Mount Parnassus, at over eight thousand feet high, is one of the highest and largest mountains in Greece and it towers over the Gulf of Corinth. Its name means the mountain of the house of the god and that god is Apollo. Believed by ancient Greeks to be the centre of the world, Delphi and the area around it on Parnassus has been a place of habitation since Neolithic times. It was already old when the Hellenic Apollo arrived to wrestle with the Pytho, the snake of the Goddess Gaia, the Great Mother and to take over the sanctuary.
It’s a few hours drive north from Athens and its worth navigating through the traffic choked outskirts to the motorway and into the mountains around the Gulf of Corinth to sit outside as the sun sets, on the terrace of a Delphi taverna absorbing the stunning view. The mountain slope, covered in cypress and pine trees, falls away sharply and the resinous perfume of the pines blends with the scent of wild herbs upon which bees feast to make the marvellous Parnassus honey. As goat bells sound, the river valley, over sixteen hundred feet below, winds its way to the plain and the glint of sea on the horizon.
On one side of a low ridge in the mountain’s skirts lies the ancient Temple of Apollo, which is really a precinct of temples and buildings, including an amphitheatre, gymnasium and stadium, all set on the slopes around the massive Temple itself. The site has been a centre of worship since the Early Bronze Age (so about 3,000 BCE) and the Temple site is fabulous, very atmospheric, especially when there’s a mountain mist. It’s tucked into a fold of the mountain so that you don’t see it until you’re on top of it. It must have been a magnificent sight, marble reflecting the sunlight, as hundreds of pilgrims queued along the Sacred Way to ask their question of the Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, famous throughout the Mediterranean world.
The mountain is a great place for walking, with many accessible trails and much of it, about 36,000 acres, designated as a National Park. Some of its flora is of protected species and birds of prey, wolves and boars are not uncommon. There are plenty of viewpoints and small walker’s lodges to aim for. You can walk to the ancient Corycian Cave where people have lived since Neolithic times or trek across to stand at the top of the Phaedriades, huge cliffs called the ‘shining ones’ which tower above the temple site. Or visit the Castalian Spring at the foot of the Phaedriades, where the Pythia bathed in ritual purification before she entered the Temple and became the Oracle of the God. I like that this place was dedicated to Gaia the Great Mother before it passed to Apollo and that it was a woman, or women, who spoke with the God’s voice even after Apollo took over. I’m not sure I’d have fancied the ritual outdoor bathing in non-summer months though, it can be cold this high up. In Winter Parnassus has its ski centre, the largest in Greece with sixteen ski-lifts. Athenians flock their for the winter sports.
Apollo isn’t the only god associated with the mountain. His cousin, Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre, ruled the Temple in the winter months, when Apollo was said to be away ( getting to Delphi in winter in ancient times must have been very difficult, so the Temple, in effect, shut down until spring came ). Parnassus was also said to be the home of the Muses and it was the supposed presence of these semi-deities which prompted some nineteenth century French poets to give the mountain’s name to their literary movement, Parnassism. This was a reposte to Romanticism, calling for a return to classicism and classical forms. Primarily, though not exclusively, influential among poets it was particularly strong in Paris and the place south of the Seine where the poetry readings were held was commonly referred to using the mountain’s name. This subsequently became the Parisian district known as Montparnasse. In the early part of the twentieth century this area became the vibrant artistic hub of the French capital, migrating from Montmartre, which had, by then, become more establishment. So the ‘mountain of the home of the god’ is also a Parisian suburb, noted, today, for its tower and its huge cemetery, where many famous writers are buried.