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Visiting the land of Pan and Hermes

I’m just back from a couple of weeks in Greece, on the trail of Pan and Hermes. This post is a bit of a travelogue, and a bit of a mini guide for anyone pursuing a similar adventure — tips and pointers from my experiences.

I’ve only been to Greece once before, over 20 years ago. It was at the end of a six-week Mediterranean trip, and Greece suffered because I spent much longer than anticipated in Spain and Italy. I explored Athens a bit, of course, and managed to visit a friend who lived on Poros, an island just off the northeast tip of the Peleponnese peninsula. I popped onto the peninsula itself to see the Temple of Asclepius at Epidauros (at the time I was fascinated by dreams, and the healing incubatory rituals of embodied in Asclepian traditions).

Since then it’s fair to say my obsessions have shifted — in ancient Greek terms — to the goat-god Pan, and the trickster Hermes. It took me a while to get round to the idea that their native landscape — Arcadia, landlocked in the centre of the Peleponnese — was somewhere I could go and explore. Of course, from Virgil to Psychic TV, Arcadia has been mythologised as a magical rural idyll, becoming synonymous with a utopia of wilderness and primal freedom. Despite the fact that the region and the myth are dissociated enough to have separate Wikipedia entries, it’s easy to unconsciously go with the etymology of utopia (‘no-place’) and reflexively believe it’s really not a holiday destination — just a myth.

But Arcadia is very much there, and it’s a beautiful land of teeming wonders.

Athens and Marathon

Unless you live in Greece, your visit will begin, like mine, in Athens. It’s worth hanging out here in any case of course, but there are also Pan-related attractions. The worship of Pan was folded into the Athenian world at the birth of the classical period. In fact, legend has it that he was instrumental in giving birth to this period. This flourishing is often ascribed to the sense of self-confidence the Athenians gained after fending off the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. A runner-messenger, Pheidippides, had been tasked with going to ask the Spartans — based in the south of the Peleponnese — for help, but they were, inconveniently, otherwise engaged with some lunar ceremonial business. On his way back to Athens, Pheidippides crossed a mountain pass in Arcadia, where it’s said that the god Pan revealed himself. Pan asked why the Athenians didn’t honour him, since he’d helped them before and would do so again. It’s not clear what his previous help was, but rumour has it that his promised help happened at Marathon. He caused his trademark panic among the Persian troops, helping the Athenian victory. (Pheidippides, after returning to Athens, had run the 26 or so miles northeast to Marathon, to report back on the battle, commemorated in the famous sporting event.)

So, if you’re obsessed with Pan, a trip to Marathon seems essential. If you’re not feeling very sporty, there are buses from Athens, or a taxi will set you back around 60 Euros. The archeological museum there is worth a visit — good, but small. If you’re in a taxi, probably get them to wait for you. It’s a bit out of the way, inland from the beach (as is the town proper). I wanted to go to the beach for lunch, and when I asked a museum attendant for directions, they baulked a bit at the idea of walking — but it’s really not much of a trek. You’ll go past the Tumulus of the Athenians, memorialising the Athenians who fell in the battle. The beach is nice enough for a bite to eat, but you probably wouldn’t come here if not for the historical interest.

There’s a nice statue, ‘The Spirit of Marathon’, in the tiny square next to the beach, showing some runners and, nestled in the base, a grouchy-looking Pan.

The plaque telling us that the statue was gifted to the town by New Balance punctures the vibe a little with pervasive corporatism, but there’s an interesting story here. Presumably the runner in front of Pan is Pheiddipides, but it seems the winner at the top is famed Greek marathoner Stylianos Kyriakides, who won the 50th Boston Marathon in the United States, just after World War 2. He was deemed unlikely to win due to being so emaciated from life in Greece during Nazi occupation. Apparently there’s a twin of the statue in Boston. They were created late in life by the Romanian sculptor Mico Kaufman, who also survived a harsh experience of the war in a labour camp.

Further up into the hills around Marathon than the museum, above Oinoië, is a Cave of Pan, dedicated to him after the battle. There’s evidence of occupation going back to the Neolithic. The second century geographer Pausanias said some stalagmites there look like goats. I’ll have to visit this another time. Here’s the museum’s wall-sized photo of it.

