The Old Dogs of Olympus
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
In Greek mythology, there were a lot of monsters, heroes, and deities, but the most important were the 12 gods of the Pantheon who congregated on Mt. Olympus. Zeus was the king of the gods, and he was the first to colonize the peak, but a dozen others also eventually set up their thrones there: Artemis, Apollo, Athena, Poseidon, Aphrodite, the whole crew. I don’t know exactly why Zeus chose Olympus, but it is the highest mountain in Greece so one could assume that it’s a great spot to hole up, reign over your kingdom, and hurl an occasional lightning bolt when your enemies piss you off.
The thing is, Olympus wasn’t just some imaginary heavenly kingdom - it’s an actual mountain, sitting, waiting to be climbed by anyone who wants to see for themselves what the gods’ throne room looks like. Some academics question whether the ancients themselves ever made it to the summit, but personally, I’d guess that they probably did. There are stories from antiquity about pilgrimages up the mountain, and there’s archeological evidence that humans were near the peak as early as 500 BC. If the Greeks built the Parthenon in Athens without modern technology, surely they could have figured out how to get to the top of Olympus. It’s not an easy trip, sure, but it’s also not terribly difficult as far as mountaineering goes. These days, there’s a route to the main summit, Mytikas, which thousands of people follow every year. The ancients didn’t have the modern infrastructure, but in the thousands of years that the Olympians were worshiped, surely the legendary throne room of the gods would’ve drawn at least a few brave pilgrims?
It’s been a long time since anyone worshiped the Greek Pantheon - the last cult probably died out in the 8th century AD - but Mt. Olympus itself is still there, proud as ever, just an hour’s commute from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city.
My own pilgrimage to Olympus was only lightly planned, and I arrived through a roundabout series of events. Shortly after the world began to emerge from the Covid lockdowns, my wife Angel and I were invited to a friend’s wedding in Athens. It was our first time traveling in years, so we decided to take some time to explore Greece prior to the event. Looking for places to visit other than insanely popular tourist spots like Santorini and Mykonos, we decided to base ourselves in Thessaloniki for a few days at the beginning of our trip. When I was doing some research about outdoor activities in the area, I made the connection that Olympus National Park was just a short distance away, and you could get to the summit on an overnight hike.
Angel had things to do in the city, so the day after we arrived, I was on my own, jet lagged on a train to a town called Litochoro at Olympus’s base. From there I would catch a taxi to Prionia, the highest point that you can reach by car, and I would start my ascent.
Emerging from a period of lockdown, disease and despair, an old school pilgrimage to the top of a holy mountain seemed like a great way to shake off the dust of the previous two years. Even if I only ended up there because it was convenient, and even if I wasn’t seeking any explicit wisdom from the gods, a place like that intrigues you. It’s a bit like a haunted house at night or the alter call at a faith healer’s service. There’s a pull to it, and an expectation that you’re going to find something important, or at least interesting, even if the official line is a bit dubious.
You can see the peak from Prionia, but only in the distance. The town itself, if you can call it that, is really just a parking lot, a surprisingly decent cafe, a public restroom and a Greek Orthodox monastery. My taxi arrived at mid-day and dropped me off in a crowd of milling tourists, busloads of Americans and Brits stopping to use the restroom, walk a quarter mile to a frankly uninspiring waterfall, and say that they’d stood on Mt. Olympus.
This was my first time climbing to a throne room of the gods so I had packed cautiously, despite reports that the refuge where I’d be staying was a proper hostel. I’d booked online and I’d read that there was WiFi. a credit card machine, cooked dinner, and beer. Still, it’s hard to get over the American impulse to carry your tent, sleeping bag and gear when you’re headed to the mountains. I headed in overpacked but well prepared if I got stuck out in a storm or an attack by the Titans.
It was late May, the sun was shining, the air was warm and dry. and I had already been enchanted by Greece. It was only day two of our trip but I was already in love with the country’s beauty, its delicious food and its organized chaos. Our first dinner had been a perfect pile of spiced meat, and breakfast had been a revelatory orange cake, soaked in some blend of syrup and cocaine, I’d guess, given the dopamine rush that it triggered. When I’d arrived at the transportation office in Thessaloniki to purchase my ticket that morning, the attendant had told me confidently that I’d already missed my train, despite being 20 minutes early. When I arrived in Litochoro, the first taxi driver I approached told me that Prionia was much too far from the station so it was impossible to get a ride there. I knew that neither was remotely true so somehow the misinformation came off as charming and provided me with a couple of quick victories over adversity before I’d even started my climb.
