Monday, February 22, 2021




Mt. Lykaion, Arcadia, Greece


Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE {Common Era}) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years. 


This Rihla is about shadows, both in the landscape and in the imagination. 


Ancient States of Peloponnese and Location of Mt. Lykaion


“What then is the beginning of the transformation from protector 

to tyrant? Is it not clearly when the protector begins to do the same 

as the man in the story which is told concerning the sanctuary of 

Zeus Lykaios in Arcadia?’’


“How the man who has tasted of the piece of human entrails 

– one of these having been cut up along with the entrails of 

other victims – it is necessary for this man to be turned into a wolf.”


Socrates in Plato, The Republic viii, 565d-e




The Peloponnese South East from Mt. Lykaion




Whether it is as a site for human sacrifice, or exposure of an unwanted child, or packs of wolves and the exiled roaming over it, a mountain landscape, as Cruz Cardete of the University of Madrid has postulated, is often dangerous, aggressive and distant and is owned by the Gods. Mountains generally exist in opposition to the communities that have populated its slopes. On the other hand a mountain sanctuary is a communication, an impasse between man and the mountain Gods, a “back-door” and a sacred space that is shared. Mt. Lykaion in the Peloponnese exists where the transhumance junction of ancient Messenia, Elis and Arcadia meet and is a mountain whose sanctuary became the soul of ancient Pharrasia. It was in ancient times for humans, as Mircea Eliade the Romanian historian has pointed out, an axis mundi: a place where heaven and earth met.


Looking South from Mt.Lykaion

Mt. Lykaion, the Arcadian mountain known on occasions in ancient times as Olympia or Hiera Koruphe (Holy Crown), is a mountain that has three distinct crests separated by a small upland valley known as kato-kombos. The northern crest is Stepháni or Agios Stephanos (at 1,420 m) and the main southern crest is modernly called Áe Liâs or Profitis Ilias or Elias (1,383m). Close by is the third crest known as Diaphórti (διαφóρτι – the diaphragm). Áe Liâs is the crest with a compacted ash mound cap that was and is known as the Altar of Zeus. Below the crest of Áe Lias or Altar of Zeus is a flat area of ground, which in times past was the sacred area known as the temenos (Mycenaean Greek te-me-no: to cut out; to separate out a sacred area from the secular landscape) with its entrance previously demarcated by two gilded eagles sitting atop columns. A short distance to the south–east of the ancient temenos sanctuary area of mountainside is the Greek Orthodox mountain sanctuary chapel of Profitis Ilias.




I’ve travelled to Mt. Lykaion, in the Peloponnese, twice thus far in my travels and the first time was in June 2018 when I approached from the south. Having turned off the E65 motorway at the Paradisia exit and making a detour to the ruins at Lycosoura, I then drove upwards and onwards through Lykeo and along a switchback ridge, past the village of Ano Karyes, to the “Lykaia” or sanctuary south-eastern end of the ancient hippodrome. The Hippodrome was laid out, and is still evident, on a flat meadow running south-east to north-west at 1182 meters, 200m below the southern peak of the sacred Mt. Lykaion mountain where the Altar and temenos sacred precinct of Zeus Lykaion is located. The second time I travelled to the mountain was in June of the following year, 2019, when I approached from the north. This approach involved an itinerary that began with an early morning visit to the monastery of Prodromou and the asclepion at Ghortys on the Lousios gorge. I then made my way south to the town of Karitena before turning west on the main Rout 76 road to Andritsena. After taking a sharp left about 7 km west of Karitena I drove slowly up the narrow road that would take me through the village of Kotilio and onwards and upwards on a winding mountain and brittle acute hairpin-bended track through a pine forest to exit again onto the hippodrome of Mt. Lykaion, but this time at the north-west bath-house end. The two differing approaches were to give me some idea of the significant effort involved for pilgrims, athletes and charioteers of old to access the mountain from wherever they came.


Mt. Lykaion Hippodrome Administration Building and Stoa Excavation

Mt. Lykaion Agno Fountain Excavation.