Back in Athens, around the conspicuous spectacle of the Acropolis, there’s a couple of features dedicated to Pan. Along the pedestrian street to the west is the Sanctuary of Pan, an inaccessible but clearly viewable rugged dip with a door to an underground chamber. Next to the door is a fresco apparently showing Pan, a nymph, and a dog — unfortunately it can’t really be made out from the street.

There’s a natural cave dedicated to Pan — along with others dedicated to other gods — on the north slope of the Acropolis. You certainly need to get into the Acropolis itself to properly see these — from outside the fence they’re obscured by trees. But once inside, I’m not even sure they’re properly accessible.

On the trail of the lonesome Pan

Mount Mainalo, rising nearly 2000 metres in the Menalon highlands bang in the middle of Arcadia, was seen as one of Pan’s primary homes in ancient times. I opted to stay in the small town of Vytina, just to the west of Mainalo, and this proved to be a wonderful base. I can heartily recommend Panorama Vytina as a place to stay, perched up on the west side of town, with superb balcony views of Pan’s mountain.

The view from Panorama Vytina northeast to two of the peaks of the Menalon range

There’s a road going right across the mountain, past a ski resort. Lots of potholes at times, and plenty of hairpin bends without guardrails, but perfectly drivable, in spring at least. (I was been told that they usually have snow from November til April, but have barely had a few days snow for the past couple of years — so maybe it’s fine in winter too now. Eek.)

The road across Mainolo, from Vytina to the ski resort and Kardaras
Vytina, from the road across Mainolo

I mentioned hiking to my host, who warned me that there’d been a bunch of car break-ins on the mountain recently. It was hard to assess the level of risk — was this really something to worry about, or maybe a case of quiet rural sensibilities being hyper-focused on rare antisocial acts? Either way, I discovered the issue was academic. For sure there’s probably some good hiking right up in the peaks, where I might want to drive some of the way, but it turns out there’s an excellent hiking trail from Vytinas itself. For anything resembling a pilgrimage, I always prefer making the whole trip on foot if possible.

The trail is kind of an offshoot of the famed Menalon Trail, which winds through the lowlands to the west of Mainalo.1 The main trail is marked by little yellow squares with a black mountain squiggle nailed to posts and trees. The route up into the mountains from Vytina is marked by plain yellow squares. Follow the road straight east out of town, turning left around the botanical garden (full of pines and bees, and unaccountably surrounded by barbed wire). Soon you’ll see a yellow square taking you right toward the highlands.

The trail crosses the road a couple of times, and within a hour you’ll have left the meadows behind you and find yourself very much in the thick of it among the firs and pines.

It’s not especially hard, but certainly good boots and basic fitness are necessary. The yellow squares are very clear, presumably as mountain bikers have to clock them in their blur of speed. When anything other than straight ahead is afoot, the squares are cut into crude arrows.

Sciatica means that walking poles are essential for me on such terrain these days. This new-to-me experience carries with it the slightly melancholy sense of leaving my limber youth behind. But I found that what’s lost of goatish spryness is more than made up for by the way poles connect my hands to the ground, which gave my little Pan pilgrimage hike an aptly four-legged vibe.

It’s said that Pan takes a nap at noon, and is angered if disturbed.2 What’s more, he blesses those who join him at this time, so as the sun reached its height I turned off my mobile, and settled down for a peaceful supine drift in the world Agent Cooper describes: ‘The sound wind makes through the pines. The sentience of animals.’ I have to say this is one of my favourite religious observances.

After a while I roused and headed further up to find a rocky crag to leave some offerings for Pan. I took pine honey (which is sold in absurd abundance in all the touristy grocers in town) and cake (a slice from my breakfast that, as it happened, had a chocolate streak running through the middle which, cross-sectioned, resembled a hoof print).

As I made my way, not sure if Pan had finished his nap, I fell into the practice of being as quiet as possible, refraining from stepping on any twigs. This proved to be a marvellous form of meditation, and by the time I was ready to rouse Pan with some post-snooze goodies, I was in a reverential state deeply attuned to the gentle spring day in the forest.

