably did and ‘concluded theiy were in the wrong place’

‘The home of the Greek gods [was] on the Mytikas peak’
‘in all regions settled by Greek tribes, the highest local elevation tended to be ... named [Olympus]’
‘Ancient Greeks likely never tried to climb the two main peaks’
Mt Olympus’ highest peaks:
  1. Mitikas (2918 m)
  2. Skolio (2911 m)
  3. Stefani (2909 m)
  4. Skala (2866 m)
  5. Agios Antonios (2817 m)
The answers that focus on the idea of gods as ‘metaphors’, or a distinction between the divine and visible worlds, are the best ones here. They’re a pretty good take on the topic. They can stand as the answer to the main part of the question.

But even they miss a reasonably important point. And that is that we know, perfectly well, that ancient Greeks did climb up Mount Olympus. Plutarch (2nd century) and St Augustine (4th-5th century) report on annual pilgrimages up the mountain. Ceramic plates have been found dotted around the various plateaus and passes at the top, similar to ones found at Dion, a small city to the northeast which was the home of the ancient sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos (Zeus the Highest). The clearest evidence comes from the Agios Antonios peak, where burned sacrifices were offered to Zeus and various other religious offerings deposited. Agios Antonios is somewhat separated to the south of the highest cluster of peaks, running Skolio-Skala-Mitikas-Stefani in a curve from southwest to northeast.

(Wikipedia does report the archaeological finds on Agios Antonios, to be fair. But the article takes the additional leap that the Agios Antonios finds somehow imply that the ancients didn’t climb up the higher peaks -- and that obviously makes no sense at all.)
The weather station on Agios Antonios, where remnants of ancient sacrifices to Zeus were found in 1961. (Source:
The textual evidence comes from ancient discussions of the fact that cloud cover is often lower than high mountain peaks. One ancient interpretation of this was that clouds and wind are confined to lower altitudes: and this leads to some factoids about mountain-tops. Here’s Plutarch:
For people who have placed ash on top of some mountains, or have left it behind after sacrifices there, have when investigating many years later found that it was still lying as they left it. ... Plutarch reports that letters, too, remained from one ascent of the priests to the next on Olympus, in Macedonia.
-- Plutarch fr. 191 Sandbach, reported by Philoponus, On Aristotle’s Meteorologica i.82
And Augustine:
In that air [at high altitudes] they say that clouds do not gather and no stormy weather exists. Indeed where there is no wind, as on the peak of Mount Olympus, which is said to rise above the area of this humid air, we are told, certain letters are regularly made in the dust and are a year later found whole and unmarred by those who climb that mountain for their solemn memorials.
Where Augustine’s Latin has ‘letters’ (litteras), Plutarch’s Greek has grammata, which can mean either ‘letters’ or ‘writings’. ‘Writings’ is the correct interpretation -- we’re not talking about letters scrawled into the ashes, like Augustine thought! -- and indeed the archaeological finds on Agios Antonios do include some inscriptions, including two dedications to ‘Olympian Zeus’.

The distinction Augustine is making between different types of air is a standard feature of ancient cosmology. As sea level is thick, humid aēr; higher up is the clear, fiery aithēr. (These are the Greek terms.) These were regarded as distinct layers or spheres surrounding the earth, with the fieriest layer of aithēr in the neighbourhood of heavenly bodies like the sun. Augustine mentions in a few other places that rain doesn’t fall on the summit of Olympus, and in one place he attributes it to ‘one of the pagan poets’. The setting on Olympus, and Augustine’s misunderstanding of grammata, both suggest that the story originates in a Greek source. The most likely ‘pagan poet’ is Homer, Odyssey 6.41-46, which reports that Olympus
is not shaken by winds, nor ever wet by rain,
and snow does not come near, but pure cloudless aithrē (= aithēr)
is spread out, and a white brightness plays on it.
The story is fairly likely to have come to Plutarch and Augustine from a commentary on Homer: we know the scholar Crates of Mallos (2nd cent. BCE) discussed how Homer depicts the physical world in the Odyssey, so he’d be as likely a source as any.
The peaks of Mt Olympus, rendered in Google Earth looking from the west, with slopes exaggerated by a factor of 1.5. Notice the walking tracks up gentle slopes from the south-west (there are more tracks on the other sides).
The main archaeological evidence was discovered in 1961, when the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki was building a meteorological observatory on Agios Antonios. Excavators found a thick layer of ash, with ancient ceramic vessels, inscriptions dedicated to ‘Olympian Zeus’, and coins. Most of the evidence on that spot appears to date to the 300s CE, when Christianity was well established in the Roman empire, and not long before pagan religion was banned by emperor Theodosius. One older coin has also been found, from the 200s BCE, which may or may not suggest a long-standing tradition.

