By Bert Spinks
Out west, there was a fearsome giant. He was Medusa’s grandson – the Greeks always kept track of the ancestors of heroes and ogres alike – and they said he had three heads for a single body, although some thought he must have had three bodies as well. One writer had heard so many accounts of his death that there might have been multiples of him, that each of his deaths was in a different shape. (The poet Stesichoros went further and said he had six heads, six bodies and wings. But that seems like an exaggeration, don’t you think?)
His name was Geryon. Facing the evening sun, Heracles went forth to battle him. You can best see their brawl on a ceramic wine jug from twenty-five hundred years ago. Geryon is a burly bulk of black, and in the throes of the fight, he is an awkward whirl of multiple swords and shields.
In the 1830s, a surveyor made his mission into the mountainous interior of Van Diemen’s Land. He began naming mountains after the landmarks of classical literature, which he’d obviously been taught about throughout his colonial education. A grab-bag of Greek names suddenly marked the maps of an island however-many-thousand kilometres away.
It started a trend, and today, so many of our mountains and rivers and lakes are named in honour of gods and giants, whose origins are Mediterranean and not Tasmanian. I admit to mixed feelings. Because for centuries, indigenous stories marked these mountains, native narratives that are mostly lost and dearly missed.
But these Greek names – old yarns from another ancient tradition, another continent – are occasionally fitting or beautiful. I have long enjoyed tangling my tongue around the multisyllabic words of the Greek language, and I like the tales of classical literature too. A multitude of meanings swirl around our mountains these days.
West of the Overland Track, Mount Geryon is a giant, with several heads on a big body. This wasn’t named by the original surveyor, but by bushwalkers from the Hobart Walking Club in 1935. It had also worn various other appellations: Precipice Mountain, Tarpeian Rock, Cyrian, the Rifle Sight. This roll-call of names suggests that it was known mostly through glimpses. But its summit would be claimed eventually, and the name of Mount Geryon would be finalised on the official maps.
More importantly for this mountain, walkers would find their vantage points to watched the sun set upon its face. Another tract of country with a famous Greek name – the Labyrinth – lives in perpetual relationship with Mount Geryon, and so many excursions into here have concluded with the view of Geryon’s western cliffs catching the late sun’s oblique rays.
I too have watched sunset flushing the cliffs of Mount Geryon. Clouds streamed over the mountain in a dynamic display of colour and form. Its dolerite interacted with the light, magically and magnetically. Sprays of rain spontaneously burst around the giant’s several heads.
I had climbed up into the Labyrinth on an extremely hot day at the beginning of a new year. Now the heat had died off; a breeze brushed through the maze of trees around me. Further west, the mauve clouds of a bushfire marbled the sky. I had pitched my narrow tent by a tarn, on spongy grass bearing summer’s flowers. Where I had knelt down, the sundews’ sticky secretions clung to my skin.
In the most common version of their myth, Heracles chased down Geryon and shot him with an arrow. It is said that the massive being fell like a wilted wildflower. It is gorgeously recorded in the forms of two flurrying black figures on the ceramic amphorae of ancient Greece. Maybe you can see it if you squint at the Jurassic rock at sunset. Or perhaps you will find your own stories in its silhouette, when you make your own way out west.
Bert Spinks is a Tasmanian writer, storyteller, and bushwalking guide. He is the author of Towns of Tasmania: A journey through time.