It was an easy day to enjoy - this first overseas outing in years - and the initial stage of the hike felt idyllic. It was only a few hours from Prionia to the refuge so I moved along leisurely, the mountain’s palette of warm greens, browns and grays triggering memories of the Pacific Crest Trail through the Trinity Alps in Northern California. By the time I passed a line of mules and their singing shepherd a mile from the refuge, I would’ve been an easy convert to the religion of the Greek Pantheon, despite the fly-swarmed piles of mule poo that littered the route the rest of the way.
I arrived at the refuge by mid-afternoon, Spilios Agapitos. It was just as advertised - 100 beds distributed through multiple structures of gray stone and dark wood perched on a hillside, with forest and peaks all around. I swiped my credit card, ordered a Mythos lager and sat down on a bench with a view of the valley below. After years in a bubble, it felt surreal to be surrounded by travelers again. We were still in Greece, but as is often the case in hostels, most people who’d arrived before me seemed to be speaking Germanic languages - Dutch and Deutsch and a smattering of accented English, although I didn’t recognize any other native English speakers until I heard an Australian shouting and cursing later in the evening, as Australians do.
It was a bit surprising because we were well into the mountains, but like so many other hostels around the world, there were also a couple of dogs who seemed to be making a living by begging scraps off of travelers. Jetlag, beer and a day in the sun were catching up with me, so I was happy to socialize mainly with them through the afternoon. I had the house spaghetti for dinner, shared a meatball with a brown mutt with sad eyes, and was asleep in bed by 7 pm.
In the darkness of the bunkroom, I was wide awake from midnight until 2, and then again at 4. I passed some time reading until 5 when I decided that I should start climbing at first light. My plan was to work my way to the summit, and then follow the downhill trail all the way back to Litochoro rather than catching the taxi from Prionia. Leaving early would give me plenty of time to make the 15 mile round trip before the train back to Thessaloniki in the afternoon.
After the refuge, there are only a couple of miles to the top of Olympus but it’s not a quick hike. You pass above tree line shortly after the refuge, into spectacular open views of snowfields and scree and peaks all around, but also full exposure to sun and the elements. The previously well-graded trail shifts to a steep uphill grind before eventually developing into a scramble at Mytikas, where the hostel highly recommended that climbers wear helmets. It’s not a roped or technical climb, but it’s a steep and exposed route where rockfall is common and a fall could be fatal.
Thirty minutes into the climb, as the sun was still rising, I recognized the silhouette of my friend ahead on the trail, the brown mutt from the refuge.
“Good on ‘er,” I thought. Out for her daily constitutional.
She carried on ahead, staying within sight, occasionally looking back towards me.
The view behind me was broad and open, all vast snow fields and jagged grey rock. If the first segment of trail had reminded me of the Trinity Alps, here there were shades of the High Sierra, with bare peaks jutting out of forests of scrubby pine for miles.
After a few more minutes of hiking, I noticed another pair of dogs making their way towards me from the direction of the refuge - both shepherd’s builds, that standard mean size that all street dogs seem to regress to, white with black spots. They gradually made their way to me and fell in behind at a lazy trot, barely panting while I struggled along.
The trail developed into a path through scree up a steep incline, until we made it to a small flat ledge where a couple of hikers were resting, accompanied by another dog with colorings reminiscent of an Australian Shepherd, long white and blue fur, appearing clean, relaxed and well-groomed given the environment here near the summit of Olympus.
I dropped my back, put my feet up and caught my breath. Olympus isn’t the tallest mountain in the world, but by that point we were above 9000 feet which is enough altitude to affect you when you’ve come from sea level.
“These dogs must do this every day, huh? If they’re begging for scraps they’re earning it.”