Failing Mount Kyllini

North and a bit east from Mainalo is Mount Kyllini, also known as Ziria. Somewhere in its heights is a cave where it’s said that the trickster Hermes (often said to be the father of Pan) was born to his mother Maia, a mountain nymph.

I read a few reports of it, and while mention was made of the drive up being hair-raising, I’d also read that Mainalo — which I drove up the day before — is the highest peak in Arcadia, so I guessed Kyllini couldn’t be that much worse.

I headed north, through Vlacherna, across a verdant plain.

Looking south across the plain near Limni, on the way to Mount Kyllini

Then, up into the winding hilly roads again, and eventually to the village of Goura. I’d reckoned that the mountain road going up from there was my best bet for approaching Hermes Cave from the west.

After a few three-point turns in Goura I found the little road. Well, track more than road. It was a bit rocky, but as I made it past the last building, I reassured myself that often in this area, roads actually got worse around settlements, and improved once you were in the open.

On the track up Kyllini however, this was not to be. Things quickly got much worse — very rocky and forbidding. Pretty soon I caved in to my caution and turned back — luckily, not too far past a place where I could actually do a final three-point turn.

A bit dismayed, I decided to make the best of the day, and headed west to Lake Doxa. Enjoying the sun as I picnicked by the water’s edge, I contemplated Mount Kyllini (in the centre distance below), and it quickly dawned on me that there was something completely off in my estimations. Soon enough I discovered that while Mount Mainalo is indeed the highest peak in Arcadia, there seem to be other regions in the Peleponnese! And Mount Kyllini is in Corinthia, and is a good 1000 metres higher than Mainalo. More research (on dangerousroads.org no less) revealed that the track I’d tried to go up in a Peugeot 206 rental was for experienced 4×4 drivers only. Yikes.

Looking east to Mount Kyllini from the shores of Lake Doxa

Messaging a friend about this little upset, she was searching for info on other routes up to the cave, and found that there’s a Ziria music festival which organises trips to the Cave of Hermes.

Lake Doxa frog

Hmm, maybe a better way to do it? I wonder when the festival is? Oh, it’s today! But… in Athens!

Such a cheeky synchronicity found me laughing out loud at this trickster gesture, even or especially in my failure to reach his home.

Perhaps other routes up, from the north, would be more passable without an off-road vehicle, but I doubt it. Anyway, I felt wholly content to leave this coincidence as my Kyllini experience. I tucked into my picnic, listening to the waves of frog calls, and paced carefully around the boggy edges of the lake trying to catch glimpses of the little critters as they leaped and plopped away from my approach.

Driving back to Vytina, I decided to take the route southwest via Ladon springs, where stunning blue water gushes up from a cave that goes down nearly 50 metres. Previously, looking at photos of it online, I was sure heavy filters and saturation were being used to tempt visitors. But no, it’s as radiantly deep turquoise as advertised.

The blue karstic spring of the Ladon River

There’s an incongruously industrial little cheese factory by the spring’s picnic benches, and as I sat having a smoke, a herd of the presumed producers roamed through, bells a-ringing, devouring the lush vegetation. My first Arcadian goats.

Goats of Ladon springs

Mount Parthenion and Pan’s historical debut

While Pheidippides’ legendary run to Marathon to report back on the battle is the one that’s most celebrated, his more impressive run to Sparta and back, to try and get help in the battle, was ultimately of more interest to me. Because this is when, as he passed through the hills above Tegea near Mount Parthenion, it’s said that Pan appeared to him, marking the goat-god’s entrance into history (albeit of the semi-mythical kind).

However, while Marathon is distinct and littered with monuments, the location of Pheidippides’ encounter with Pan is entirely uncertain. I simply set off to sound things out.

As I puttered around the area, I was looking for clues online, and found that there is in fact a commemorative sporting event for this run — the gruelling 250 km Spartathlon, which has been held every September since 1984. But despite the fact that the website’s homepage speaks of the ‘1200 meter ascent and descent of Mount Parthenion in the dead of night’, with reference to Pheidippides’ encounter with Pan, their actual route map seems to take the runners to the west of peaks closer to Tegea and the Tripoli plain.