My initial reasons for travelling to Mt. Lykaoin were to see the site that both Callimachus and Pausanius had described as the “birthplace of Zeus” as well as the only extant ancient Greek hippodrome. Unlike the elaborate circuses of later Roman design Greek hippodromes were much more basic in construct; usually surrounded by a simple embankment for spectators they did not have a fixed central dividing structure to prevent head-on collisions. In the Greek Archaic period (700 – 480BCE {Before Common Era}) Greek athletic games had evolved from ad-hoc funeral celebrations like those depicted by Achilles in Homer’s Iliad to organised games that honoured the gods and mortal heroes. Competition was fierce between individual athletes and locations for the greatest honours and at the same time the organisation of games provided a focus for formalising religious observance with sanctuaries being built in close proximity to and becoming indelibly linked with various games. 


Mt. Lykaion bath house at west end of hippodrome


In Mt. Lykaion’s case it was the sanctuary of Zeus Lykaios at the summit combined with the temple dedicated to Pan, the God of mountain pastures, near the hippodrome. Indeed it is obvious from the inscriptions of winners on commemorative slabs recovered during archaeological investigations that the priests of Altar and temenos of Zeus Lykaios and the priests of the so-far undiscovered Temple of Pan Lykaois alternated their “votive” oversight of the 4-yearly games.  For example in 304 and 312 BCE it was the priests of Zeus, Aethios and Xenostratos respectively who officiated, whereas in 308 and 316 BCE it was the temple of Pan priests Hagesistratos and Agias who did the honours, respectively. The worship of Pan as a mountain and shepherds’ deity was always very important in Arcadia and it was the later transfer of the Lykaia festival veneration of Pan Lykaios by Arcadians to the Pallatine hill in Rome that became known as the Lupercalia.


Sitting in the 4th C BCE Stadium in Messini




“There is on Mount Lycaeus a sanctuary of Pan, and a grove 

of trees around it, with a race-course; in front of which is a 

running track. Of old they used to hold here the Lycaean games. 

Here there are bases of statutes, with now no statutes on them.”



Description of Greece 8.38.5


The specific Greek format of organising athletic and horse racing contests was known as an agon and the agones were usually connected to recurrent religious festivals. The games at Olympia in Elis, thought to be the first formally recurrent constituted games having been founded possibly as early as 776 BCE, was known as a stephanitic or crown games from the olive wreath that was placed on a victor’s head. The other Panhellenic or “national” games were considered to be those at Delphi (founded 582 BCE with a laurel leaf crown to the victors); Nemea (founded in 573 BCE with a wild celery crown) and the Isthmian at Corinth (founded 582 BCE with a pine branch crown). The exact location and lay out of the hippodrome at Olympia, in contrast to the stadium, has not been formally identified as yet. By the 5th century BCE there is thought to have been about 150 agones throughout Greece and by 200 CE about 500 were in operation. The formats and indeed the stadia lengths differed significantly, depending on how a “foot” was measured in any one agon location. 


Mt. Lykaion Archeology – current understanding

Mt. Lykaion’s hippodrome is perhaps a later development than the suggested dating for Olympia and the archaeological evidence points to 7th century hippodrome and stadium construct. The hippodrome measures approximately 250 x 50 m and runs parallel and at a slightly lower ground level to the stadium. The sanctuary and facilities at the south end of the hippodrome/stadium are 4th century and would have been built by the Arcadian League as the primary place of worship, at the same time as Megalopolis was established in 370 BCE. The Mt. Lykaion games known as the Lykaia at the stadium and hippodrome ceased with the advent of the Achaean League when the “mysteries” and “games” of the mountain transferred to Megalopolis in 280 BCE


At their peak the Lykaia agon on Mt. Lykaion consisted of:

Mature Horse Events in the Hippodrome


Synôris: two-horse chariot race; synôris polike: two-colt chariot race. 

tethrippon: four-horse chariot race;

kelês: horse back race colts;


In Olympia there was also a mule cart race (apene) from 500 -444 BCE but no evidence for this in the Lykaia.



Athletic Events in the Stadium


stadion: footrace 600 feet in length;

diaulos: footrace 1200 feet in length;

dolichos: long-distance footrace;

hoplitê: footrace in hoplite armor;

palê: wrestling;

pygmê or pyx: boxing;

pankration: a viscous combination of boxing and wrestling: sometimes to the death;


pentathlon: contest of five events: discus, javelin, jumping, running and wrestling.



