Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Other Olympics

Text by | Photographs by Anthony Georgieff   
''The grass I sit on is the grass Zeus used to step on!,” says Anastasia. The 25-year-old Greek from Larissa sports a purple toga and a fern wreath in her hair. “And you know what he did on these meadows, don’t you! Chased his many lovers! Just imagine him catching them and bringing them down into the long grass!”

“But he never appeared to them as he really looked,” interrupts Janis, a 34-year-old Salonika lecturer. “To them, he assumed the form of a satyr, or golden raindrops, or a swan. Lucian even scorned him by implying that women never liked him as he really was.”

It is getting dark on the broad meadow at the foot of Mount Olympus. One of the year’s longest days is coming to a close. Around a thousand people are here, dressed in ancient Greek chlamydas. They follow Dionysus’ advice and purify their bodies with red wine, the better to prepare for the coming spiritual feast of a ritual theatre performance symbolising man’s road from the acquisition of fire to the granting of light by Apollo.

Amid the scattered groups, one can distinguish Hermes, Poseidon, Orpheus, at least a dozen nymphs and minor deities, and lots of curious folk. A long-haired man recites Classical Greek verse to the ancient Greeks lying around, and has them in fits of laughter.

A group of nymphs assemble fern wreaths. Some tie ribbons around their heads. Dionysus, the god of wine, seems to be particularly popular, dispensing plastic cups from two barrels assisted by Ilioviti. Ilioviti is from Salonika and is here with her son, who has no special attire, yet possesses all the air of a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“The best thing about ancient Greek culture was that it was so close to nature!,” she says. “Greek gods didn’t try to change nature; they lived in harmony with it, and loved it. Another great thing was that one’s mind was free with them.”

A queue of ancient Greeks forms near a bonfire at the upper end of the meadow, from where a divine aroma has been emanating for some time. Having reached its end, the ancients disperse with foil platefuls of cabbage, rice, potatoes and meat: presumably, an ancient Greek hodgepodge.

The people on the meadow belong to The Return of the Hellenes. The movement’s ideologue is Tryphon Olympios, a blue-eyed 59-year-old who has taught philosophy at Stockholm University for the last quarter of a century. Some years ago he changed his name from Tryphon Kostopoulos, marrying his wife Elpida 17 years ago in an ancient Greek rite. The couple now inhabit a house on Mount Olympus, and have built a shrine in the yard.

“Each day I send prayers to Apollo. I bring flowers and fruit to the altar, light candles, and pray,” says Elpida. She feels that worship at the ancient Greek pantheon isn’t about following a strict set of rituals. Everyone is free to follow whatever rites they want. One option is to invoke different scents: each of the 12 gods is linked to a different scent. Prayers follow Hellenic texts derived from Orphean songs and historical approximation.

Yet, Tryphon Olympios doesn’t want The Return of the Hellenes to be seen as a religious phenomenon. He has directed his efforts at formulating a new ideology that would apply Classical Greek views on harmony with nature and maintaining an enquiring mind to the modern world.

“It all began 20 years ago, when it suddenly dawned on me that I had become more Christian than Greek,” says Tryphon. “I began to seek the point of distinction between the two. It took me five years to define the separate identities. Now I am certain that Hellenism would be a better cultural identity for Greeks.”

Being a professor, Tryphon goes through the advantages of Hellenism very systematically: “Beauty injects order into chaos by making the laws. This is the genesis of our world. Beauty and eroticism are at its base, and their tenets are above men and gods. Another wonderful thing about the Hellenes’ worldview is that it encouraged men to be lifelong seekers after truth: philosophers.”

Many of those on the meadow see the movement more as a philosophical credo than a religious experience. They do not perform daily rituals, yet eagerly wade into the discussions organised in their localities.

“I’m fascinated by Classical Greek mythology, and that’s what brought me here. In fact, it was my parents’ idea,” says 15-year-old Litho, who continues to attend her local Orthodox church. In fact, Litho is her Hellenic name, given to her at the movement’s annual gathering last year. Now her brother is in line for a Hellenic name.

The movement has drawn people from all walks of life, many of them strangers to each other. Tryphon Olympios claims there are 5,000 Returning Hellenes, but this number is a complete approximation, since the community is completely open. The urban discussions are accessible to anyone, with many turning up just the once. There are no waiting lists and no membership grades. Tryphon feels that more and more people are now gathering at the discussions, committing him to more and more speaking engagements at them. Many of those on the meadow confirm this.

The idea of reviving ancient Greek heritage is not new to Greece. It dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. And The Return of the Hellenes is not the sole movement engaged in this revival. Alongside it are other groups – some, like the Greek Society of Friends of Antiquity, with a more religious agenda.

The ritual theatre show begins as darkness falls. Nymphs and tunic-clad men begin beating a monotonous rhythm that seems immediately to change the world around. The catharsis is followed by a spiritual experience that will conclude in an ecstatic dance.

Litochoro: Last stop on the way to Olympus

This tiny town lives the life of Raleigh thanks to year-round tourism. Though just three miles from the sea, the cool air descending from Olympus keeps it fresh in summer. In winter, the town makes a living from the hotels that trekkers use as bases when climbing the summit. Many treks lead from here, some of which take one to the top.

The hotels are myriad, and typically charge more than their seaside equivalents. Add some good restaurants, and the place would be quite divine, were it not for the truly Olympian racket that locals and visitors raise!

The text was written after a Summer Solstice visit in 2004.

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