I ate a chocolate-covered wafer cookie, drank some water and carried on. The brown mutt stayed behind with the other hikers, and the three shepherds and I took our place at the head of the day’s climbing pack. The sun was shining, we were surrounded by a panorama of Olympian peaks, and there was no one else between us and the summit.
In Greek mythology, wolves are most often associated with Apollo and Artemis, both of whom are Pantheon gods whose thrones were believed to be close by, here on Olympus. The two were siblings, born to Zeus and Hera, a goddess who herself had the ability to shape shift into a wolf. Artemis and Apollo were largely benevolent gods, and Apollo’s wolves in particular were seen as the good guys, whose job it was to ward off evil.
Wolves are also associated with a guy named Lycaon, which gives a less positive impression. Lycaon was a wiley king who tried to trick Zeus into eating a roast baby to test whether he was all-knowing. Zeus transformed into a man-wolf when he sorted it out. That’s a strange way to behave, and it does make you wonder whether these Greek dogs are friends or foes?
Those mixed feelings matched up to my own previous impressions about the types of dogs you encounter when you’re traveling. Generally speaking, in my experience dog temperaments tend to match to the culture of their country of origin. In a place like New Zealand, for instance, which is one of the friendliest places in the world, you’d be hard pressed to convince a dog to bite you even if you put your hand in its mouth and yanked on its tail. In inner city Lima, Peru, on the other hand, I once stayed in a house whose neighbors kept a guard dog on the unfinished second floor that I saw eating glass. When we’d walk past the house, it would leap into the air in a frenzy, smashing window panes with it’s face, then chewing the remaining shards from the frame with its teeth.
I hadn’t been in Greece long enough to make judgements, but so far these dogs seemed fine. The previous night they’d been harmless enough at the hostel - friendly and begging politely. They didn’t look much like wolves. They were cute, even, although petting them did leave my hands smelling a bit musky, like earth, sulfur and compost. Here, with just us and the mountain ahead, it started to feel like we were forming a relationship.
The steep climb tops out at a crossroads on a ridge called Skala, where hikers have a choice to turn left towards a secondary peak called Skolio, which is a much easier walk, or right towards Mytikas and, one can assume, the glorious throne of Zeus. While I was admiring the scenery, two of the three remaining dogs trotted off to the left towards Skolio. I turned right on the trail towards Mytikas, a lone white companion following behind.
Your vision towards Mytikas is blocked through most of the climb, but on the ridge at Skala, the wind picks up and you reach the edge of a precipitous cliff with panoramic views of crags, valleys, and a scattering of the 52 sub-peaks of Olympus. The day was clear and beautiful, but to be honest, the view ahead was ominous. From the ridge, the peak that’s said to house Zeus’ throne looked worthy of the distinction. It was a thousand feet of sheer cliff rising from the valley below. The route to the top was visible in the distance, crawling along a razors edge of jagged rock that dropped off into an abyss on either side. It’s only a quarter mile from Skala to the summit, but it looked like an exposed scramble the entire way.
Now I was on my own on the ridge with just the dogs of Olympus. I could see two of them in the distance looking on from the trail to Skolio while I started to downclimb on the route towards Mytikas. I looked back at my lone remaining companion perched on a ledge above me. She might have seemed feral and dirty if she were on the streets in Thessaloniki but here in the mountains she was a graceful messenger of the gods.
She held intense eye contact for a moment, eyes dark and wise, then blinked and turned back. I hesitated while I watched her work her way back towards Skolio, hopping confidently across rocks and scree.
The idea that gods inhabit the tops of mountains isn’t by any means unique to the Greeks. Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus all have similar stories. In Maori culture, there’s an understanding that you shouldn’t go to the top of these kinds of places without a clear purpose, or maybe even at all, because they’re sacred - Wahi Tapu. To stand on the top of a mountain is to stand on the head of an ancestor. I hadn’t brought a helmet to cover my own head, despite lugging loads of unnecessary gear to the refuge. I imagined descending Mytikas through the line of other hikers who were working their way up Olympus behind me. I imagined rockfall, thunder and lightning crashing down around me for effect.