There is some argument that the Lykaia games in their most ancient rendition are thought to have possibly predated Olympia. Excavations over the past 14 years at the Mt. Lykaion site, conducted as a synergesia by the University of Arizona and the Greek Archaeological Service, have revealed in the 30m diameter x 1.5 m high packed ash heap mound (similar to Olympia) that caps the southern peak – the Altar of Zeus – Neolithic (7,000 – 3,200 BCE), Early Helladic (3,000 – 1,600 BCE) to Minoan (1,500 – 1,400 BCE), to late Helladic or Mycenaean (1,550 -1025 BCE) evidence of votive activity. Below the temenos area in a shallow depression with embanked sides suitable for spectators, is a very smooth and flat meadow about 150m in length x 15m wide running north westwards from the lower hill and thought to be a “proto-stadium” existing well before the more formal stadium and hippodrome was established further down the mountain below the Altar of Zeus in the early to mid 7th century BCE. The shrine and associated cult activity appears to have persisted on the mountain right through classical Greek times until the “mysteries” and “Lykaia” of Mt. Lykaion were transferred to Megalopolis by the Achaean League in 280 BCE and perhaps even later in even more secrecy.


Driving from Mt. Lykaion towards Megalopolis


Once moved to Megalopolis the ancient games appeared to die out until an attempt was made in 215 BCE to revive them. Of note however is that the Lykaia votive festival itself was somewhat mobile. In 401 BCE a Lykaia agon was organised, while on route in Pellae in eastern Lydia, by warriors from Arcadia who were acting as mercenaries in the 10,000 strong force raised by Cyrus the Younger and were led and written about by Xenophon. 

The modern reincarnation of the Mt. Lykaoin games began in 1977 and the next athletic event (no horses!) is scheduled, depending on Covid constraints, for August 2021 when the sacred fire will be once again lit by toga clad maidens on the Altar of Zeus. 


Zeus changing Lyacon into a Wolf


ρκάσιν  νάσσων

μαρτυρήσει Λυκαίου βωμς ναξ.


The lord-altar of Lykaios,which rules 

over the Arcadians, shall bear witness.


Pindar Olympian 476 BCE




The etymology of “Lykaion” has long been a source of contention between the notions of “wolf” and “light”. I have to admit the grammatical and linguistic nuances of the arguments are a little beyond my abilities to fully understand but recently K.W. Mahoney sided with A.B. Cook, writing much earlier in 1925, with the determination that Mt. Lykaion cannot grammatically be derived from λúκος (lykos), the Greek word for “Wolf” and that more specifically the location should be translated as Zeus Lyk(e)aios or Zeus of the “Morning Twilight” or “First Light” from the archaic Greek word λυκε (lyke) from the Indo-European *leuk “to shine” and not as Zeus Lyk(os)aios the “Wolf God”. 


By way of joining up the two concepts in practice wolves were often thought most likely to appear (as distinct from being heard) at dusk and the break of dawn. There are two words in Greek that incorporate this link lykófos (wolf-light – dusk, twilight) and lykavyes (Wolf-dawn – dawn twilight which is diluculum in latin).  


Other scholars disagree on the “shine” origins and given the local acceptance of the “Wolf” attribution suggest that the Altar of  Zeus Lykaios is dedicated to Zeus of a totemic Wolf-clan that may have its roots in the nearby ancient city of Lycosoura. 

Pausanias, the Greek geographer writing in his 150CE monumental Description of Greece, asserts that Mt. Lykaion was where Zeus was born instead of Crete and then describes how Lykáon, son of Pelasgus the eponymous ancestor of all ancient Greeks, founded the town of Lycosoura – about 15km south of the Altar on Mt Lykaion – established the worship of Zeus Lykaios and founded the Lykaia festival and games. The etymology of Lycosoura is thought to be either “he who sees/guards/or has reverence for wolves” or “he who sees the light” depending on your etymological perspective, excusing the pun. The foundation myth that is most strongly and persistently associated with Mt. Lykaion is the story of Lykáon subsequently falling out with Zeus when he offered him the flesh of his own son Nyctimus at a feast by way of a test of Zeus' "all-knowing.". Enraged by this challenge, Lykáon was transformed into a wolf by Zeus and banished from the community. 


Man in wolf skin from 4th C BCE Greek vase from South Italy


Although the Lykaia thysia cult festival and games are mentioned by 5th century Pindar and Thucydides the specific concept of a human sacrifice on Mt. Lykaion linked to a punishment metamorphosis from man into a wolf living beyond the pale, to perhaps return at some point as the perfect athlete, warrior or even tyrant was first elaborated by Plato (see introduction quote above) in the 4th Century BCE and then perpetuated by subsequent writers such as Pausanias, Pliny and St Augustine of Hippo. The notions of lycanthropy and human-flesh eating on Mt. Lykaion became as A.B Cook stated, “naturally attached” thereafter.


