Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pelion: Mythology and History

Pelion, view to the south from Schidzouravli peak (1450 m.)
       Pelion stands out among the mountains of Greece. Although it is not very high (its highest peak, Pourianos Stavros, measures 1624 m.), because of its geographical position collects a lot of snow in winter. This results in plenty of spring water, creating high potential for human settlement: Pelion is the most densely inhabited mountain of Greece. It also remains overgrown with vegetation, just as it was in antiquity, as mentioned in poems of Homer and Hesiod. Its position inbetween two seas, the Aegean sea and Pagasitic gulf, means that mountain and sea are always very close to each other. Not many ski centers are only a few hours of walking time away from a beach, like  Pelion Ski Center at Chania.
Pelion, Papa Nero beach at Agios Ioannis
         This combination of mountain and sea, mythology and history, natural beauty and human works (old villages, monasteries, stone bridges, fountains, cobblestone paths), coupled with availability of both summer and winter touristical infrastructure and the presence of a large city nearby (Volos), is what makes Pelion so special. It is a paradise for walkers and nature lovers. Such is the multitude of its walking routes, that one can walk on a different route every day for three months and still have new walks to explore.
         Near the sea or the mountaintop, in dense beech, chestnut and oak forest, mediterranean maquis vegetation or olive and apple orchards, lasting from one up to eleven hours, circular or trekking from one village to another, Pelion has it all for everybody in terms of walking, except only for alpine zone at high altitudes. Skiing, mountain biking, canyoning, climbing, horseriding, diving, swimming, sailing, caving, kayaking, collecting herbs and mushrooms, all these activities and more are exercised in the Pelion area.
Pelion, walking on the kalderimi Lafkos-Milina

      There are three major myths in reference to Pelion: the myth of Centaurs, Jason and the Quest for the Golden Fleece and the Weddings of Peleus and Thetis. 
       Centaurs were mythological creatures living in Pelion, with the head, arms and torso of a human and the body and legs of a horse. Their character was primitive, violent, impulsive and lusty. They lived in caves, hunting wild animals armed with rocks and tree branches. Centauromachy (the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths) is a favorite theme in ancient Greek temples: invited to the wedding of their half-brother king of Lapiths, the Centaurs got drunk and attempted to carry off the bride Hippodameia and the female guests. In the ensuing battle they were wiped out. Centauromachy is a metaphor for the imposition of human civilization over the lower, primitive appetites of humankind.
Centauromachy (from Parthenon marbles)
       Not all Centaurs were the same, though. Chiron, son of god Cronus and nymph Philyra, was wise, peaceful and civilized, the superlative among Centaurs. He knew the secrets of nature and mastered medicine, music, archery, hunting and prophecy. He was the teacher and mentor of many heroes of myth, including Jason, Peleus, Αsklepios, Aristaios and Achilles.
Centaur Chiron
        Jason was the son of Aeson, king of Iolkus. When power-hungry Pelias, Aeson`s brother, seized the throne from him, Aeson, fearing for the life of his young son, sent him under the care of Centaur Chiron in Pelion to be raised and educated. Years later, having reached adulthood, Jason returned to claim the throne of his father. On his way to Iolkus, he lost his sandal in the flooded river Anaurus. An oracle warned Pelias to beware of the man wearing one sandal (''monosandalos''). So, confronting Jason, he told him he would have the throne, if he could bring back the Golden Fleece. This was at Colchis (modern-day Georgia) at the Black Sea, where Phrixus sacrificed the winged golden-hair ram that he and his sister Helle rode to escape from their stepmother Ino. Helle fell off the ram`s back and drowned in the straights called Hellespont after her, but Phrixus arrived safely to Colchis. The Golden Fleece was hung at the sacred oak of god Ares, guarded by a never sleeping dragon and defended by bulls with hoofs of brass and breath of fire.
       Jason accepted the challenge and asked the skilled shipwright Argus to build a ship for the long journey. At the port of Pagasai, from where Argo sailed, Jason gathered a ''dream team'' of heroes, the Argonauts, including Heracles, Theseus, Nestor, Peleus, Orpheus, Castor and Pollux, Telamon, Philoctetes, Euphemus and the Boreads Zetes and Calais (flying sons of Boreas, the North Wind). The only woman in the crew (though not certain) was Atalanta.
The new Argo at Volos harbour
      On their way, they favored king Phineas of Thrace by killing the Harpies (winged monsters that stealed his food). Phineas told Jason that the only way to reach Colchis was to sail through the Symplegades, huge rocks that came together crushing anything that traveled between them. He advised Jason to release a dove on approach, and if the dove made it through, to row with all their might behind it. If it was crushed, then they were doomed to fail and had to head back. Jason did as advised and the dove made it through, losing only a few tail feathers. Argo also made it through with minor damage to its prow. From that moment on, the rocks would remain immobile, leaving free passage.
