From Myth to Reality: Olympia and the Ancient Greek Olympics
The Olympics, as they exist today, are but a shadow of their former glory. Though there are more activities and participants in the modern games, they do little to entice and arouse the Greek concept of glory and pride that once made them renowned throughout the ancient world. While the prizes might be considered miniscule by today’s standards, the olive wreaths and crowns that were bestowed upon the victors were more valuable than the medallions used today.
Aerial drone photo of the enthralling ruins of ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games. ( aerial-drone / Adobe Stock )
Olympian Rules and Regulations
The Olympic Games of ancient Greece adhered to certain codes and regulations, just as they do today, and each challenge had to abide by certain rules. Those who were chosen to judge the events were well informed and kept up-to-date of those rules with rigorous training in anticipation of every Olympic cycle. The judges of the Olympic Games were called the Hellanodikai. Their responsibility was not merely to pick the victors of each of the games, but also to maintain the steadfast peace declared during each period. Their role was therefore both political and religious.
An artist's impression of ancient Olympia. ( Public domain )
As Elis was the region within which Olympia resided, the Eleans were responsible for choosing the judges. This prevented bias. Though the post of judge was originally hereditary, over time this changed to the choosing of judges from each of the Elean ruling families. This ensured a constant rotation of judges for each Olympic Games and helped prevent bias from repeat judges. After a case in which a judge won two events and was accused of corruption, Hellanodikai were no longer allowed to participate in the Olympic events.
Image of a Boxer from Olympia crowned with an olive wreath. The olive wreath was known as kotinos and was the official prize for victors at the Olympic Games held at Olympia. The wreaths were made from the branch of a sacred wild olive tree that grew at Olympia. ( shako / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Games for the Gods: Greek Mythology and the Olympics
The games frequently took place at Olympia, in Greece, the site giving its name to the events. While there were various games throughout the ancient world, the most famous were those at Olympia, where a colossal statue of Zeus once stood. Sculpted by the master sculptor Phidias, the massive chryselephantine figure of Zeus was known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World . The subsequent games that took place at Delos and Nemea, for example, were not comparable in terms of grandeur and prestige. The Olympian games were revered for generations in odes, art, and literature.
The purported workshop of Phidias at Olympia, where the famed sculptor fashioned the chryselephantine statue of Zeus. ( Alun Salt/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
As with everything in the ancient world, legend has it that the first Olympics took place amongst the gods. There are different versions of the story, as recorded by ancient authors including Pausanias and Pindar. Writing years after the first mortal games (c. 776 BC), Pausanias, Pindar, and their successors received the stories second, third, or fourth hand, and each story was likely tainted by the values of the audiences to which they were told.
One of the origin myths features five brothers, one named Herakles, who raced to Olympia to entertain Zeus in his youth. Whoever arrived at the site first, was awarded with an olive wreath, as became tradition during the Olympic games. In Pausanias’ Description of Greece , the number of brothers indicates the number of years which pass between the games—five brothers means that the games happen every fifth year, after four years of rest. Another myth claims that Zeus’ son Herakles began the games for the purpose of honoring his father. While both of these stories discuss a certain Herakles, it is not the same one: the first story describes a Zeus too young to have had children.
The statue Zeus at Olympia, was created by the Greek sculptor Phidias and was 39 feet (12 m) tall. It was known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. (barringtheaegis.blogspot.com)
The games were intimately linked with the religious values of the ancient world and associated with the sacred site of Zeus at Olympia. Ancient Greek mythology closely associated religion with life, and idealized the so-called Golden Age, where the gods walked among men. The games themselves were therefore considered to be continuation of this golden age, whereby men participated in feats of bravery, skill, strength, and finesse, just as their legendary predecessors had done before them.
As such, scholars have concluded that the games were not just sporting events, but religious rituals as well. To participate in the games meant to participate in religious practice: honoring the gods, engaging in feasting and sacrificing, and even in ceasefire between communities that were otherwise at war. The games were considered sacred territory, and thus the participants were sacred players.
Crowning of victors of the Olympic Games at Olympia. ( Public domain )
A Sport for Everyone? Taking Part in the Ancient Olympic Games
Participants in the Olympic Games were far more limited than they are today. Only free Greek males could participate in the games, meaning that no slaves or women were allowed entrance. This is likely due to the political prestige associated with victory in the games. The city-states of Greece were independent entities, who relied on one another for trade, military aid, and alliances. However, they were always in competition to be the best of the city-states in trade, military power, and wealth. The games, therefore, served as a peaceful competition in which to prove the value of one city-state over another, without (usually) any loss of life. Women and slaves were not useful for this purpose, as land-owning men were the only individuals allowed roles in the political sphere.
Interestingly, a truce was always enacted during the Olympic Games, allowing safe passage of participants to the city of Olympia, and placing any wars effectively on hold until the games were completed. Politically, this allowed males to participate in the events without forfeiting military duties, as well as enabling city-states to gain and solidify alliances during a period of forced peace and stability. This forced stalemate further demanded no armies could invade Olympia during the games, and the temporary pause on the use of the death penalty. The advocacy for peace during these times was definitive. More interestingly, this peace was almost always honored, despite instances of unease between the two strongest city-states, Athens and Sparta.