The other notion of living beyond the community in a “wolf-pack” or as an individual “wolf” perhaps originated in the secret initiation practices of young warriors in the Temple of Desponia – goddess of Arcadian mystery cults – in Lycosoura ( “he who guards wolves”) where the epheboi of the city were formally initiated at the Altar of Zeus Lykaios followed by being exiled as “wolves” to fend for themselves. They perhaps were armed with arrows dipped in the potent poison of the tubers of lycotonum or wolf’s bane. They then return at a specified later date (9 years according to Pausanias if they have not subsequently eaten human flesh) “cleansed”, having recovered their “humanity”, to their community as true Arcadians, or “sons of the bear’” (Arkades), yet another transformation. This lycanthropy or metamorphosis to a wolf state was seen as an honour and a necessary existential aspect of community survival. 


Sanctuary of Despoina at Lycosoura


“Of all the cities that earth has ever shown, whether on mainland 

or on islands, Lykosoura is the oldest, and was the first that 

the sun beheld; from it the rest of mankind have learned to make 

them cities. On the left of the sanctuary is Mount Lykaios 

(Lycaeus). Some Arkadians call it Olympos and others Sacred 

Crown (peak). On it, they say, Zeus was reared.”

Pausanias Descriptions of Greece 8 .38.2





About 17km west of the site of ancient Megalopolis is the site of ancient Lycosoura. You turn up a narrow road and round what is considered to be the citadel of the ancient city to arrive at a fenced-off archaeological site and small associated generally closed museum. Pausanias considered Lycosoura to be the first city in the world and having been to Catalhoyuk in Turkey I know this in a physical sense of construct not to be true ( but perhaps Pausanias was referring to civil governance and that the style of government that was the “first to be beheld by the sun” in Lycosoura became a template for all other city states in the then known world. The full city has not been excavated but parts of the famous cult figure statutes created by Damophon of Messene that were erected in the Temple of Desponia, and seen in loco by Pausanias, are now in the small museum on site but the more substantial parts of Desponia, Artemis, Antyus and Demeter are in the National Museum in Athens. 

A point to note is that both Artemis and Apollo, her twin brother were described  as “wolf-born” by Homer, due to the fact that their mother, Leto had metamorphosed into a she wolf.  


Lycosoura fountain house


The Temple of Desponia was associated with animal sacrifice but where the animal was killed by pulling off its limbs rather than by cutting its throat to let it bleed out quickly. There was a scared grove where a “natural” hybrid tree of olive and oak grew. The goddess Desponia or “The Mistress” ’ sanctuary at Lycosoura was honoured by all Arcadians and the [wolf] cult associated with that temple the most revered and perhaps feared secret outwith society .


“Or is it because he that enters is condemned to death, and 

the followers of Pythagoras declare that the spirits of the 

dead cast no shadow, neither do they blink.” 

Plutarch Moralia

Book IV: Questiones Graecae

c. 85CE– writing about the temenos on Mt Lykaion. 






Aerial view of top of Mt. Lykaion (Southern crest)


The temenos is a piece of land separated from the secular that becomes a holy precinct or sanctuary dedicated to a particular god and within which the rites and mysteries of the cult worship could be practiced. Often it was a grove associated with a sacred tree and/or a source of water. In Olympia it was an olive tree beside in the altis where the Temple of Zeus was located. On Mt. Lykaion in addition to the very bare and windswept summit location of the temenos of Zeus the sacred oak tree and grove of Mt. Lykaion was associated with the Temple of Pan Lykaios nearer to the Hippodrome. An extension of temenos is adyton, which is an inner sanctuary - in Mt. Lykaion's case the adyton inner sanctuary is the Altar of Zeus on top of the nearby summit - within the greater area of the entire temenos or temple sanctuary, most often used to house a statute of the worshipped deity.


Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, considered the temenos on an individual level to be a sacred place, a place of containment for the psyche, where an analysed person (the initiate!) might encounter the unconscious “Self” and may come to understand his or her “Shadow”, that part of our individual psyche that contains the alternative perspectives and is most rooted in the “collective” unconscious. Pausanias wrote that the tradition was that the sacred enclosure or temenos of Mt. Lykaion was off limits to every body and that if someone did enter the temenos they would lose their “Shadow” and die within a year. To extend a Jungian concept to Pausanias’ understanding then any person transgressing the sacred precinct of Mt. Lykaion would have been acting with the individual consciousness of “Self” in violating the sanctuary and would therefore lose the protection of the collective unconscious and his “Shadow”. Death was the punishment for that transgression, usually by lapidation, and the dead have no shadows.