If you’re really keen you could spend a day hiking around here to soak it all up. But after my pleasant time in the shady forest of Mainalo, I didn’t fancy aimless wandering in the blazing sun here, where there’s little if any tree cover. I was lured by the prospect of a snaky mountain drive to the shores of the Argolic Gulf to the east, and some seafood by the beach. A bit of a dud pilgrimage, then, and for the Pan obssessive only — though I deeply appreciated getting a feel for the landscape, sensing how Pheidippides may have been mindful of the Menalon peaks looming to the west across the plain, perhaps priming him for a run-in with their beastly master.

Ultimately I think the only real pilgrimage here is the Spartathlon itself. In another life, perhaps.

A Pan Cave in Arcadia?

Philippe Borgeaud, whose The Cult of Pan in Ancient Greece is indispensable for the goat-god enthusiast, makes much of the fact that while worship of Pan in Athens and surrounding Attica is frequently centred on caves, it never is in his home territory Arcadia. Borgeaud reasons that for people further north, for whom Arcadia was a kind of revered, kind of denigrated backwater of primitivity, the caves in which Pan’s shrines were placed were a microcosmic representation of Arcadia itself. In Arcadia, though, his worship seems to have been an out-in-the-open affair.

So I was surprised when, scrolling across Google Maps the night before I left Vytina, I noticed a placemark for a Cave of Pan. Was this true?

The cave is pretty close to the town of Piana, so I headed there, and parked up in the quiet town square for a fizzy drink before setting off. There’s a big sign from the town square.

As I made my way along the trail, which has some clambers over rocks here and there, but is short and pretty easy, it proved to be very clearly signposted.

When the cave mouth itself looms into view, it’s impressive. I’ve never said ‘oh my god’ with such spontaneous sincerity. Below is a photo facing the other way from the way you approach, showing in the distance the mountain range to the east, near Tripoli, where Pheidippides met Pan.

But the ‘cave’ is more of a large nook with an overhang than a real cave. You’re only going a few metres ‘into’ the rock face as it were. Pan’s business here is less skulking in the depths, and more just sheltering as he watches over the herds from on high.

I’ve failed to find any hard archeological data about this site. Still, reading Borgeaud closer, it seems he doesn’t deny Arcadian Pan caves; his point is subtler.

We are not claiming that the Arcadians never placed Pan in a grotto. Even if they sometimes did so, however, we can be sure that in their eyes this location did not reveal the essential nature of the god. The Pan-grotto connection, to the (very slight) extent it manifests itself in Arcadia, was not basic.3

But I found myself at the Piana cave with the coarse idea that I’d found some exception to Borgeaud’s ‘rule’. I began to wonder if the Pan cave cult in Attica had been re-imported back to Arcadia — maybe relatively recently, as a tourism ploy by canny locals, or in the wake of Attica’s discovery of the cult during the classical period. But as I sat here watching the swifts dive from their nests into the valley, listening to the bees in their nearby nest, and checking out the various lizards scuttling across the rocks, I wasn’t in much mind to be cynical. Pan was always about bringing wealth and abundance for his people, and the economy’s changed a lot. Would he care that much if he brings it in these days with a bit of publicity from his modern fame, on top of looking after the goats and sheep?

Odds are this is a spot whose association with Pan recedes into the opaque depths of oral history, serving as a spot to watch over the herds in the past, and perhaps in the present too, alongside its new role as a tourist attraction. In any case, it’s a must.

Travelling to Stemnitsa

Soon I was relocating from Vytina to the smaller and higher village of Stemnitsa.

By the road on the way I noticed a temple to Poseidon, Pan and Hermes marked on the map, so I stopped there for a break and to leave some offerings.

Taking a right turn off the main road, very quickly, just after a tiny white roadside chapel, there’s a roadsign that marks the spot where you can get to the temple. There’s a big grass verge opposite where you can park.

The remains of the ancient temple are very close to a church, the worn remains of some foundations joined by a few trees which give welcome shade. Nothing remarkable, but a good spot for a quiet pause.

