Silver-haired and soft-spoken, George Klonis worked as a bus driver into his 60s but found his life's purpose at the foot of Mount Olympus.
With his arms outstretched and his toes touching cold spring water, Klonis offers his devotion to the ancient gods that Greek mythology says made Olympus their home: “Eternal and almighty Zeus, we call on you … we praise you, and we will always honor your strength.”
About 50 men and women, some with wreaths of branches on their heads, some wearing ancient-style tunics, stand in silence behind him with their eyes closed. Several hundred more Greeks, all devotees of ancient Greece's religion and traditions, come to worship, revel in rituals and take part in a range of events every July by the mythic mountain, the country's highest peak at just under 3,000 meters (9,600 feet).
The yearly pilgrimage , started in 1996, draws a diverse following including history enthusiasts, marathon runners, fantasy gamers, nationalists and young people seeking a taste of counterculture. They mingle while jumping into a freezing river pool and participating in rituals that include blessing ceremonies for civil weddings and the symbolic adoption of an ancient name. Over a long weekend, they can take part in craft and theater workshops and discussions on aspects of ancient life ranging from cooking to sexuality. The events are held at villages or camps at the foot of the mountain.
For Klonis, who comes from the nearby city of Thessaloniki, being close to nature was a major reason for his participation. He's been going to Olympus for 14 years after hearing about the events in the news. “We consider these places to be sacred, special. People visit there and are in awe of this place. To follow the footsteps of the ancients, it makes them happy. For me, something clicked. A door opened,” he said.
Ancient Greece's epic myths of creation and celestial power are R-rated, supernatural tales of heroism, violence, lust, jealousy, monsters, and magic. The 12 main goddesses and gods held their stronghold on Olympus, from where Zeus, the king of the gods, fired lightning bolts in anger down the mountain.
A small group of athletes kicks off the annual Olympus events with a run from the ancient archaeological site of Dion to the nearby mountain town of Litohoro. Many of the runners dress as ancient warriors, wearing costumes once on sale as novelty items to tourists and now held together with staples and duct tape.
Retired telecommunications worker Dimitrios Kalantzis brought his bright blue tunic and mock torso armor, and carries a round shield. “What is most important is not the dress but the ancient ideals. Because that's what Greece really is. Everything else is secondary,” he said before setting off under a baking hot sun.
In Litohoro, the runners are greeted by several hundred more devotees who hold a somber torch-lit procession to the slow beating of drums and tunes played on a recorder. Excited children run around them during the hour-long rally, while older residents look on, some with discreet amusement.
Orthodox Christianity has been the dominant religion in Greece for centuries, but reminders of the country's ancient past are everywhere – from street names and coins to the temples and statues that survived millennia. Children learn mythology in elementary school. After centuries of Ottoman rule ended nearly 200 years ago, ancient Greek history helped the emerging modern country rebuild a national identity.
Ancient Greece's pantheistic religion is not officially recognized by the state, and its few thousand adherents have created social organizations to organize their event – most met with muted disapproval by the church.
Residents of the villages near Olympus say they have become accustomed to the annual visitors. “(We) were cautious in the beginning. People were trying to understand what it was all about. Was it just something charming, or something colorful, or what?“ said Asterios Farmakis a former public hospital administrator who lives in Litohoro.
“But in the end we embraced it,” Farmakis said. “It's an opportunity to see issues that concern humanity, culture and the arts in a different way: A window into the world view of the ancient Greeks.”