Mount Olympus, Dwelling Place of the Gods: Myth vs Reality
Few mountains have had greater impact on the history of Western civilization than the mountain situated on the Aegean coast on the border between Thessaly and Macedonia, referred to as Mount Olympus. Over the centuries, Mount Olympus has held importance, not only in mythology, but also geology and ecology. Mythically, the ancient Greek gods living atop Mount Olympus loomed large in religion and culture, architecture and literature, for generations. Even today, the myths of the gods of Mount Olympus are retold.
Physically, the Olympus massif, containing the peak referred to as Mount Olympus, is the site of an overthrust where granitic, metamorphic, and ophiolitic rocks have been thrust over ancient limestone deposits. Furthermore, the Olympus region contains abundant biodiversity. For these reasons, Mount Olympus is within a UNESCO biosphere and is part of the oldest national park in Greece. It continues to influence human history to the present day.
Overview of Mount Olympus
Mount Olympus is actually one of several peaks on the Olympus massif. The peak which was believed to be the abode of the ancient Greeks gods is an arête carved by glaciers, and is the highest peak in Greece. Mount Olympus is situated on the Aegean where its slopes dramatically rise from sea level to 2918 meters (9573 feet). The topography on the western side is gentler on average, eventually giving way to the plain of Thessaly. This location allows for abundant biodiversity. The lower slopes of Mount Olympus have a typical Mediterranean climate, with oak trees and low-lying vegetation. Above 600 meters (1968 feet) in elevation, these oak forests give way to forests of beech and fir, with black and Bosnian pine. Above 1100 meters (3608 feet), Bosnian pine gradually replaces black pine. Finally, at elevations over 2500 meters (8202 feet), the forests give way to subalpine low-lying vegetation.
Mount Olympus in spring ( Ina Meer Sommer / Adobe Stock)
The Mythology of Mount Olympus
Mount Olympus is most well-known to Westerners as the abode of the Olympian Gods from ancient Greek mythology. In Homer’s Illiad, the dwelling place of the gods is elaborately described. It is described as an ancient Greek acropolis, or fortified hill-palace complex. The acropolis was built just beneath the main peak, which functioned as one of the thrones of Zeus. Within the acropolis were the palaces belonging to the gods - the main palace of Zeus and the lesser palaces of the other Olympians. The golden gates of the acropolis were guarded by the three Horae, goddesses of the seasons.
The buildings of the complex were built of stone with bronze foundations, surrounded by courtyards paved with gold. The palace of Zeus had a central hall with private bedrooms and storage rooms off to the side, reflecting typical ancient Greek palaces of Homer’s time-period. The main hall was used both for holding divine councils and for feasts of the gods. In front of the main palace was a large courtyard where the gods would also assemble.
During their feasts, the gods would consume ambrosia and nectar . These substances came either from meadows near the world-encircling river, Okeanos, or from the smoke rising from sacrifices made by human worshippers. The Olympian gods ruled over the universe from this impressive site.
The ancient Greeks believed that the peak of Mount Olympus was perpetually cloudless and never had storms, something that is not true of the historical Mount Olympus. They also believed that the peak of Mount Olympus was near the apex of the dome that formed the sky.
Feast of the Gods by Cornelis van Poelenburgh, 1623 ( Public Domain )
Divine Inhabitants of Mount Olympus
The twelve Olympians were Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Hestia, Poseidon, Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Aphrodite, and Athena. All but Hades lived on Mount Olympus. The Olympians were a family with diverse origin stories.
Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Hestia, Poseidon, and Hades were children of Cronus and Rhea . According to Greek myth, Cronus wanted to prevent one of his offspring from overthrowing him as ruler of the universe. This prompted him to eat all of his children, except for Zeus, who Rhea was able to hide from her husband. Zeus later forced Cronus to vomit out his other children before defeating him.