There’s actually a tiny settlement just to the west of here called Pan, but there’s not much to it.

The temple of Poseidon, Pan and Hermes southwest of Vytina

Stemnitsa and Wolf Mountain

Stemnitsa town square in the evening

A traditional settlement known for its gold and silver smithery, Stemnitsa is nestled in the highlands. You don’t necessarily feel like you’re that high up there. But drive for a few minutes in either direction and quickly you’ll hit bends with precipitous drops. The village itself seems pretty much invisible until you round the corner to it. This sense of being hidden away and inaccessible led to the place being a stronghold during the early 19th century Greek War of Independence.

I was now a bit closer to one of the major sites of Arcadia, Mount Lykaion (‘Wolf Mountain’). This is where Arcadia’s legendary founder-king, Lycaon, killed and cooked his son in a bizarre bid to test Zeus’s omniscience. His test failed, and a disgusted Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf — deemed one of the earliest examples of lycanthropy. This fact (and maybe the heavy presence of silversmiths?) got me wondering about local spooks and monsters, and I ended up spending my first evening (after checking into the wonderful Tsarbou Guesthouse) dining in Stemnitsa’s lovely square immersed in research on the Greek variant of the vampire, the utterly fascinating vrykolakas. I thought I was on a complete detour from my Pan research until I found that this creature has as much to do with werewolves as with vampires (the word is from Slavs who settled here in the 7th century, and means ‘having the hair of a wolf’), and of course Pan is deeply connected to wolves ‘inversely’ — as a protector of the herds, wolves are one of his chief enemies. But he is also known to turn his herdsmen into wolves when angered — as he did when frustrated in his desire for the nymph Echo.

Suitably primed for my trip to Lykaion, I drove south the next day. Wary after my Kyllini experience, I decided that even though it was less direct for me, approaching Lykaion from the south seemed more suited to my hatchback transport. I turned out to be right — the road up from the south, after getting inexplicably lost in a power station near Megalopolis, is a fine drive. After I finished my visit to the peak, I thought I might try the descent going north, but quickly turned back. It wasn’t as bad as Kyllini, and might have turned out OK. But who knows?

There were hardly any other vehicles on the way up, but I was compelled, on spotting a wild tortoise inching its way across the road, to stop and speed it along to the grass. Besides, this was my first sighting of a wild tortoise!

Near the peak is the only extant hippodrome (arena for horse and chariot racing) from ancient Greece. Which makes for a handy car park. To the south of this are a cluster of ruins — a bathhouse, sleeping quarters, a stoa, and a Sanctuary devoted to Zeus. There’s a Sanctuary of Pan here, too. The sign says it’s yet to be found, but the excavation project website suggests it’s been located. However, it’s described as a ‘circular anomaly’, so it’s probably understandable that, like the earlier excavators without modern surveying equipment, I didn’t find it.

I set off up the ‘trail of Zeus’, not 100% sure of the layout of everything, but aiming to at least get to the famed Altar of Zeus on the peak, where ashes have been dated back to the Neolithic, and where Mycenean remains have been found (apparently this is the only attested mountaintop Mycenean altar, and activity here persisted right through the Mycenean collapse).

It was Thor’s Day, and Zeus’s mountain, so I wondered about the darkening clouds — but the weather generally stayed OK.

Soon, for some reason, I started to doubt the layout of the track. Was this leading me to the peak? Or had I missed a trail turnoff? I certainly seemed to be circling the peak rather than making much progress towards it. I found something that looked like a trail, though it could equally have been a dried-up stream. Fuck it, I thought, and just started marching up the slope.

It was tough work, though my satisfaction at conquering the difficult trail was punctured a little as I crossed the peak to look down the other side, only to see two blokes having just parked up in the area next to the peak, casually stretching and setting up a picnic. Well I wanted to walk the last bit anyway. I dismissed them with wry haughtiness as unserious Mount Lykaion visitors.

The altar on the peak is pretty dishevelled, very much only worth the clamber up for those whose imaginations are fired by mysterious ruins. The base of a fallen pillar suggested a more glorious past.

Above all, literally, was the view from this astonishing summit.