     At Colchis, king Aetes asked Jason to perform certain tasks. He had to yoke the bulls that breathed fire and plow a field, then sow it with dragon teeth. All that would have been impossible without help from Aetes` daughter Medea, who fell in love with Jason. Being a sorceress, she provided an ointment that protected from the bulls` flames. She also warned Jason that an army of warriors was to sprout from the dragon teeth. Before they attacked him, he threw a rock into the crowd and, unable to discover who did it, the angry warriors killed one another. Then Jason sprayed the dragon with a potion Medea distilled from herbs, driving it to sleep, and took the Golden Fleece.
Jason and Medea taking the Golden Fleece
     This amazing story reflects the difficulties and dangers encountered by the brave seamen of the old times, who traveled through the Aegean and the Black Sea, creating wealth by trading of goods. The myth of Argo lived again in 2004-2006, when a replica of a penteconter with 50-oar crew was built in Volos, using tools and techniques of antiquity. That ship traveled to Corfu and Agii Saranda in the Adriatic Sea in 2008, and in the following year the modern Argonauts were able to complete the trip from Volos to ancient Colchis reaching Batumi, Georgia at the Black Sea.
The new Argo sailing
         The last myth involves Peleus, king of the Myrmidons of Magnesia. The name Pelion comes after him. His wife Thetis was a Nereid (sea nymph), daughter of sea god Nereus. Zeus knew of an oracle predicting that Thetis` son would become greater than his father. Fearful of losing his position as the supreme of gods, like himself had dethroned his father Cronus, he wanted Thetis to marry a human, but she refused. Taking god Proteus` advice, Peleus hid in a sea cave in Pelion`s east coast, where Thetis used to come and rest. When she came out of the sea unaware, Peleus grabbed her tightly. Trying desperately to escape, she transformed herself into a lion, fire, snake and finally a cuttlefish (sepia), throwing her ink over him. Realising that no matter what she did, Peleus would not let her go, she surrendered and conceded to marry him.
Thetis trying to escape Peleus
      Their weddings took place in Pelion, outside Chiron`s cave. All gods were invited except Eris, the goddess of discord. To take revenge for the insult, she cast among the guests a golden apple with the inscription ''te kalliste'' (to the fairest). As expected, three goddesses (Hera, Athena and Aphrodite) claimed the apple, demanding from Zeus to decide which one of them was the fairest. Reluctant to favor any claim himself for obvious reasons, Zeus declared that Paris, son of Priamus, king of Troy, would be the judge in this beauty contest.
     The three goddesses, after bathing in the spring of Ida in Crete, appeared before Paris, offering him gifts for favour: Hera offered ruling power and wealth, Athena skill and wisdom; but Aphrodite offered him the love of  Helen of Sparta, wife of  king Menelaus, the most beautiful woman on earth. Perhaps inevitably, the young prince  chose to give the apple to Aphrodite, thus setting the scene for the Trojan War.
The judgement of Paris
       Achilles, the great hero of the Trojan War, was the son of Peleus and Thetis. Knowing of the prophecy that her son would live a glorious but short life, Thetis sought to make the child invulnerable by immersing it to the waters of Styx, river of Hades, holding it from its heel. In another version of the myth, she anointed Achilles with ambrosia and burnt his mortality into the hall fire at night. Confronted with that and fearing for the child`s life, Peleus interrupted Thetis, who fled away in anger, leaving Achilles` heel as the only vulnerable part in his body. Peleus then sent the boy to Centaur Chiron to teach and educate.

         There are testimonies of human presence around Pelion from prehistorical times. The acropolis at Sesklo and Dimini near Volos were inhabited from Neolithic period (5th millenium BC) until the Mycenean era (12th century BC). Latest data identify the Mycenean settlement of Dimini with the ancient city of Iolkus. Some other ancient settlements around Pelion were Pagasai, Amfanai, Olizon, Neleia, Koropi, Spalauthra, Orminion, Kasthanea, Glafyrai. 
Entrance of Mycenean tomb 

Interior of  Mycenean tholos tomb ''Lamiospito'' at Dimini near Volos
                                                                At the hill of Goritsa next to Volos lay the ruins of a hellenistic city built in 4th century BC, which was abandoned a few decades later and even its name still remains unknown. In 294 BC, king Demetrios of Macedonia founded the city of Demetrias at modern-day Pefkakia near Volos. Ruins of its walls, the palace, water system and the ancient theatre can still be seen today. Demetrias became the favourite residence of the kings of Macedonia and later was the capital of Magnesian Alliance and an episcopal see under Roman emperor Constantine. The city was finally abandoned by the late byzantine period (13th-14th century AD) or possibly even earlier.
