Olympos, Kissavos and Chimera

Olympos, Kissavos and Chimera

“Olympos and Kissavos, the two mountains, are arguing:

Which one should let the rain fall, which the snow.

Kissavos lets the rain fall and Olympos the snow.

Olympos turns to Kissavos and says:

‘Don’t scold me, Kissavos, you who the Turks stepped over,

I am old Olympos, known to the whole world

I have forty-two tops and sixty-two fountains.’”

Traditional folk songs are carried by word of mouth. Their composers are unknown. So we cannot know the exact age of this popular Greek “cleft” folk song from Thessaly, which was registered by the 19th-century French historian Claude Faourel in his famous book “Chants populaires de la Grèce modern.” But this song, with its powerful poetic imagery of two of the highest Greek mountains, located literally side by side, “arguing” over who is the greatest, came to my mind for a very contemporary reason. Actually you may guess it, if you replace Kissavos with Olympos of Lykia.

I am referring, of course, to the issue raised by the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his Minister of Sport Suat Kılıç over the true origins of the Olympic flame. The news was reported like this: While in London for the occasion of the 2012 Olympic Games, the Turkish prime minister, according to his minister of sport, told the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Jacques Rogge, that the “[original] source of the Olympic flame is in Antalya, on Mount Olympos, at Çıralı, where it is still burning. You have the power to put an end to Turkey’s waiting of. Anatolia is waiting for the Olympic flame. The love for this flame is in our hearts,” Erdoğan reportedly told Rogge, while the president of the Greek delegation diplomatically suggested the Turkish PM check the history books.

When I visited the region of Lykia many summers ago, local people showed me a curious flame on the side of the Lykian Olympos, visible from afar. They called it Yanartaş, the “burning rock,” and it was one of the natural curiosities of the area. Scientists tell us now that the flame or group of flames comes from methane gas emissions which erupt through the vents of the volcanic bed.

Nineteenth-century Western archaeologists identified the location as the ancient mount of Chimera, a mythological horrific monster, part lion, part snake and part goat, which terrified people in ancient times, as they attributed supernatural powers to the odd flaming emissions. Ruins of an ancient Temple of Hephaestus nearby confirm that the volcanic fire was present in antiquity. Temples of that ingenious god of metallurgy, who often upset the Olympian gods, causing them to throw him from their mountain kingdom down to earth, are usually found near such locations. He was the son of Hera, and she is linked with ancient Olympia, as the sanctuary of the ancient Olympics was dedicated to her. There, a flame burned continuously, symbolizing Prometheus’ stealing fire from the Olympic Gods to give it to the mortals. The modern Olympic flame is ignited at the site where the temple of Hera used to stand.

So, how did it come to pass that the ancient games of Olympia, in honor of Zeus and Hera, were linked to the methane emissions of Chimera on Lykian Olympos?

Here is an explanation. The Olympic Games were dedicated to Hera and Zeus, who reside on Mount Olympus (in Thessaly). The fire which was lit by the sun’s rays during every Olympics at least since 776 B.C. was linked to Hera, as the sanctuary at Olympia (in the Peloponnese) was dedicated to her, and there a flame was kept burning throughout the games to symbolize the stealing of fire by Prometheus from the Gods on Olympus (in Thessaly) to give it to humans. The Olympos of Lykia is linked to another mythological flame, that of Chimera, which is also linked to Hephaestus, who is linked to Hera as her son.

Actually there is not one, but four, mountains known as “Olympos” in present-day Turkey, while there are six in Greece, and one in Cyprus, not to mention the many villages in both countries with the same name.

The term “chimera” is used today by geneticists to describe imaginary creatures or objects resulting from the combination of unrelated elements. Would the expectation of a link between the flame of Olympia and that of Lykian Olympos be what we might call chasing a chimera?