A couple of Attica caves

I’d noticed the Cave of Pan to the west of Athens just before I set off for Arcadia. I decided I wanted to get to the mountains as soon as possible, and didn’t fancy the uncertainties of stopping to explore something on the other side of the highway from the direction I was going. On the way back, it seemed a little easier, so I decided to pop in.

My trip had unintentionally coincided with the late Greek Easter, and driving east into Athens on Good Friday, I felt blessed by the near-clear road on my side, a feeling heightened by seeing those on the other side coming out to visit their families, damned to a snail’s pace.

The nearest place to park was just past the 11th century Byzantine monastery of Daphni. I headed up the hill from there, and had to find a gap in the fence that I guess was the limit of the monastery’s grounds. Approaching the cave from the east, I ended up doing a bit of clambering, only to find that the easier, signposted approach is from the west.

Like the cave near Pania, but on a smaller scale, this is more of a shelter and lookout spot than a real cave.

Definitely a nice spot for a summer evening’s campfire and smoke, and there was plenty of evidence of it being made use of. (Sadly one of the key markers for me, approaching from the wrong direction, was a scattering of empty plastic bottles.) I’m ambivalent about the graffiti — it can be a bit of a stain on non-urban spots, but this is very close to a major city, and it can evoke a valuable time of transition and experimentation. Anyway, I was disappointed that I missed a perfect shot here, as a lizard vanished into this little hole.

As at Pania, I got a sense of Pan’s role as overseer, sheltering and keep an eye on things from on high. But whereas herds of goats and sheep were my first thought there, here, overlooking a valley coming through the Aigaleo hills to Athens, and bearing in mind the significance that Pan had for Athenians in relation to fending off invaders, my mind turned to the idea of defensive military overseeing. There’s a line to be drawn between Pan’s protective role in herding and his odd engagements with Greek military history, and I wondered if that line passes through this cave.

On my final day, as Athens braced itself for the end of the Orthodox fasting and the feasting of Easter Sunday, whole lambs being spit-roasted in the street, I decided to head to the hills again to visit a Pan cave in the range to the east of the city known as Hymettus. The cave, on the southern tip of the range, above the beach town of Voula, is known as Nymfoliptos or Vari Cave. I did my usual half-baked research to leave room for surprises, got the metro to Argyroupoli, the 122 bus to Voula, and headed uphill, among the melancholy signs of Greece’s struggles with wildfires.

I was meeting someone at six that evening, and thought I had plenty of time. But as I made slow progress toward Voula Cemetery — a kind of edge of civilisation before the hills where the cave hides — I realised I’d underestimated things (again). What I took as a trail from the cemetery to the cave was actually a road, though, so I walked at a good pace without worrying about rocks and holes. Even so, at a certain point I genuinely considered giving up — I don’t know why my later meeting was so absurdly fixed in my mind as something I couldn’t break. In any case, at that moment I saw what I thought was the cave across the valley, and set off with renewed determination along the road that I thought would curve back round to it.

About 15 minutes later I realised no, that wasn’t the cave, and shit, at the very point I decided against giving up, I’d set off with renewed determination in he wrong direction. I’d missed a trail branching off the road. Cursing and laughing, I retraced my steps and found the trail. Thinking of my Hermes cave experience, I joked to myself that this is the upside of being on the trail of tricksters: if things go pear-shaped, you almost feel it as a blessing from the god. Win-win.

As the trail rounded a low hill, it became clear that the cave was just off downhill, so I searched for signs of previous passage and eventually found the cave… CLOSED.

I knew the Vari Cave was much more of a cave than the Pan caves I’d been to so far, but I hadn’t even considered the fact that it might be noted and perhaps treacherous enough to be restricted. And maybe Easter accounted for the closure. Pan’s not dead, but Christ certainly curtailed his realm this Easter.

Anyway, my joke to myself about things going pear-shaped on the trail of tricksters had primed me for this, and as soon as I saw the locked gate, I burst into laughter that finally shed all frustration, and opened into empty,  care-free ecstasy.

As I peered into the inaccessible depths, yet again I thought, ‘Another day.’