Pelion has always been a place deeply saturated by stories and legends in ancient Greek mythology. In the land of Greece, where the land is so rugged and often so arid, a grove of trees was always considered a sacred place, a place of communion between the natural, spiritual world and the world of men. Often a small hut would be set up in this grove as a shrine, set apart, numinous and holy, the dwelling place of some spirit or divinity. The association of grove and shrine became so entrenched that later shrines built in clay and wattle, or wood and thatch, or ultimately in stone and tile, would recreate this sacred geography. This is the origin of the classical Greek Temple: A central sanctuary surrounded by a “forest” of columns, representing the trees that were so often absent from the barren islands of the Cyclades, absent from the austere rock of the acropolis in Athens, or from the bare slopes of Attica.
The lands of Pelion however, are an anomaly. Surrounded by the steppe-like plains of Thessally, converted from grasslands into golden expanses of grain even in ancient times, Mount Pelion rises so high and captures so much precipitation that its slopes are unusually wet, lush and green, carpeted with dense forest. Pelion is not merely a grove of trees; it is a veritable jungle, the like of which is scarcely found elsewhere on the Greek mainland. If a grove of trees was sacred to ancient peoples, the forests of the Pelion must have been numinous beyond measure.
It is no surprise that the ancient Greeks considered the mountain the summer home of the Gods themselves, a kind of earthly paradise where Olympians and mortals intermingled, and where half-men, half beast-like beings such as the centaurs and Pan crossed between these two worlds. The Centaurs embodied the wild, untamed forces of nature. They also represented the possibility that brutish, bestial desires might be transcended, and human and social sides perfected, becoming civilised and restrained.
The wisest and noblest of the centaurs, Chiron, succeeded in this endeavour, and was a teacher and instructor of innumerable young heroes on the mountain, from Heracles, through Jason to Achilles, not to mention also being a mystic and a healer, the founder of the Greek medical tradition. Pelion has long been a healing centre, a source of herbs, of cool breezes and fresh mineral waters.
Life in the Pelion does indeed have an Olympian quality, with the sea rarely hidden from view, and its small neat villages clustered high on its slopes, always with a central focus of plane-tree circle and fresh water spring, community square and church.
These places were pre-Christian sacred groves. Indeed Pelion churches are descendants of those first wood and mud brick temples, with a colonnaded porch surrounding an inner sanctum. No Byzantine domes or Greek-cross floor-plans here! Paganism lingered here longer than many parts of Greece, and it lingers still in hidden forms, in festivals and rituals. One might see it in the stone carvings on church lintels that symbolise the sun disc, Helios or Apollo, God of light, or in rituals in which the May wreaths are burnt on midsummers night, and young children, encouraged by their grandparents, leap over the flames.
One such festival celebrated on the 17th July is the patron saint of Kissos, Saint Marina. It has been argued that her legend derives from a transformation of the pagan divinity Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, into a Christian saint. The festivities are certainly Bacchanalian, with plenty of Tsipouro, dancing, feasting and carousing!
So now, as we come to the end of another family fortnight, perhaps the most successful yet, it is only fitting that we should welcome the festival of the Panagia, “She who is all-holy”, Mother Mary herself. In gratitude to all the wonderful mothers, (and fathers!) and mother-Earth herself. In thanks for another year of bounty here in Kalikalos, on magical mount Pelion, and for the precious gift of life itself.
Adam Reising, Poland, Scotland
Agios Constantinos, below Kissos Village, showing the typical Peliot association of church with an enormous plane tree. Pelion churches are built on ancient pagan groves combining sacred springs and mighty trees. The oldest tree, in Tsagarada, is estimated to be at least 1500 years old, clearly predating the introduction of Christianity to the area.
Mouresi, Church of the Holy Spirit. A painted slate panel of Mary, the Panagia, surrounded by a heavenly host of spirit-flowers or flames, suggestive of a mandala.
Ano Volos, location of the church of the Dormition of Mary, most probably on the site of an ancient temple of Artemis, Mistress of the forest and the animals. It guards the approach to the mountain from Volos.
The masonry of the Church of the Dormition makes use of Byzantine and classical fragments, and once even provided a home for a retired Byzantine princess who accepted monastic vows. In this case, the building was not only located on a previously used pagan site, but literally recycled its building materials.
Solar, animal and magical symbols decorate the apse of a Pelion church, commonly associated with the “womb” of the God-bearer, Mary. This is Agios Demetrios in Pouri.
Pouri, Agios Demitrios Church. A colonnade surrounds a rectangular worship hall, just as it would a pagan Greek temple.
Rustic carvings of Byzantine double headed eagles with seraphim (the highest order angels). Pouri, Church of Agios Demetrios.
Kissos, Agia Marina. Colonnaded church, water fountain, ancient tree, and village square. An archetypical Peliot village arrangement.
Children jump over the flames of the burning May wreaths on midsummers night, encouraged by village elders. Kissos.