Walking on the ruins of the walls of ancient Demetrias (in winter) opposite Volos
         During the byzantine period, the inhabitants of Demetrias moved to the nearby Castle of Volos (some remains of it can be seen at the city hill of Palea) for better protection from barbarian raids and pirates. Slavic people raided and eventually settled down in Pelion, as testified by a multitude of Slavic names still surviving, like Zagora, Goritsa etc. The name Golos (later Volos), of Slavic origin too (from gol=naked or golosh=seat of administration in Old Slavonic), is first mentioned in written archives of late 13th century. The basis for several eminent Pelion villages (Zagora, Makrinitsa and Portaria) was set in 12th century, around the monasteries of Sotira, Oxeias Episkepseos  and Drianouvena  respectively. Other Pelion villages also developed following that example. Pelion was full of  monasteries at that time, very much like the Athos peninsula, like a second ''Holy Mountain''.
Monastery of Agios Lavrentios, main church built 1378 AD
         The Ottoman Turks seized the Castle of Volos in 1423 AD and all Christian people living there were forced to abandon it and move higher up the mountain. Indeed, during the Ottoman period (15th to 19th century) the Turks preferred to settle down at fertile low grounds, such as those of Lechonia and Argalasti, leaving to the Christians the mountainous slopes of Pelion, more difficult to cultivate, that were of no interest to them. The developing mountain villages remained essentially self-governed, being required to pay an annual tax and left otherwise in peace by the authorities. That privilege layed the ground for the thriving of Pelion, reaching its climax in 18th and 19th century.
Old traditional Pelion mansion
        Groups of skilled stone builders from Zagori region of Epirus, Northwestern Greece came and built the mansions, monasteries, bridges, fountains and kalderimis (cobblestone paths) that we admire today. Products (mainly olive oil, olives, fruits, chestnuts, silk, timber) were carried by mules through the kalderimis down to the sea (every village had its own beach used as port) and shipped to the major ports of East and West. Zagora was famous for its excellent ships. On donations by wealthy merchants, higher schools were founded, like Ellinomouseion in Zagora and the School of Milies.
 Ellinomouseion school at Zagora (on the right)
       In 1881, Pelion along with the whole region of Thessaly was swiched from the Ottoman Empire to the young State of Greece. The modern city of Volos outside the castle had been founded just forty years before, when wealthy merchants were granted permission to build houses and churches outside of the castle by the Sultan himself in Constantinople (Istambul), provided of course that a significant sum of money be deposited to the Sultan`s personal account. Thanks to its position as the main port of Thessaly for importing and exporting goods, and to the subsequent building of much needed port and railway infrastructure, the young city of Volos thrived under Greek rule.
View of Volos from the hill of Goritsa
       At the end of 19th century, it was decided to build a narrow railroad of 60 cm gauge (Decauville type) from Volos to Pelion villages, originally scheduled to extend up to Zagora. Evaristo De Chirico, an Italian engineer, father of the eminent surrealist painter and sculptor Giorgio de Chirico (who was born in Volos), was put in charge of the project. Starting operation in 1895, the rails finally extended up to the village of Milies in 1903 and the train remained in regular service until 1971. Since 1996, it operates again as a heritage railway for tourists during the summer season (April to October) -a must for all visitors.
Τhe train of Pelion over the metal bridge near Milies station
      The ravages of 2nd World War, the ensuing Greek Civil War and the massive earthquakes of 1955-57 all took their toll. Civilians were executed and villages were burnt down by the German occupation forces (Milies, Drakia, Agios Vlasios, Kanalia etc.- the village of Ano Kerasia still remains in ruins). Volos lost to the earthquakes most of its fine neo-classical style urban mansions, sadly replaced by blocks of flats. Following the development of mechanised transport, many of the old kalderimis and paths were destroyed and converted to roads. The villages of Pelion faced a post-war economic decline, mitigated by the gradual rise of tourism from the 70`s and on.
Hatzikyriazi mansion, Volos (lost to the earthquakes)
      Nowadays, Volos is a lively modern city of about 150.000 inhabitants, seat of the University of Thessaly, and Pelion seems to strike a balance between land cultivation and tourism. Provided that its strong assets are being protected and used to advantage, Pelion should be able to justify its calling as a ''paradise'', bearing always in mind that no paradise on earth can be perfect.
Pelion, beech forest above Makrinitsa in early November