Our bus climbs a narrow road that spirals upwards, criss-crossing the forested flanks of Mount Pelion. The fog that envelops us, seemingly emanating from the trees, adds mystery to the magic. On either side, gigantic trees hover, verdant pines, flourishing plane trees, oak, beech and chestnut, conifer and deciduous, inviting the imagination to conjure stories of enchanted woods. We think of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, of Tolkien’s Lothlorien…
In places where the trees part, we look outwards across the vista. Best not to look downwards, for the road may vanish, the bus appear to hover in mid-air above chasms. Such a journey requires a trustworthy driver and we breathe our thanks for Panagiotis.
Mount Pelion lies halfway between Athens and Thessalonica, taking us into the storied life of Asclepius, believed to have been born in Thessalonica (520 km north of Athens) before the Trojan War (1250 BCE). As a child, Asclepius was sent to be taught by the Centaur physician Chiron, who trained him in the arts of healing. This mountain whose heights we are ascending may have been the place where Asclepius climbed to meet his teacher.
Continuous with the knowledge of the most ancient ones, filled with their reverence and knowledge of the natural order, Asclepius became the greatest healer in Greece, his vast knowledge matched only by the depth of his compassion. He could apparently heal almost any ill of mind or body, sometimes using herbs and medicines or surgical procedures, but more often than not healing through spiritual and psychological means, attuning his patients to their capacity for health and wholeness. (Jean Houston, “The Search for the Beloved” p.9)
In this same book, Jean Houston tells us of the suggestion made by writer Mary Renault that the centaurs, the “ancient ones” whose knowledge was passed on to Asclepius, may not have been half man, half horse as legend portrays them. They may have been the remnants of Neanderthals who did not entirely disappear from the planet 25,000 years ago, but instead “removed themselves to remote and hilly country where they were often seen riding shaggy ponies, their hairy bodies indistinguishable from their mounts” They passed on to selected students, who included priests, princes and physicians in training their “botanical knowledge and natural philosophy of a hundred thousand years or more”. (p. 8)
Mount Pelion was known as a “healing mountain” because of the medicinal and healing plants that flourish on its slopes, and the crystal clear water of its streams. Homeopathic, herbal, flower essences and even poisonous remedies were distilled from the herbs of Mount Pelion: meadow saffron, hemlock, henbane, nightshade, mandrake, St. John’s wort, mullein and yarrow. Still today these plants and herbs are gathered and sold in village markets throughout the region.
As we continue our ascent of Mount Pelion, we are invited into a time of silence. We each carry within our own magical forest, our own mysterious fog, our own longings for healing and wholing. What are these inner enchantments? Which serve our life, our work of healing and wholing for our own time? Which ones do we want to let go because they hinder our work, our journey? What is the healing we seek on this sacred mountain?
We come to the village of Tsagarada where the turquoise Aegean Sea fills our eastward gaze, while the wooded slopes of Mount Pelion dominate the westward view. Once we have settled into our rooms, caught our breath, and donned good walking shoes, Panagiotis takes us to one of the village’s four courtyards, each one named for its church.
In the courtyard of St. Paraskevi there stands a plane tree that is 1100 years old, with a circumference of 46 feet. The tiny chapel is open, inviting us to enter, to gaze at a lovely Icon of Mary with large lustrous eyes, her hand resting on her heart. Her presence draws forth the questions that arose in us during the silence of our bus journey. But we feel her guidance not to grapple with these, but rather to focus on the magic of now, to be with our companions, rather than being absorbed with our own story.
Our guide for a walk along the pathways of Pelion is Nikolas, who greets us with an armful of walking sticks. For the next two hours we make our careful way along the ancient footpaths, stopping to gaze out at the wooded heights touched by the setting sun, or down at a perfect pink cyclamen growing, it seems, straight out of a rock.
We pick up small herbs, chew on fresh mint, ask the names of small blue and red berries on bushes beside the path, notice chestnuts…
Suddenly the path opens above a striking view of the distant Aegean far below us.
With the persistence of a soundtrack, our personal questions hum within us. We smile to see a road sign that may point the way for us. It is, of course, in Greek…