Zeus was the god of the sky and of weather, in addition to being ruler of the gods. Hera was the goddess of women and of the stars. Hestia was the goddess of the hearth. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture, and Poseidon was the god of the sea.
Hephaestus and Ares were both children of Hera and Zeus . Hephaestus was the god of artisans, including sculptors and metalsmiths. Ares was the god of war, as well as courage and civil order.
The Council of Gods of Mount Olympus, Raphael, 1517 AD ( Public Domain )
The gods Athena, Apollo, Artemis, and Hermes were Zeus’ children from his many affairs. The birth of Athena is particularly interesting. Athena is said to have emerged from Zeus’ head one day when he was having a headache. After Zeus had sexual relations with Metis, Athena’s mother, he learned from Gaia that their first male child would overthrow him, as he had overthrown his father, Cronus. Using his father’s strategy, Zeus swallowed his lover Metis. Their child, Athena, however, later emerged fully grown from his head, and became the goddess of wisdom, practical reason, war, and urban civilization.
Apollo was a god associated with prophecy and music, while Artemis was associated with the hunt and childbirth. Hermes was the god of herds, travel, merchants, and thievery, among other things.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love, represents the oldest generation of the Olympians. She was technically not a sibling or child of Zeus but a sister of Cronus, as the daughter of Uranus. According to Greek myth, she emerged from the foaming genitals of Uranus after he was castrated and his genitals thrown into the sea.
The Gods of Mount Olympus, by Domingus Sequeira, 1794 ( Public Domain )
Geological History of Mount Olympus
The Olympus massif, as it is known today, probably began to form during the Eocene (35-55 million years ago), when crystalline and marine rock layers were thrust over limestone layers. The limestone layers are Mesozoic or Cenozoic in age. The rocks from the overthrust consist of granitic, metamorphic and ophiolitic rocks. The metamorphic rocks include blueschists. Blueschist lithologies are rare globally, and they tend to form in relatively low temperature, high pressure conditions. They require surficial or near surficial rocks to be transported to a depth of about 15-30 kilometers (9.3-18.6 miles).
During the Pleistocene, Mount Olympus was a site of significant glaciation. The first stage of glaciation began before 200,000 BC. This glaciation resulted in the formation of glacial valleys. In addition to leaving behind valleys, glaciation also left behind firns, or mixtures of ice and sediment that do not flow like glaciers. This glaciation also created the arêtes, or glacial peaks, such as Mount Olympus.
The last period of glaciation in the Mount Olympus region was around 9500 BC. After this, it appears to have become too warm for glaciation to occur in the area. Glacial geomorphology at Mount Olympus now represents the fossils of an earlier climate regime.
Panoramic view of deep gorge and rocky ridge leading to legendary Mount Olympus ( EdNurg / Adobe Stock)
Ecology of Mount Olympus
Due to its high elevation and location near the Aegean Sea in the Balkan Peninsula, Mount Olympus hosts a variety of microclimates created by its many slopes, and varieties in elevation that create numerous valleys. These microclimates have led to significant biodiversity within the Mount Olympus region.
The lower slopes of Mount Olympus are covered in chaparral and riparian woodland. The flora making up this zone include oaks and junipers. The oaks include kermes oak trees and Holm oak trees. Another tree found there is the Greek strawberry tree. This vegetation defines about up to 600 meters (1968 feet) in elevation. From 600 meters to 1400 meters (1968 to 4593 feet), the climate supports dense fir and beech forests. The beech forests of the Mount Olympus national park are very ancient and contain rich biodiversity. This is because the beech forests were biological sanctuaries during the last Ice Age. Above 1400 meters (4593 feet), the black pines give way to Bosnian pines. Below 600 meters (1968 feet), the climate is essentially Mediterranean. The zones from 600 meters to 2000 meters (1968-6561 feet) represent an essentially continental climate. Above 2500 meters (8202 feet), the climate is sub-alpine. The interaction between these three climate zones makes the Olympus region very ecologically complex.
