The first name of Messene was Ithomi. But how can one explain these names? First of all there is Mount Ithomi and there, the Sanctuary of Ithomi was discovered in 1843, but was later lost in the lush forest. Today, after twenty years of efforts of Prof. Petros Themelis we can enjoy the sanctuary and its foundations. It is dedicated to goddess Artemis Laphria and references of travellers report that there was a statue of Damophon dedicated to her.
Artemis Laphria is a goddess of the underworld and of nature. Cult customs and worship rituals are performed by women and pertain to fertility rituals. Besides, next to the sanctuary there is another one, dedicated to Eileithyia, a deity that protects women in labour and guards the souls of pregnant women. They are deities that govern the passing from life to death. Relevant deities were also the Kourites demons and nurturers a strange combination of schooling and exceptional breeding, who sometimes save children and other times intimidate them.
Here an extraordinary coincidence takes place. The sanctuaries of Ithomi, Eileithyia and the Kourites are comingled in the mythical stories about the adventures of Zeus of Ithomata. A tradition of the land recounts that here the holy infant was worshiped, saved and brought up. At the altar of the Ithomata sanctuary a statue was found a worshiping idol of child Zeus dating back to 369 BCE and attributed to Ageladas. At the same place, Mount Ithomi, we find the foundations of the old monastery of Vournakos. It seems that sanctuaries have an affiliation from antiquity to the modern religion. At the sanctuary of Ithomi, Zeus the "transformer", the one who re-invents himself and changes is worshiped; on the other hand, the Monastery of Vournakou celebrates Virgin Mary and especially Dormition; it is built in the summit of Mount Ithomi on an enormous natural rock. A sacred place from antiquity, it offered asylum and protection in any given difficult moment of the land's history.
Panagia (Virgin Mary) of the Summit
Mount Ithomi is sacred. It may change forms and guardians but its mission remains the same. In antiquity, it hosted the sanctuary of Zeus of Ithomata and later, in the Byzantine era, Voulcanos Monastery dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God. The monastery was founded in the 17th century and bears the name of its founder Voulcanos or Dorkanos, but for many it is known as the Monastery of Panagia of the Summit. It was built circa 725 AD by iconolater monks and the miracle-working icon of Virgin Mary was discovered here.
The church of the Monastery is of the crossed-dome type. It celebrates on September 8 at the day of the Nativity of Mary and on August 15 at Her Dormition. Thousands of visitors come as pilgrims and celebrate the miraculous icon of Virgin Mary every year.
On the day of the Nativity, the icon is transferred throughout the city of Messene on the night of 19th to 20th September so as to remember the divine intervention of Virgin Mary at the plagued area in 1755. The icon is transported at about 2 am from Voulcano and arrives after a procession of 20 kilometres to the church of Virgin Mary at Mavromati at 7:30 in the morning. It's more than a religious procession, rather a ritual.
The monastery was the first to be built in the region, was always a monastery for monks and its operation was never uninterrupted. Today, it is the only male commune belonging to the Holy Metropolis of Messenia. The treasures of the monastery are many: the miraculous icon of Panagia bearing an inscription awarded to Hosios Loukas, relics of saints, a rich library, literary works, Ottoman documents and four sigilliums of Patriarchs of Constantinople that certify the privileges awarded to the monastery.