Lycanthropy is considered in modern clinical psychiatric terms as a reverse inter-metamorphosis manifestation of a delusional misidentification syndrome. The trigger for this metamorphosis is usually a mismatch in the individual’s neural representation of “self”, a depersonalisation.  It can occur as a manifestation of an affective disorder or schizophrenia or as a consequence of intake of psychotropic drugs including cannabinoids and alcohol. The notion then of a collective anxiety precipitated by stories of human sacrifice from early childhood and the need for community affection and acceptance drives the hysterical facility of group of young adolescents into accepting a wolf metamorphosis as part of the ceremony of disengagement from their community.



“Yes the werewolf is coming, Joe

I hear her howling

Prowling on the hill

The werewolf’s coming, Bill”


Paul Simon, The Werewolf

Stranger to Stranger album (2016) 


Some of these thoughts were in my head in June 2018 while skirting or “prowling” even around the minor crest of Mt Lykaion on the dirt road that would take me to the temenosand summit where the Altar of Zeus awaited. It was late afternoon and I was distracted by the view south-east over the landscape towards Megalopolis and Laconia beyond. On the seat beside me the freytag & berndt’s 1:150,000 map of the Peloponnese, a copy of Pausanias – a necessary companion for any trip into ancient Greece – and my lunch. Suddenly I had to come to a screeching, shuddering halt, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a large rock that would have torn my little car apart in the middle of the road.  The noise from the brakes reminded me of the howling opening guitar riff of Paul Simon’s Werewolf. I am not musical enough to know whether his was a deliberate attempt at playing a “wolf interval” but the “flat fifth” screech of my brakes and the howl of Paul Simon’s guitar in my imagination sort of had me spooked. The thought of being stuck in a broken hire car on top of a mountain in the middle of Greece did not appeal. In addition my father Joe’s face came into my mind. He had always complained that cowboys called Joe were killed off in the first 5 minutes of any western movie.


I got out and wandered around the car inspecting the wheels and the underside and finding nothing untoward to account for the excessive screech I moved the stone, got back into the car, started her up and gingerly without noise crawled to a rest about 50m later. I got out and relieved, sat down on the edge of the embankment that over looks the green linear, flattened area considered to be the very earliest “proto-stadium” on Mt Lykaion and had my lunch. Thoughts of broken cars metamorphosed into thoughts of Paul Simon’s Werewolf, cowboys called Joe, Pythogorean lost shadows, and of Jungian “self” preservation or containment. 


Profitis Ilias: The Prophet Elijah or Elias


Having travelled all this way to the Sacred Crest I had reached a “wolf interval” in my journey and suddenly had no desire to climb the last few metres to stand atop the Altar of Zeus nor did I do so when I visited the site again the following year. In truth I did not want to challenge the mystery and tradition of the temenos area if I could help it. Instead I wandered up to the small shut Ekklesia Profitis Ilias or Church of the Prophet Elias. In the Greek Orthodox tradition Elias or Elijah replaced the association of mountains with the pagan thunder God Zeus and many mountaintops in Greece are known as Profitis Ilias and have small devotional chapels. It was all quiet… and peaceful. 


The shadows were long, and my mood light, as I headed back down Mt. Lykaion mountain to make my way back towards Gialova on the coast.



Ekklesia Profitis Ilias, Voidokilia, Navarino.




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Kyle D.G. 2014 Greek Athletic Competitions: The Ancient Olympics and More in Christesen P, Kyle DG (eds) A companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity. John Wiley & Sons 


Hughes D.D. 1991 Human Sacrifice in Greek myth, cult and history in Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece. 4; 71-136 Taylor and Francis Group (Lond).


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Romano D.G 2016 Athletics: Stadia, Gymnasia, Palaistrai, and Hippodromes in Miles M.M. (Ed.) A Companion to Greek Architecture Ch 21: 


Romano D.G. 2019 The hippodrome and the equestrian contests at the sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion, Arcadia. in Les hippodromes et les concours hippiques dans la grèce antique Athènes: École française d’Athènes.