The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 24: Mount Parnassos and the Korykeion Cave

Join Thor and me as we follow the path of Dionysos and his maenads across Mount Parnassos to the cavern where ancient rituals of ecstatic revelry took place.

NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.

After exploring the sanctuary and museum at Delphi, Thor and I set out to explore the wild uplands leading to the Korykeion Cave (alternately spelled Corycian in translations, though Greek uses the hard K sound, no soft Cs). As I mentioned in previous blogs, archaeologists have found abundant evidence of ritual use here dating to the Neolithic, and of course the cave is mentioned in ancient myths and writings in connection with worship of Pan and Dionysos. I recently reread “The Bacchae” by Euripides to refresh my memory about the Dionysian Bacchantes and maenads who inspired the wild women warriors, the Corybantes, in my novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION. They play an even bigger role in the sequel in progress, so I was eager to explore their stomping grounds. I’ll delve more into the ancient stories and Dionysian lore in my blog post next Saturday, but here’s a bit of “The Bacchae” to set the stage as his maidens sing his praises:

“Then streams the earth with milk, yea, streams with wine and nectar of the bee, and through the air dim perfume steams of  Syrian frankincense; and He, our leader, from his thyrsus spray a torchlight tosses high and higher, a torchlight like a beacon-fire, to waken all that faint and stray; and sets them leaping as he sings, his tresses rippling to the sky, and deep beneath the Maenad cry his proud voice rings: ‘Come, O ye Bacchae, come!'”     [translation by Gianluca Ruffini]

Despite its fame, the cave was not easy to locate. Thor and I consulted various locals and the internet, and finally came up with rough driving directions and fairly vague landmarks. There were no signs until we’d already found our way along various roads to the trailhead, where this sign helpfully confirmed that we were close:

But no matter — the journey is half the point of these rambles. Still impressed with the contrasts of this wild mountainous terrain with the Aegean islands we had visited, we climbed in our rental car above the cliffs of the Phaedriades that shelter Delphi, winding into subalpine terrain reminiscent of Colorado or Eastern Washington.

Along the way, we passed charming hillside villages:

And an exuberantly colorful roadside rugseller’s display. The sign reads, “Drink this water. Is good for the stomach.” The abundant natural springs in these hillsides have been known for sacred cleansing and healing for thousands of years.

Climbing onto a high plateau where upscale ski chalets perch among open fields, we were reminded that Mt. Parnassos is a popular ski destination during the winter. Here, someone was stocking up on firewood for those snowy months:

But still, the traditional lifestyle of herding sheep and goats continues. We waited while this shepherd finished ushering his flock across the road into their pen:

The paved roads gradually climbed into gravel roads and evergreen forest:

Finally we found the very narrow dirt road leading to the cave trail. I tried not to look over the near-vertical dropoff on my side of the car. In the background is Mt. Parnassos:

This route involved a fairly short hike to the cave entrance. A longer hike all the way from Delphi would take at least four hours in the rocky terrain, involving some more sketchy directions such as “turn at the watering troughs.” But some day, with more time, I plan to get a proper map and tackle it.

We arrive! Outside the entrance, a hardy wild plum tree offered tart fruits, and we took a couple inside as an offering to the spirits of the place.

As we paused for a drink of water, we heard goat bells, and looked up to see a boy with his herd dog.

They quickly climbed out of view, but there was lots of evidence of goats left behind:

Peering into the expansive main chamber of the cavern, we saw this recent fire ring and offerings left at a stone pillar much like the Goddess column in my novels. Clearly the Korykeion Cave is still a pilgrimage destination and site of ceremonies, perhaps by New Age seekers, perhaps by locals still honoring ancient traditions. A question for another day….

We ventured deeper into the cave among stalagmites in shapes suggesting creatures turned to stone by mythical Medusa:

Geologist Thor explained that the porous limestone of these mountains and hillsides becomes hollowed out by the many springs. The water carries dissolved limestone and in places deposits it to form stalactites (spikes from the ceiling) or stalagmites (columns on the ground). The portion of the cavern that we explored appeared to be inactive, so some of the walls and columns were covered with moss. The water was no longer dripping to make the striated walls shiny. That explained why it was rather musty and not as beautiful as other active caves I had visited years earlier in the Pelopponese of Greece. The cavern system supposedly extends inward to many rooms that might be more active, but we weren’t equipped to climb some steep, slippery boulders leading into the darkness, and our headlamps were dying, so this is about as far as we got:

Looking back toward the entrance and daylight:

Some of the rippling walls glittered with tiny, shimmering crystals:

I salute what we dubbed the “Dionysos Pillar.”

After we emerged from the cave, still having seen no one else around, we descended a bit of the alternate trail that dropped steeply into the valley.

Sitting and gazing out over the expansive view, we savored the tranquil silence. Then came the distant sound of bells in the valley below. A zoom shot managed to catch a herd of sheep being herded toward pens. (The Escher-looking cement forms of buildings-in-progress or in limbo are a common sight on mainland Greece.)  We sat on the warm stones among scattered droppings from the god’s goat companions. High in the crisp mountain air, we listened to the echoes of living history in this ancient land.

Next Saturday, join the maenads and me as we time-travel with Dionysos and the Bacchantes. And I reveal my personal answer to what I term the “Dionysian Paradox.”

*****

You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com

 

 

 

 

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The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 24: Mount Parnassos and the Korykeion Cave — 6 Comments

  1. Wow, those caves are beautiful inside! But my eye was really caught by that gorgeous carving at the very end.

    Looking forward to the next.

  2. This cave is an enigmatic place. It has been used in rituals and wild orgiastic celebrations for millennia. French archaeologists uncovered literally thousands of artifacts left there as offerings or just dropped. Yet there is virtually no sign of any of this when you get there. There are no obvious carvings or monuments in it or around it. Heck you can find ancient statues in a farmers field in other parts of Greece, but the Korykeion Cave has none of this. Odd that such a spiritually important place is so unadorned.

    • Yes, it did feel odd that way. Maybe it has been used so continually over the centuries that any obvious adornments were taken away? Supposedly there was an ancient inscription on the entrance to the cave, but we didn’t see it. Of course, we didn’t get into the inner rooms.