Piling Pelion on Ossa (Part 1)

7 September 2022. The Korykian Cave.

We headed east from Delphi and the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia on Route 48 (EO Livadias Amfissas) back towards the upscale skiing village of Arachova. As I mentioned in a previous post, Arachova is a lovely community. It has a beautiful view of the Pleistos River valley, with well-kept, red-tiled buildings perched on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassos. But it was to the higher slopes of Mount Parnassos that we were headed just now.

The “BEWARE OF PASSING WILD BOARS” sign (above) reminds us that we are surrounded by the wilds of Greece.

“[O]n growing up, Attis migrated to Lydia and celebrated for the Lydians the orgies of the Mother; that he rose to such honor with her that Zeus, being wroth at it, sent a boar to destroy the tillage of the Lydians. Then certain Lydians, with Attis himself, were killed by the boar, and it is consistent with this that the Gauls who inhabit Pessinus abstain from pork.”

Pausanias, Description of Greece 7. 19. 9-12 (trans. Jones) (2nd Century CE)

Gigantes preparing to storm the heavens by piling mountains atop one another (above). Spoiler alert: they get their asses handed to them. Engraving by Bernard Picart 1673-1733.

I should stop to explain the odd title of this post – “piling Pelion on Ossa.” This is an ancient phrase denoting the commitment to completing an enormously difficult task. It refers to the Gigantomachy, or the battle between the Gigantes and the Dodekatheon, wherein the twin giants Otos and Ephialtes tore out Mount Pelion and piled it upon Mount Ossa and Mount Olympos in order to form a climbable heap from which to storm the heavens. Truth be told, my blog of our entire trip through Greece could fall under this label without much exaggeration seeing as we had piled an insane number of quests into our budgeted time in this holy land. Our goal was also to arrive this evening onto the lower slopes of Mount Pelion in Thessaly.

At Arachova, we took a left turn and headed north on Eparchiaki odos Arachovas-Eptalofou. We stayed on this for about 11 kilometers before turning off (left) just before the Pan-Korikios Taverna before heading north on a parallel road (Distomo-Arachova-Antikyra) that took us to a turn-off to the road leading 2.5 kilometers up the heavily forested mountainside to the Korykian Cave.

Entrance sign marking the route to the cave (above). Limited parking is available for hikers.

The road up the mountainside to the cave was beautiful, though rough, rocky, and deeply rutted in quite a few places from stormwater runoff. If you don’t have a vehicle with decent ground clearance, I would advise against driving it. It’s also barely more than a lane-and-a-half in width in places, so proceed with caution and keep an eye out for other vehicles, hikers, wildlife, rockfalls, and fallen trees. The evergreen forest crowds close on both sides of the path, almost – but not quite – forming a canopy overhead in places. I don’t think that wildfire has touched this area in a long time, but this road would be a death trap under those conditions.

This road is a modern convenience. In ancient times, visitors to the cave would take the foot trail up from Delphi – a hike of about 6 hours. We made it to the top of the road in about 14 minutes.

There’s a (very) small parking area at the end of the road, large enough for about three cars. Paul is shown at our SUV (left). The drop-off beyond is steep, and fatal. Small tour vans come up here, which is insane. The car next to ours belonged to a couple of geologists (we think) studying the cave.

Just before the head of the path up to the cave, we spotted a clutch of blooming mountain cyclamen underneath a cypress tree and intermingled with an evergreen holly oak.

“[The Pythia, prophetess of the oracle of Delphoi, speaks:] ‘These are the gods I place in the beginning of my prayer [Gaia, Themis, Phoibe and Apollon] . . . and I worship [also] the Nymphai where the Korykian rock is hollow, the delight of birds and haunt of gods. Bromios has held the region–I do not forget him . . . I call on the streams of Pleistos and the strength of Poseidon, and highest Zeus.’”

