Mount Athos

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An important site in both ancient Greek and modern Christian religions, Mount Athos has been the center of the Hesychasm sect of Christianity since the fourteenth century. Fortean Picture Library.

Mount Athos (Greece)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Mount Athos, the most famous Greek orthodox monastic center in the world, is located on Halkidiki Peninsula, south and east of Thessaloniki. Prior to the emergence of Christianity, the area was considered the home of the gods; however, Christian tradition suggested the area was visited by the Virgin Mary in the company of the Apostle John. Christian ascetics (in the sixth century) and monks (in the tenth century) eventually established themselves there. In 1060, the Byzantine emperor decreed that the peninsula would be a male-only area, and in succeeding centuries it emerged as a primary center of Christian monasticism. Monasteries serving monks of a number of nationalities were built, and its continuing status as a male-only domain was set. By 1500 the population of monks had reached around 20,000.

Mount Athos became a center of Hesychasm, a system of prayer advocated by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296–1359). Hesychasts believe it is possible—through an exacting format of activity that includes asceticism, detachment, submission to a spiritual guide, and constant prayer—to see the very uncreated Light of God. Contemplation of the Light is the true purpose of humanity. They tie the experience of seeing the Light to the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–6). Dedicated Hesychasts were known to sit all day in a chosen spot while repeating silently the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” Gregory Palamas was a monk at Athos before becoming bishop of Thessalonica in 1349. The teachings set off a considerable controversy in the Greek Church, with opponents accusing the Hesychasts of a variety of heresies from pantheism to the dividing of God (which could not be seen) from His Light (which could be seen).

Throughout the fourteenth century, the practice was argued throughout the Greek Church and became the focus of several councils. In the end, opposition was identified with the Roman Catholics (with whom the Greek Church had split), and the Hesychasts won the day. The theological presupposition upon which the practice at Athos was built was accepted as orthodox, even though the practice itself remained primarily a practice of monks. Hesychast practice remains alive and well at Athos.

Today, male visitors are allowed on the peninsula and number in the tens of thousands annually. Some come merely as tourists, others to visit the different monasteries, a few of which possess items known for their miracle-working powers, or to visit with a particular monk who serves as a spiritual counselor. At least three of the monasteries claim a fragment of the True Cross.

Athos is now home to around three thousand monks. There are some hermits, but most of the monks reside in one of twenty monastic communities.


Bryer, Anthony, and Mary Cunningham. Mount Athos and Byzantine Monasticism. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Very Fine/Fine, 1998.
Kadas, Sotiris. Mount Athos: An Illustrated Guide to the Monasteries and Their History. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon, 1989.
Valentin, Jacques. The Monks of Mount Athos. London: Andre Deutsch, 1960.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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