Now, there are some half truths among the answers above. For example it’s true that, as Wikipedia reports, the first recorded climb of Mitikas was in July-August 1913. But even Wikipedia emphasises that that’s just the first recorded climb. But it does at least appear to be true that no modern-style mountaineers had been up Mitikas before that date.

However, there are also outright falsehoods. Here are some corrections:
  • Mt Olympus is not a hard climb. It is free of snow for five months of the year, it is not high enough for oxygen deprivation to be a concern, temperatures are normally above freezing in summer, and Agios Antonios in particular is a basic walk for someone who’s moderately fit. A return trip can in principle be done in a single day from the trailhead. People even do organised runs up the mountain. Mitikas and Stefani are more challenging, in that they actually involve a bit of climbing.
  • There is no evidence to suggest any taboo or blasphemy.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that people who did climb to the top believed they had seen or ‘felt’ the gods there. (It’s not impossible, but we have no testimony on the subject.)
  • It’s true that there are several Mt Olympuses, but they’re not relevant to the question, and they aren’t generally the ‘highest local elevations’. The Olympus near Athens, out of Anavyssos, is under 500 m high; the one just outside Sparta is only about 150 m. (Not even a very significant hillock, by Greek standards!)
  • There is no evidence to suggest that it was specifically Mitikas that was regarded as the home of the gods.
The 16th century chapel on Profitis Elias (source: YouTube)
On that last point -- whether one peak in particular was especially sacred to Zeus -- even Agios Antonios isn’t the strongest candidate. That honour should probably go to the northernmost prominence, Profitis Elias (2803 m).

First: Elias, the Greek form of Elijah, supplanted Zeus in many parts of the Greek world, and is strongly associated with mountain-tops. Several peaks that were called ‘Olympus’ in antiquity are now named for Elias.

Second: the archaeological evidence mentioned above comes from Agios Antonios, the main southern peak, but the urban sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos was on the northeast side of the mountain, in the city of Dion. From Dion, Profitis Elias is the nearest (14 km) and most prominent peak. Physical remains of the sanctuary of Zeus at Dion were discovered in 2003, and included a nearly complete cult statue of Zeus enthroned. (Dion itself is named after Zeus: oblique forms of ‘Zeus’ take the stem Di(w)-, e.g. Dios ‘belonging to Zeus’.)

Third: in the mid-1500s, St Dionysius of Olympus built a chapel dedicated to Elias on Profitis Elias, which is still standing. Some reports claim that the chapel was built on the site of an older ruin. If there is any basis to that claim, I’m guessing it comes from traditions or records kept by the Monastery of Agios Dionysios, on the north-eastern slope of the mountain. If a ruin existed, we don’t know how old it was, and it seems unlikely that anyone will ever find out: no one’s going to go digging up a 16th century chapel of intense interest to a nearby monastery, and the highest-altitude chapel in Greece to boot. But even without physical remains being dug up, there’s a fairly strong some suggestion of a long-standing religious significance to the site. [Note: this paragraph has been edited several months after the writing, as I’m unable to find any basis for the UNESCO claim about ancient ruins.]
Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, Dion (source: Wikipedia)
Just as an interesting end-note: we have on record an ancient measurement of the height of Mt Olympus, and it’s intriguingly accurate. Plutarch quotes an inscription at Pythion, on the west slope of the mountain, which stated that one Xeinagoras, son of Eumelus, measured the height of the mountain as follows:
The sacred height over Apollo’s Pythion
    of Olympus’ peak, in vertical measure,
is ten full stadia, and in addition
    a plethron less four feet in size.
Eumelus’ son placed a measure of the distance,
    Xeinagoras. Farewell, lord, and grant your blessings.
We’ve got no idea what methodology Xeinagoras used, but the measurement isn’t too shabby. A plethron is 100 feet, and a stadion is 600 feet, so this comes out to exactly 10.16 stadia. The length of a stadion is not exact, but usually ranged between 181.3 and 192.25 m (figures quoted by the New Pauly); conversion to Roman measurements allowed greater precision, which made the stadion between 184.4 and 185.1 m. Taking the mean of those two figures, 184.75 m, Xeinagoras’ measurement comes out as 1877 m over the elevation of Pythion. Pythion is at about 700 m, so this gives a total of 2577 m for the summit of Olympus. It’s definitely not perfect -- 341 m short of the elevation of Mitikas, 226 m short of Profitis Elias -- but not half bad considering that Xeinagoras probably didn’t even have access to Roman surveying techniques, let alone modern ones.

Further reading


  1. Thank you so much for writing such an interesting and informative article! Cyprus is indeed well known for its history and for being steeped in myths and legends. I think you'll agree with me that the whole mythology of Cyprus is closely linked to the image of Aphrodite – the goddess of love and beauty. It's such an amazing feeling to see all those mystical places with your own eyes!