Mt. Olympus was the home of the Dodekatheon, the twelve gods – the principle deities, such as Zeus and Athena, lived there. At the foot of the mountain’s north sat the nine Muses, Zeus’ daughters with Mnemosyne and patrons of the Fine Arts.
Olympus is the second highest mountain in Greece, standing between what are now Thessaly and Macedonia. At its peak, it is just less than 10,000 feet in elevation. But this isn’t Mt. Olympus in Greece. This is Mt. Olympus in central Tasmania, overlooking Lake St. Clair, Australia’s deepest natural lake.
It was named so by George Frankland, who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1827 as an assistant surveyor after some years in Pune, India. Within a year he became the Surveyor-General of the island.
The Lieutenant-Governor assigned him to begin a ‘general trigonometrical survey’, but Frankland believed that an important aspect of his role was exploration. His boss wished he’d stay in the office more frequently. He was particularly bent on finding a lead mine somewhere, and over the coming years he would make significant journeys in the wildernesses around the upper Derwent, the upper Huon, and the central highlands of Lake St. Clair.
Frankland was a proud man. He loftily believed the duty of his office was ‘to observe and record every remarkable fact connected with the Natural history of the island whose surface and native production have, in a manner, been placed so peculiarly in his custody.’ That being said, he was never very popular in the colony. It wasn’t only his squabbles with the Lieutenant-Governor over the time he took to do his work. Frankland seemed to have never felt quite at home in Van Diemen’s Land.
He planned to leave, in 1835, and then again attempted to sell his Battery Point home in 1838. But it didn’t sell, and on the second-last day of that year, George Frankland died. He was survived by his wife Anne, two daughters, and a son.
Frankland also named Mt. Ida, Mt. Pelion, and Mt. Rufus in his mythical mood; his precedent spawned a series of Greek names in the area. Today, around Cradle Mountain and Lake St. Clair, you’ll find dozens of names honouring the gods and heroes of Greek myth.
Although it doesn’t seem that these areas were frequently inhabited by Aboriginal populations, there is no doubt that over the millennia these features – like everywhere in Tasmania – had other names. They were not the names of personae from the epics of a continent on the other side of the world, but we don’t now know what indigenous stories sprung from these mountains. Unlike our scholastic understanding of Greek literature, there is no philosophy that we can comprehend from our Mt. Olympus.
Yet perhaps – as we burst through the sclerophyll and onto a buttongrass plain just metres from Lake St. Clair, with spiny Olympus now protruding into the sky – the name of this mountain can clue us into something common, something that unites Tasmania and Greece. In ancient Greece, they called it palaiòn pénthos, ‘ancient grief’, and it “persists undiminished across time and demands that men take some liberating action… For we live surrounded, in the invisible air, by wandering avengers who never forget…”1
The strange spirits of memory.
1 Calasso, Roberto, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, p315.