18: Ancient Olympics, Part 1, the Foundation

Hello and welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m Lucas Livingston, your guide on our foray through the Ancient World. In this episode, we’ll travel back to Ancient Greece to witness a spectacular event, the largest tailgater in the Ancient Mediterranean World, the Ancient Greek Olympic Games.

In an immaculately pristine fantasy world, the Olympics were an emblem of Greek democratic ideals, the epitome of what could only be described as “Greekness.” The Olympics placed the peasant and the aristocrat on the same level playing field; the citizen is not judged by the size of his coffers nor the achievements of his ancestors, but by his own aptitude and human excellence in the arena.

Sure, that’s what we’d like to think, and yes, there certainly is some truth to that in theory, but in practice, in this wonderfully nebulous, unpredictable, and awkward thing we call reality, the ancient Olympics were subject to corruption, politics, partisanship, and prejudice as much as their modern counterpart. But before I go rambling off on a tangent, I want us to set our task in front of us here. There’s a lot to cover, so we’ll need to break things up into multiple episodes. In this episode, we’ll briefly explore the origin of the Olympics and other Greek games, and delve into their mythic foundations. Yes, there were plenty of other athletic competitions in addition to the ancient Olympics, and we’ll check out some of them too. Later we’ll take a look at what makes the Greek games distinctly Greek, the “Greekness” of the Greek games, and we’ll break a sweat surveying the variety of athletic events. And then we’ll wrap up with some wonderful historical anecdotes placing everything in context.

The foundation of the Olympics is traditionally placed at 776 BC. Right, and this flat world was created October 23rd, 4004 BC. No really, how do we know the Olympics began in 776 BC? We’re certainly not 100% sure, but the Greeks kept an official record of winners of the Olympic games, called the Olympic register. Ancient historians knew where their time was on that list (um, at the bottom, duh!). So, going on the assumption that the Olympics were held every four years (just like the modern Olympics; that’s where we got the idea from), historians could trace back to the first victory of the first Olympics happening so many years before their time. And we, using these funny numbers to reckon dates, call that the year 776 BC.

Ok, wake up. We’re done with the chronology. Supposedly we know when the Olympics started, but why did they start and by whom? As with all the other major athletic competitions throughout the Ancient Greek world, the establishment of the Olympics is deeply entrenched in mythology, or history, or it’s kind of one in the same. Ancient sources like the famous lyric poet Pindar say that the Olympic games were established by Herakles to celebrate the accomplishment of one of his Twelve Labors, the Cleaning of Augean Stables. You probably know “Herakles” better as “Hercules.” Herakles is the Greek version, Hercules the Latin. Those Twelve Labors, in fact, are the subject matter of the metopes decorating the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, the sacred site of the ancient Olympics.

A brief geography lesson here. Olympia is located on the western coast of the Greek Peloponnesos, which means the “Island of Pelops,” but it’s not really an island. Technically it’s a peninsula, but that’s almost a stretch too. Olympia wasn’t exactly a town. It was a religious sanctuary to Zeus, a popular pilgrimage site and tourist destination, and of course host to the most famous sporting event of the ancient world. Near Olympia is Elis, which ruled over Olympia in ancient times. Right next to Olympia is the town of Pisa, not to be confused with the Italian Pisa, which brings us to the next story.

The more popular mythic origin for the ancient Olympics is that of the celebration of the victory of Pelops, namesake of the Peloponnesos, in his chariot race against King Oinomaos of Pisa. That story is also depicted on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in the east pediment. Here in the pediment from about 460 BC we see the larger-than-life Zeus in center with Pelops and Oinomaos at his sides. The god Poseidon really liked Pelops and gave him a set of horses touched by the divine. Pelops set out traveling and came upon the kingdom of Oinomaos and his lovely daughter Hippodameia, “subduer of horses.” It was known throughout the land that whoever could best King Oinomaos in a chariot race would win the hand of Hippodameia in marriage. If, however, you challenged the king and lost, your life was forfeit. Many a suitor had tried and failed, their skulls decorating his palace like trophies, but young Pelops knew his magical steeds could beat the king in a race. Oinomaos, son of the god Ares, had magical unbeatable horses, himself, though. Hippodameia knew this, but had fallen for Pelops and didn’t want to see him consigned to the same fate as the many suitors before. So she conspired with her father’s charioteer, Myrtilos, to replace one of the bronze linchpins with a wax replica, offering herself to Myrtilos if he ended up following through with the sabotage. He did so, and in the heat of the race between Pelops and Oinomaos, the friction of the spinning wheels caused the wax linchpin to melt and break. The wheels of the chariot crumpled beneath King Oinomaos, throwing him to the earth. His precious, magical, unbeatable horses pressed on dragging him by the reigns tied around his waist and trampling him to death. It was just a tragic accident. The chariot race was always a dangerous sport. This wasn’t the first death by chariot race and surely wouldn’t be the last. But Pelops knew of the treachery of Myrtilos and the promise Hippodameia had made, yet he had no intention of letting Myrtilos see it through. Now Pelops, the new king of the Peloponnesos, took Myrtilos out for a ride along the sea, fought with him and threw him into the ocean’s deep. As Myrtilos succumbed to the sea’s dark embrace, he cursed the offspring of Pelops and Hippodameia. And so it begins.

In short, a series of family tragedies ensue involving various family members killing each other for various reasons. This dynasty of Greek tragedy is passed down among the generations and preserved in famous stories that might be familiar to us. Atreus butchers his nieces and nephews and serves them to his brother Thyestes. King Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, before sailing off to the Trojan War. Some twenty years later Queen Clytemnestra and her lover and brother-in-law Aegisthos murder Agamemnon for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. The vengeful Elektra and Orestes kill their mother Clytemnestra and their new father-in-law Aegisthos. Orestes is hounded by the Erinyes, the Furies, for his sins and nearly goes insane, but he’s finally vindicated by divine pardon. So, all of that was going through people’s minds as they gazed up at the Temple of Zeus. The old seer off to the side strikes of foreboding pose realizing the misfortunes that will play out for the participants of this race and their descendants.

Perhaps it was thought that this story would help keep would-be cheaters at the Olympics in line or maybe it provides a moral lesson for the general audience. But this didn’t cast a dark shadow over the Olympic games. Nearly all the foundation myths of the major Ancient Greek athletic competitions were heavily steeped in tragic death. The tradition of athletic competition goes hand-in-hand with funerary celebrations. We encounter numerous examples of funeral games in art, myth, and history, which we’ll explore more closely next time when we’ll also dive in to looking at the specific types of athletic competitions and events from the ancient Olympics. We’ve only scratched the surface here, so stick around.

©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

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