Monk with Mule at Dionysiou
Aided by a lay worker, a monk prepares to mount a mule to travel on business to another monastery or the administrative capital of Athos at Kariyes. Travel on Mount Athos was considerably more difficult 40 years ago when this photo was taken. Mules were the primary means of navigating the often steep, rocky pathways connecting the monasteries throughout the peninsula. Today, travel on Mount Athos has been modernized with the high speed launches or slower ferries connecting most of the monasteries on the coasts and new roads facilitating taxi and minibus service throughout the peninsula.
While mules have long been valued for their ability to navigate difficult terrain and bear heavy burdens, their use by monks also potentially has religious significance in the context of the Holy Mountain. Mules are mentioned among the animals that convey “the children of Israel” up the holy mountain of Jerusalem in the Isaiah 66:20 – “And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the Lord out of all nations upon horses and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts to my holy mountain Jerusalem, saith the Lord, as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the Lord.” In addition, the mule’s close relative, the donkey bore Mary into Bethlehem, and the adult Christ in mock triumph into Jerusalem. That Christ rides donkey rather than a horse into Jerusalem is understood also to indicate his humility, but this animal is also associated with prophets and seers, and with divinity.1 Some of these associations might well be applied to the bearded monk in the photograph who prepares his own journey across the Holy Mountain of Athos.
Mathews, Thomas F. The Clash of the Gods. A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Speake Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
1Mathews, “The Chariot and the Donkey,” The Clash of the Gods, 23-53.