The mountain-top ash altar of Zeus, and its associated sanctuary, was one of the most famous cult sites in the ancient Greek world. Every four years, the elite, the sporting stars, and the faithful, would gather in celebration of Zeus, father of the Olympian deities, and god of bad weather. But what remains of this important site? David Gilman Romano reports.
High on the southern peak of Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia, at 1382m above sea level (c.4,500 feet), lies the open-air ash altar of Zeus. The sanctuary was (and still is) in a remote area of Greece where the ancient Peloponnesian regions of Arcadia, Messenia and Elis met. During the Archaic and Classical periods, and possibly for centuries previously, dignitaries, athletes and religious pilgrims made the trip to this remote location every four years. They went as a part of a religious celebration of the Pan-Arcadian and Pan-Hellenic festival that included dedications, sacrifices and athletic contests in honour of the mighty Zeus.
The mountain was a fitting location for the sanctuary. First, this mountain was said to be one of the two (yes, two) birthplaces of the god. Second, it was in a magnificent location, suitable for the god of rain, thunder, lightning and other natural phenomena. Indeed, when the 2nd century AD Roman traveller, Pausanias, visited the site, he commented on its stunning position: On the highest peak of the mountain is a mound of earth, which is an altar of Lykaion Zeus, from which you can see most of the Peloponnese.
Pausanias also described the layout of the site, recounting its high altar surrounded by a holy area, or temenos, and some of the rituals performed therein. He writes: In front of the altar there are two columns towards the rising sun; the gilded eagles on them are even older than the columns. At this altar they offer a secret sacrifice to Lykaion Zeus. I could see no pleasure in pursuing inquiries about this sacrifice; let it be as it is and was from the beginning. Incidentally, the sacrifice that the squeamish Pausanias does not want to describe was a human sacrifice, hinted at by other authors, including Plato and Theophrastus. Our helpful traveller also explains how the site stretches down onto the lower mountain, the location of a Greek hippodrome and several other buildings and structures.
The archaeologists arrive
Hastened by such tales, the archaeologists arrived at the site in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The work was led by members of the Archaeological Society of Athens, K. Kontopoulos and later K. Kourouniotes. They worked on the ash altar site and in its neighbouring temenos, or sacred area, and in the lower mountain meadow, the location of the ancient Greek stadium, hippodrome, and various other buildings and structures.
At the site of the altar, K. Kourouniotes found several bronze miniature tripods, the earliest of which dated to about 700 BC, as well as bronze and silver coins of the 5th century BC and fragments of metal, iron and bronze. Ash and bone fragments were found together with small and large stones in the altar. In the area of the sacred temenos, 15m down from the altar itself, the archaeologists also found two large stone bases. These probably held the columns on top of which, as Pausanias describes (above), were the golden eagles of Zeus. Interestingly, the team found a miniature bronze eagle and several miniature bronze figurines of Zeus at the base of the northernmost column. According to Pausanias, the temenos at Mt. Lykaion was highly sanctioned, as he warns: There is a precinct of Lykaion Zeus on the mountain, where no man is allowed to enter. If you disregard this law and go in, it is absolutely certain that you will die within the year.
Thankfully, Kourouniotes did not die within the year, which meant that he and his team could move 200m down hill from the altar, into the mountain meadow, where they then explored the rest of the site. This meadow was the location of the famed Pan-Hellenic and Pan-Arcadian athletic contests held in honour of Lykaion Zeus. Within the meadow is a Greek hippodrome, bordered by a series of buildings and structures, including a bath facility at the northern end. At the southern end is a 67m long stoa or colonnaded building, a 39m long series of seats or steps, an area of statue bases, and a large building that Kourouniotes interpreted as a xenon or hotel.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 30. Click here to subscribe