Profitis Elias (Προφήτης Ηλίας) on Mount Taygetos
Profitis Elias Today
This tumble down shrine may not look like much, but once a year a liturgy held in the dead of night honours the saint, signal fires burn to the east and the west, and for a moment it becomes a magical threshold capable of transporting its visitors back into the primordial world of ancient myth.
At 2407 meters above sea level, this church is the highest point that it is possible to stand on the Peloponnese, the spot closest to the sun. The significance of that proximity was not lost on its ancient inhabitants to whom the sun was an important god. If that were not enough its shape from every perspective is that of a perfect pyramid, another ancient shape fraught with potential significance.
Of course, Mountaintop shrines are no strangers to Greece but this peak is the ne plus ultra of mountaintop shrines. Worship here goes back as far as human occupation – sacred to Zeus, to Apollo, and then to Elias the Old Testament prophet whom the Greeks naturally identified with the weather god and sun god of their old religion and who replaced them only by absorbing a great deal of their myth and mystique.
The shrine and peak (also called Profitis Elias) also mark the boundary between two ancient provinces. Stand by its door and look west to see all of Messenia. Face east and Laconia is spread beneath your feet. Its position and history give the word liminal a whole new meaning.
The prophet: His Story
The prophet ascending to heaven in his fiery chariot
Elias was an Old Testament prophet said to have lived around 900 BC in a northern Kingdom of Israel ruled by Ahab and his wife Jezebel (Yes, that one!). Elias promoted and defended the worship of Yahweh, the one God over the worship of the idol Baal. As an ascetic, and the first prophet to dedicate himself utterly to celibacy, he was also utterly ruthless to God’s (and therefore his) enemies. There was no turning the other cheek in the Old Testament.
He had the power to raise the dead, cause famine and drought in the land, increase a small cache of food so it lasted for years, and bring fire down from the sky. The fire bit was a remarkable contest held on a mountain top between the prophet and the priests of Baal, - to prove which god could send fire from the heavens to light their respective sacrificial offerings. Baal lost out, even after the wood on Elias’s altar was first doused with water.
Elias did not totally eradicate idol worship (If he had, there would have been no need for Christ and Christianity!) but God was pleased and as a reward for his endeavors, sent him to Mount Horeb. God then appeared in a whirlwind and raised him to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Thus is definitely the stuff of legends. But whose? The components of this story would have the antennae of any student of myth quivering, especially a student of Greek myth. That fiery rise to heaven resembles the death of Hercules – himself immolated in a fiery funeral pyre on Mount Oite and raised to Mount Olympos to reside with the gods – the only Greek hero to do so.
The power to withhold rain was well within the capabilities of the many Greek weather gods – Zeus in particular; special rites were held on mountain tops in Greece to honour and appease the god in times of drought or famine. Much has been written in historical times about the rites in honour of Zeus on Mount Lykaion in nearby Arkadia and there is really no doubt that some sort of shrine would have existed on the peak of Tagetos as well.
These outdoor altars have left very few remains for archaeologists, but it is certain that when Christianity became the law of the land that a church would have been purposely placed on their remains as a means to prove the power of the new God and stamp out the remnants of the old. Who better than Elias to be its patron saint? And not just here: look at any chapel on a Greek hilltop and you can safely assume it is dedicated to the Prophet Elias. Hilltops suit his legend in every way.
Now consider the fiery chariot to heaven.
Shades of the sun god Helios (and later of Apollo who took on his characteristics) and the sun’s fiery run across the heavens each day! In some icons, such as the one above, Elias’ rise to the heavens takes place in a four horse chariot.(1)
Compare this ascent to a fourth century BC metope depicting the sun god Helios
The milieu of the icon may be Christian but the similarity with Helios gives the image a mythic resonance that would have been immediately understood by pagans in the Greco-Roman world who were no strangers to the elements of Elias’ story.
There is another interesting possibility – that the Old Testament story of Elias was drawn from that of an earlier middle eastern weather god and then adapted.
Or are these kind of legends just out there in the Zeitgeist?
One last point: Note Elias’ halo and the halo around the figure of the sun god. This solar halo was simply transferred into Christianity and used for all the saints. (2) By the second century AD, the following image of Apollo as the sun god, could just as easily been a Christian saint or even Christ himself:
(Christ did not have a beard in early icons)
Still not convinced? Well, Elijah, his Hebrew name may mean strength of Yaweh, but his Greek name, Elias, is more closely associated with ἥλιος, the Greek word for sun.
It is possible to reach Profitis Elias either from the Sparta area in Laconia or the area of Kardamyli .(3) From both towns the outline of the pyramid is easily visible, But be prepared to take a hike. Those who know say that the climb on the forested eastern side (the Sparta side) is the easiest. The Sparta Alpine club refuge at 1580m can be reached by car. From there a mountain track leads to the top in about 3 hours. The ascent from the western side is steeper. There the mountain has deep gullies and gorges. Some hardy visitors ascend from Sparta and then descend to the Kardamyli side.