Aeschylus, Eumenides 20 ff (trans. Weir Smyth) (5th Century BCE)

The Korykian Cave (Κωρύκιον ἄντρον) has been used since the Neolithic as a place of worship and refuge. Apart from the Korykian nymphs for which it is named, the cave was home to the great god Pan (Πάν), lord of the wild places, and was also the abode of Dionysos (Δῐόνῡσος), particularly during the dark months when the sanctuary of Delphi was left in His charge during the absence of Apollon.

We arrived at road’s end and were greeted with a magnificent (there’s that word again) view of the surrounding countryside from on high. The clouds were broken, with occasional flashes of sun. A stiff, somewhat chilly breeze was blowing, which forced me to don a hoody that I had unpacked for just this purpose. The air was clean – like the dawn of time – and was lightly redolent of resinous trees and broken rock. We stood on ancient ground, made holy by the passage of thousands of footsteps over thousands of years.

Michael P. and Paul at the beginning of the jumbled, rough path to the cave. Beware of twisted ankles!

The Korykian Cave entrance left, center, and right (above). These photos give the impression that we’re at the top of the mountain. We’re at an elevation of 1,250 m above sea level. Mount Parnassos peaks at 2,457 m. Growing to the left of the cave entrance was a bunch of wild mountain tea.

Like a gaping mouth with a questing tongue, flaring nostrils above sniffing out its prey, the Korykian Cave bids you to enter.
Into the toothy mouth of the beast.
Aaron and Michael P. are making their way downslope into the cave. The earth beneath was very wet and slick, and Paul said that it smelled like goat shit. I just thought it smelled like damp, ancient earth. This cave has historically been used as a refuge in time of war, so it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the wild goats make use of it, too.
The cave interior has a large outer chamber. But if one climbs the huge mound of fallen debris (shown in the distance), you enter another chamber that stretches back into the mountain. You can see the light from Paul’s lamp (center right) as he and the others explored back there. As I had almost fallen once, I chose to forgo the experience.
A large ritual fire circle occupied the flat center of the outer chamber. Why ritual, you ask? Yes, one might argue that a Pagan labels every circle a ritual circle. However, other than wood and charcoal, I didn’t see any of the debris that one would normally associate with a place that hosted drunken parties. This place is being kept respectfully, ritually clean. Or perhaps we just showed up on a good day.
Pausanias, in his Description of Greece [10. 32. 7], correctly noted that it is possible to make one’s way through the greater part of the cave even without lights.
A screen of stalagmites and stalactites separates the front chamber from the others. Some may have been objects of veneration in the past.

A small offering area was set up in a cuplike hollow of a rock near the cave entrance (above). I dropped in a few Euros. There were several monoliths that may have been objects of veneration at one time (clockwise, right and below), including one with an owllike face.

The stalagmite (above right) is called “Table” and it was here where quite a few votive offerings were found by archaeologists excavating the site. Please don’t let its appearance in the photo fool you. Table is probably 8-10 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter.

One type of votive found in huge numbers are astragaloi, or the knucklebones of sheep or goats. They are one of the sacred toys of Orphic Dionysos/Zagreos and were used in divination (astragalomancy) and gambling. The common people may have come to the cave for their oracles rather than to the pricier Pythia in the Delphic vale. These astragaloi (photo left) are goat knucklebones from the author’s collection.

I have no knowledge of what form the worship of Dionysos or the others took within this cave in days long past. Surely there were torches and fire, and dancing and wine. There was undoubtedly also song, for the Greeks sang their praises of the Gods. Moved by the moment and the place, I sang a hymn to Dionysos/Zagreos which I had composed years before. I like to imagine that it was the first hymn sung to the God in over two thousand years, but I rather doubt that it was. The two people who we suspected of being geologists had been diligently gathering rock samples while we explored the cave, but they respectfully paused their activities during my hymn. Paul and Michael P., who were still in the next chamber over, said that it echoed throughout the cavern despite the fact that I didn’t belt it out like I normally do when singing outdoors.

Lyrics and tune, © Michael Lloyd. Recording © Aaron Dye.

And so, having paid our respects to the Nymphs, Pan, and the Lord of Indestructible Life, we headed back down the mountain. Our next stop, Thermopylae.

This land is truly sacred.

— Να εχεις μια ωραια μερα. —

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