Rising majestically to the east of the city, this sacred mountain is home to ancient Athenian temples and holy places. Despite human activity, Mount Hymettus remains an important natural habitat filled with diverse wildlife and vegetation.
The sacred mountain of Attica with the rich history, the myths and unsolved mysteries
Dawn in Attica; the sun rises behind Mount Hymettus, scattering its magical, reddish streaks all around. There is an element of otherworldliness, mystery and enchantment in the nearest and most familiar mountain of Athens. Let’s explore it!
It is only 7.5 kilometres away from Syntagma Square, it is 20 kilometres long and splits Attica in two: the basin of Athens and the plain of Mesogeia. “The area of spirit and the area of spirits”, according to a well-known epigram, meaning Athens with the Parthenon and Mesogeia with the famous retsina.
Hymettus’ history is truly awe-inspiring! The region was inhabited – as shown by archaeological finds – already in the Neolithic times, while the name of the mountain itself is of pre-Hellenic origin, as indicated by its suffix -ettus. It derives from the preHellenic “Umait” or “Hemyt” (coarse, rocky place). Others attribute its name to the alteration of the word “Thymet” (thyme) Hymet-Hymettus.
The ethnic groups that inhabited or conquered Attica gave Hymettus respective epithets. Greeks called the mountain “Trelos” (crazy), the Turks “Delly Dayh” (crazy mountain) and the Franks “Monte Matto” (crazy mountain), which was apparently an alteration of the original (Monte Ymeto). This was due to the fact that Hymettus always served as a meteorological barometer – people used to observe its peak and predict the weather. However, the instability of the clouds up there on the “crazy” Mount Hymettus often caused confusion. According to a different theory, the name “Crazy” (“trelos” in Greek) derives from the alteration of the French phrase “très long” (very long).
Mount Hymettus has been cited in works of many ancient Greek writers, from Herodotus to Pausanias, while it has been walked and described by a number of Greek and foreign travellers and naturalists.
In antiquity, the wider region of Hymettus was the centre of god worship. Traveller Pausanias reports that on Mount Hymettus there was a statue of the Hymettuous Zeus, as well as altars for Omvrios (pluvial) Zeus and Proopsios (seer) Apollo. It is believed that in today’s “Kalopoula” area there was a sanctum dedicated to god Hephaestus and nearby lay the sanctuary of goddess Aphrodite.
Dozens of scattered pit caves and caverns have been discovered and explored on Mount Hymettus, many of which were used as sanctuaries by the ancient Athenians, dedicated to god Pan, the Nymphs and god Apollo. The best-known caverns are the “Koutouki”, “tou Liontariou” (Lion’s cave), the “Nympholiptou”, the “Korakovouniou” and the great pit cave of “Asterion”.
Hymettus was known for its dry and healthy climate, ideal for those who suffered from tuberculosis, while the spring in Kalopoula was believed to facilitate fertility. Traveller Pausanias certifies that the vegetation in Hymettus was ideal for bees. The honey of Hymettus was famous for its aroma, colour and flavour, as well as its healing properties. It is said that when bees collected the pollen and nectar from the fragrant thyme that was abundant in the area, they spun around in an intoxicated dance.
In 530 BC, during the time of the tyrant of Athens Peisistratus, an aqueduct was constructed that sourced drinking water from the springs of Hymettus. Thus, the mountain provided the invaluable water to the Athenians. What is more, on Mount Hymettus there were marble quarries, long before the quarries of Mount Penteli, which supplied Athens with the high-quality blue ash marble, during the time of the city’s great reconstruction.
More often than not, Hymettus was refuge for Attica’s philosophers, who sought peace and quiet in easily accessible locations near Athens. Soon, philosophical schools appeared in the area, called “Phrontistiria”, and Hymettus became a spiritual and philosophical centre. In Byzantine times, several monasteries and small churches were built in Hymettus, such as the Monastery of the Presentation of Mary (“Monastery of Kessariani”), the Monastery of Taxiarches (“Asterion Monastery”), the Monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos, of Agios Ioannis Kynigos, of Agios Georgios Koutaleas or Koutalas. The Monastery of Kessariani boasted a renowned library and was a significant philosophical centre, where major philosophers and intellectuals of the time taught.
According to the myth, goddess Athena fled to the mountainside of Hymettus, to escape from god Hephaestus who had fallen in love with her. Hephaestus followed her but she fought him off, injuring him on the foot with her spear, leaving him lame. His semen, however, fell on Athena’s thigh. She wiped it away with a scrap of wool (ἔριον, erion), which she turned into a bag and flung it to the earth (χθών, chthôn). The semen impregnated the goddess of the earth Gaea, thus giving birth to the mythical king of Athens, Erichthonius. Today, this spot is called “Kalopoula”, which derives from the ancient Greek phrase “Kyllou Pira” (bag of the lame), and is where the altar of Hephaestus was built.
Another ancient myth describes the tragic story of Procris, daughter of the king of Athens, Erechtheus. Procris’ husband, Cephalus, used to hunt on Mount Hymettus. During his hunt he summoned the cloud nymph Nephele to assist him, calling out the phrase “Oh, Nephele come forth”. Procris, who was watching him from behind a bush, thought he was calling on his lover. She tried to see who the lover was and in doing so, she moved the branches of the bush. Cephalus thought it was a game animal, hit her with his spear and killed her.
In the Lion’s Cave, near the altar of Zeus, lived according to an ancient legend a “wild beast”. The lion wouldn’t allow people to use the spring water in order to water their crops in the plain, unless they offered him their beautiful only-daughters. Then, Agios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas) got mad and turned the lion into stone outside his church. In “Phaedrus” dialogue, Plato makes reference to the forest nymphs (dryads) who lived in the shaded banks of Eridanos, the river that streamed from Hymettus. The nymphs loved music and dance and those who passed by and listened to their singing ended up losing their minds.
“Crazy” Hymettus, the sacred mountain of Attica, has many stories to tell – ancient and mythical, legends and folklore. But above all, it is the hallmark of Athens, after the Acropolis. Visible from every corner of the city, the mountain has been sung and loved by Attica’s people, more than anything.