These natural areas also contain abundant species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Some of the species in the Olympus region are endemic to Greece and the Balkans, found nowhere else in the world. In total, there are 1,700 different taxa within the Mount Olympus Park. There are over 100 bird species, including many species of hawks and woodpeckers, and up to 30 mammalian species. A notable example is the Balkan chamois, a goat-like animal, which has cousins across the mountains of Europe and the Middle East. Additionally, there are about 30 reptile and amphibian species.
Mules with backdrop of snowy Mount Olympus, Greece - North view from Petra, Pieria (Cristo Vlahos / CC BY SA 4.0 )
Human History on Mount Olympus
The earliest humans to live in the vicinity of Mount Olympus were probably the Neanderthals. The earliest archaeological evidence of Neanderthal communities near the mountain dates to about 100,000 BC. The first modern humans, Homo sapiens , entered the area around 40,000 years ago.
By 8000 BC, humans were living in partially underground dwellings around the mountain. Around 800 BC, they began to build stone houses. It is not known what language the original inhabitants of the region spoke, but the earliest Hellenic people in the region probably arrived during the third millennium BC. This group later split into the groups making up the people of the Aegean region, including the Macedonians, Mycenaeans, Pelasgians, Dorians, and other groups.
It is not known when the ancient Greeks first began to tell stories about Mount Olympus, or first considered it to be sacred. However, it is possible that some Greek stories may have been inspired by actual geologic events in human prehistory in the Olympus region. One example is evidence of an asteroid or comet impact, which may have inspired stories about the battles between the gods. By the time of Homer (~800 BC), the ancient Greeks considered Mount Olympus to be sacred. On the Saint Antony’s Peak, one of the lower peaks (2817 meters, 9242 feet) near Mount Olympus, there is evidence of a shrine or sanctuary where sacrifices would be made to Zeus. This evidence includes burnt bones and artifacts like images of thunderbolts.
In addition to being a sacred area, the area around Mount Olympus has also seen many battles because of its strategic position between Macedonia and Thessaly.
The cultic importance of Mount Olympus continued into the Christian era, as several sacred Christian sites also exist within the Olympus region. The Chapel of Elias, the highest elevation chapel in the Eastern Orthodox world, is built on one of the nearby peaks at 2803 meters (9196 feet) in elevation.
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Prophet Elias peak and chapel (Pavlos1988 / CC BY SA 4.0 )
The Legacy of Mount Olympus
Due to its importance in Greek mythology and the ancient Greek religion, Mount Olympus came to represent an idyllic heavenly realm and refer less to the physical mountain itself. Today, it is not uncommon for significant peaks to be named after Mount Olympus. At least 20 mountains are named after Mount Olympus, nine in North America, a few in the Aegean, and even some in Australasia. Additionally, at least one extraterrestrial mountain is named after Mount Olympus: the giant volcanic mountain, Olympus Mons, on Mars.
Mount Olympus is an enduring symbol of ancient Greek culture and Western culture more generally. The Olympian gods continue to make a mark on western culture. Mount Olympus has come to signify something that is the best of its field or kind, for example, the Olympic Games. This impact can be seen in the ubiquity of the Olympian gods, or their Roman equivalents, in western literature, science, and popular culture. For example, most major objects in the solar system are named after Greek and Roman gods. Nearly all the current solar system planets are named after Olympians or their Roman analogues, Mercury (Hermes), Venus (Aphrodite), Mars (Ares), Jupiter (Zeus), and Neptune (Poseidon). The exceptions are Uranus and Saturn, who were not technically Olympians. Furthermore, one of the dwarf planets is named after Ceres (Demeter), as well as the largest known asteroid, Vesta (Hestia). Whether in literature, film, or astronomy, the legacy of Mount Olympus, and its deathless denizens, lives on today.
Top Image: Fantasy illustration of the palaces of the gods on Mount Olympus. Source: Max79im / Adobe Stock
By Caleb Strom
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