Three ancient Greek runners on a Panathenaic prize amphora at the British Museum. Olympic athletes are said to have competed in the nude as a symbol of Greekness, probably from the fifteenth Olympiad onwards. ( British Museum / CC BY 2.5 )
Racing, Combat and Equestrian: What Games Did Ancient Greeks Play?
The types of games which were part of the Olympic Games were very different from the ones that take part today. One could argue they were simpler, however due to their simplicity it can also be said that it was far more difficult to succeed. Over the course of 500 years, there were up to 23 games played at the Olympics, which always fell within one of three categories: racing, combat, and equestrian.
The athletes chosen to participate were trained in their respective events by individuals hand-picked by the Hellanodikai. Their training was supervised and served as a trial run, allowing the judges to reject from the games anyone who wasn’t up to the challenge. If the participants were able to hold their own during the training period, they were allowed to progress to compete in the games themselves.
Stade, Diaulos, Dolichos … Racing at the Olympics
One of the most popular sports was running. There were various types of running which took place during the games, and they developed over time. Originally, the stade was a simple sprint from one location to the next. From here the diaulos developed, wherein runners raced in lanes one way and then looped back to the start line. Added later was the long race, called the dolichos, where it is believed that runners had to lap a minimum of twenty times. In the long race, speed was still paramount but it also required good endurance on the part of the runner.
The final running test was to run in full hoplite armor, and was thus called the hoplitodromos. Runners had to wear full military gear and complete two diaulos, adding strength onto the already difficult task of speed and endurance. As one can see, running was considered a paramount aspect of the Olympic games, and is recorded as one of the most valuable tests of honor by Xenophanes, a famous philosopher from the 6 th century.
Wrestling and boxing were valued sports during the ancient Olympic games. The bronze Boxer at Rest or the Boxer of the Quirinal, is a Hellenistic Greek sculpture of a nude resting boxer excavated in Rome. ( Paolo Monti / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Hellenistic Combat Sports
Another valued theme in the Olympic games was combat, most specifically evidenced in the tournaments of wrestling and boxing. In fact, one of the most valued pieces of art which survive from the ancient Hellenistic art is the Boxer, a bronze statue of a bearded man, seated, injured from a rough run in the boxing tournament. The statue is renowned for its realistic perspective of a weary, beaten man, his face tired and torn, his hands wrapped in leather as he takes a break from the match. While the piece is renowned in Greek art for its humanism and imperfections, it is also a valuable piece to show how important combat based games were in the Olympics.
Though wrestling came first (called pale), boxing quickly became the hot game when it was introduced in 688 BC. Possibly stemming from the demi-god Theseus’ game of beating a seated opponent, boxing’s supposed inclusion in the funeral games of fallen warriors during the Golden Age (as seen in the Iliad) further enhanced its prestige among participants. Boxers were chosen by lot rather than by weight class, and the rules encouraged beating rather than holding, as the latter was considered a wrestling move. However, wrestling and boxing were allowed to cross paths in another format: the pankration.
The excitement of boxing and wrestling led to the invention of a specialized set of games called the pankration, wherein techniques from both could be utilized to determine the victor. The intention was to determine the all-powerful champion in games of strength and might. Supposedly having first been invented by the demi-gods Herakles and Theseus, the pankration is believed to have filled the desire among audience members and participants for violent sport, later revered in the Roman amphitheater arena. More intense than wrestling or boxing alone, the pankration originally had no rules before eventually banning eye gouging and biting from the game for safety reasons, though nothing else was off limits. Whoever submitted first lost, regardless of their injuries.
Only wealthy members of the Greek elite could afford to compete in ancient Greek chariot racing. ( Public domain )
Equestrian Sports at the Olympics
Throughout the centuries, only men were allowed to participate in most of the Olympic Games. The only exception applied to the equestrian tournaments, which were also considered the most elite of the games. Only the wealthy had access to horses and riders, and only the richest could afford the chariots needed to participate in the racing games. The chariot races could be with four horses or two, and there were also games which allowed single horseback riding races without the use of chariots.
Women could participate in horse and chariot racing, in part because the rider was chosen by the elite and therefore the women were still kept at arms’ length from the games themselves. The difficulty of such games lay in the control and mastery of the horses, as well as in balance. Falling off the chariot led to disqualification. Saddles were not permitted, which served to make the games more difficult as riders had to be accustomed and skilled at riding bareback, holding onto the horse’s mane for dear life.
The chariot race was a dangerous and captivating sport. ( trolldens.blogspot)
The Olympics as Fundamental Aspect of Greek Culture
The Olympic Games were a paramount aspect of ancient Greek life, and were even used by ancient scholars as a time-keeping device. Years were determined in relation to the Olympics, based on the four year periods which were referred to as Olympiads. Thus, not only were the games significant politically and religiously, but they also held important civil value as well. That the games continue into the present day, albeit in a different format, is evidence of their significance as champion of peace and civic ties, as they were in the ancient Greece .
Top image: Ancient Greek Olympics were a fundamental aspect of ancient Greek culture. Various types of running took place during the games, along with equestrian sports and combat sports. Source: sebos / Adobe Stock
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