Try to arrive at the church in the evening (this requires that you spend the night). If you do, you will be treated to a magical sunset and a truly amazing sight: the pyramid shape of the mountain perfectly outlined in the valley below.
The perfect date to arrive is July 19, the eve of the saint’s name day which is July 20th. The custom has always been that locals from both sides of the mountain ascend on that evening for the once a year liturgy celebrating his special day. Visitors arrive, with tents, and supplies and, as darkness falls, signal fires are lit. Those from the Messanian side light the fire to the west and the worshippers arriving from the Laconian side light the fire to the east. These flames can be clearly seen by their respective communities in the valleys below.
There is no shortage of bonhomie. Many visitors have been here before.
Boiled goat is on the menu for some...
The liturgy starts at 2 am (or 3 – this is Greece) and continues until dawn.
At that point, as the sun rises over mount Parnes in the east, the pyramidal peak is again perfectly outlined in the atmosphere – this time over Messenia.
That is the signal to start down the mountain, before the midsummer sun rises too high.
No one seems to know when the church was first built. Stone buildins in the Peloponnesian mountains are notoriously hard to date. It had a slate roof at one time. I first heard of Profitis Elias one day in 1999. I was sitting in the garden of Mrs Venetia Ianakea in Kardamyli. This lovely elderly lady rented rooms in her old house because she liked company. We were in sight of the pyramid and I asked her about it. She told me about the church and remembered that many people used to climb up for the liturgy, that the roof would always collapse in the heavy winter snows and that the villagers would ascend and repair it every year. When that became impossible, they would ascend with wooden beams, and cover the roof temporarily with canvas for the summer months and then dismantle it again before winter came.
I was entranced. It seemed as if the mountain itself was a figure in this yearly drama – scouring its own surface with frost and ice every winter, eroding the stones bit by bit until finally the church, roofless, and low walled, would become again like the outdoor shrine that millennia ago had preceded it. Fanciful, no doubt, but Taygetos does that to you.
Here is a small and fuzzy picture of the church just over 50 years ago:
Taken from www.mani.org.gr an excellent Greek site about the church
Compare it to the one at the beginning of the text:
Here it is today on the eve of the liturgy:
As you can see, there has been another effort to restore the roof - at least until the mountain shrugs!
The inside of the church is now as plain as a church can be and still called one. Those benches on either side are probably stones from the original roof and provide a handy place to sit and a spot for the portable icons of the saint that would have to have been brought up especially for the liturgy. A nun contemplates the interior.
One Last Word about the Mountain
Many experts believe that the ancient mountain top shrine here was to Apollo and this makes perfect sense because of his connection to the sun god. And there is more. The five peaks of the Taygetos range align themselves in a north south direction; this is true of all Peloponnesian mountains because of fault lines. The ancients knew nothing of fault lines, but they would have noticed something that a modern visitor might not – that these five peaks line up perfectly with the pole star – the only fixed point in the heavens from their point of view. For this reason, it is thought that the peak of Profitis Elias would have been for them a fixed point in an otherwise moving universe. That and those perfect pyramidal shapes(4) at sunset and sunrise and the fact that on a clear day, almost the entire Peloponnese up to mainland Greece, some islands of the Cyclades, as well as the mount peaks of western Crete would have made the peak of Profitis Elias seem like the very center of the world, a sacred spot even before ancient myths coalesced into written stories, the legend of the prophet was written in the Old Testament, or Christianity came upon the scene to claim the peak for itself.
In the case of this church I am indebted to others, such as http://www.weather-messinia.gr/taygetos1-en.htm
Gods willing, I hope to take my own pictures this summer!
The following excellent site is in Greek but there are three videos at the end about the gathering at the church that are really worth looking at: http://www.tharrosnews.gr/news/content/ανάβαση-και-διανυκτέρευση-στην-κορυφή-του-ταϋγέτου-για-την-γιορτή-του-προφήτη-
(1) Four horse chariots have a special place in myth and in the ancient Greek social structure. The four horse chariot race was the most important event at the Olympics and winning it made the horses’ owners heroes. Alcibiades actually justified his wish to lead the Athenian army on the basis that he had won the race at the Olympics. Naturally, Apollo had one and naturally the creator of the Christian icon would want to give Elias one.
(2) When the Emperor Constantine instituted Christianity, he was changing his personal allegiance from the sun god Sol Invictus to the Christian god. This transition did not occur overnight and many of Sol Invictus’s attributes like the halo were simply transferred to the new religion.
(3) The Ascent The site http://www.weather-messinia.gr/taygetos1-en.htm describes the ascent this way: The following sites are helpful if you wish to climb to the church: We climbed from the Eastern Side of the mountain viewing the town of Sparti, because it is the easiest way! We reached by car the Resort of the Alpine Club(almost at 1580m) of Sparti and from there we followed the mountain track to the top that lasted 3 hours.
Also try http://mountainsgreece.com/en/component/content/article/13-english-categories/mountains/39-mount-taygetos
(4) For an interesting muse on the symbolism of pyramids try: http://www.aseekersthoughts.com/2011/07/egyptian-pyramid-part-1-symbolism-and.html