I’d come to climb to the true summit, but in that moment something felt poetic about abandoning that plan to follow the dogs’ lead to Skolio. If the ancients didn’t make it to the top of Mytikas (and who’s to say?), maybe neither should I? Besides, I was here in this rare situation, on my own, communing with these modern descendants of Apollo’s wolves. I shouldn’t take that experience for granted, and I should recognize their presence as the omen that it is. They were there trying to help me, warding off evil.
Also, let’s be honest, I’m afraid of heights and I was sketched out by the route.
“Screw it,” I mumbled to myself. I decided to follow the dogs.
I abandoned the path towards the razors edge, scrambled back up the rock, and chased the shepherd until we joined with the others back at the crossroads. It wasn’t a long walk to Skolio and the dogs trotted alongside, allowing me to photograph them posing on the edge of cliffs and gazing out over their kingdom. When we arrived at the summit cairn at Skolio they laid down and I sat with them, looking out over Mytikas, feeling content that this was the vantage point from where I’d view it. For a moment I felt like Apollo, god of wolves, expressing my respect for my father Zeus with my pack of wolf familiar.
To celebrate reaching a summit, even if it wasn’t Mytikas, I dug through my pack and pulled out a few snacks - gummies and a sandwich, just like Apollo, I’d imagine.
Recognizing the rustling, the dogs stood and began to creep towards me, two ahead and one behind. I was sitting, vulnerable, so our faces were at about the same height. While they’d been protectors a moment ago, their affect had shifted. They were snapping at each other now, jostling for position, growling, hair raised on their shoulders. Looking in my eyes once again, the beautiful shepherd raised her upper lip, bearing her teeth. I’d previously read her dark eyes as wise. Now all they communicated was menace.
I threw a hunk of sandwich over their heads as a tribute while I scrambled to my feet. The dogs turned away, jostling over the food and suddenly disinterested in me. Our friendship was over and my moment as god of the wolves had passed.
I started back down the hill, my hands shaking. After they’d finished their snack, the old dogs of Olympus kept their station, patrolling the ridge at Skala as other climbers made their way up the trail with helmets and sandwiches of their own.
Off the ridge, out of view of Mytikas, the visions of thunder and lightning, rockfall and angry wolves passed from my mind. The hike down was all nice views and a fast descent, passing lines of walkers complaining about the climb. I was at the refuge by 930, less than an hour after I left the dogs at Skolio. I gathered my things, ordered a coffee and made it back to the cafe in Prionia by noon.
On the Pacific Crest Trail I made a firm commitment to always eat restaurant food when it is an option on a hike, so at Prionia I had some fries and a cappuccino. After I drank the first I ordered another. As I was sitting, listening to the accents around me and once again absorbing the strange feeling of being back in an international environment, I noticed the brown mutt from the refuge, miles from home. She was lying splayed on her stomach under an Israeli couple’s table, head on the ground, relaxed. She didn’t even raise her head to acknowledge me.
From Prionia the trail to Litochoro is only 7 miles, mostly downhill. I left the brown mutt and the cafe, and I headed away.
This section of trail traces along a river and passes a series of waterfalls, as well as the monastery of St. Dionysios and several shrines. Greece is one of the most actively religious Christian nations in the world and Orthodox infrastructure has long since replaced anything dedicated to the old gods, here at the base of their mountain. I passed a lone monk dressed in a full black robe and a skull cap, with a long white beard, impressive as Zeus. He blessed me in English.
The trail is beautiful but it punishes you at the end, and in the final 5 kilometers prior to Litochoro it shifts from a steady, pleasant downhill to a series of steep ups and downs. My pace slowed and the type of weather I’d been worried about on the summit began to close in. The sky turned dark and I could see flashes of lightning back towards the mountain. Thirty minutes walk from town, hail started to fall and I had to shelter under a grove of trees.
Is there any reason the ancients picked Mt. Olympus? Nobody’s worshiped the Pantheon gods for millenia, but is there anything to the old myths?
Huddled under a tree at the mountain’s base, pelted by hail, looking back at lightning crashing around the summit, I thought about those kinds of questions.
The thing is that it’s hard to provide anything but a subjective answer, and the question itself is a bit silly. You might as well ask if those were actually Apollo’s wolves.
Of course not, but who cares?
The fact is that even if gods do come and go, Olympus is still there.
It’s as impressive as ever, with its old dogs watching over.
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