– The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece

17 05 2007

The religious character of the games from the 7th to the 4th century b.C.

The Olympic games were the most important of the four great panhellenic games in ancient times. Held at Olympia every four years, on the second full-moon after the summer solstice, they lasted, almost without interruption, for more than a thousand years (from their beginnings in 776 BC to their abolition in AD 393), making them one of the most enduring institutions in the history of culture. Their importance lies not only in their influence as a sporting occasion, but chiefly in the way in which they became part of a complicated framework in which religious, social, political and cultural values were formed and expressed. Because of the fame of the games, which soon spread throughout the Greek world, the sanctuaries where they were held became places where temple architecture and monumental sculpture evolved and developed, where works of poetry, philosophy and music were presented, and where the values and cultural ties that bound together the Greek city-states were formed and expressed.

Religious rituals were central to the games of Archaic and Classical Greece, from the 7th to the 4th century BC. All the sporting contests, from the dozens at local level to those of the four panhellenic festivals, were held in or near sanctuaries (the Olympic games at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, the Pythian games at the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, the Isthmian games at the sanctuary of Poseidon on the Isthmus of Corinth and the Nemean games at the sanctuary of Zeus in Nemea). In the Olympia of the 5th century, the games began with the athletes swearing an oath in front of a statue of the god and ended with the awarding of wreaths to the victors in front of his sanctuary. Midway through the games, on the fourth of the six days they lasted in total, a great sacrifice to the god took place under a full moon, which was followed by a ritual meal.

As Jean-Pierre Vernant points out, Greek religion recognised no prophet or messiah, was not rigidly fixed and did not have a dogmatic character, professional clergy and holy scripture. It consisted more in participation in rituals that expressed faith in a totality of common beliefs, and the frequent congregation of the Greeks at sanctuaries essentially aimed to shape and strengthen the systems of values and rules for collective living that were based on those beliefs. (As used in Homer, the Greek word αγών, which means contest, also has exactly this sense of congregation). These common beliefs were shaped by myths, strengthened by their depiction in the sculptures that decorated the temples, and communicated publicly with participation in rituals. The public character of religious practice emphasises the fact that ancient Greek religion was not a separate, closed system that imposed orders on political, social, family and personal life, defining contact with the god as an individual affair. Communication between the human and the divine did not take place through some form of private prayer for redemption, with the individual being isolated from the social context to come into contact with the god, but took place in public, with a sacrifice on an altar outside the temple, and with the social context of the participant fully involved.

The process of sacrifice and the ritual meal that followed did not, for the Greeks, constitute a union with god through a holy communion. On the contrary, it underlined the gulf that separated mortals and immortals. It was, of course, a channel of communication between the two worlds, symbolised by the sacrificial fire that united the earth and the sky and linked man and god through the slaughtered animal, yet they remained discrete and did not merge, being allocated different parts of the slaughtered animal. The gods received the inedible parts (bones, fat and smoke) emphasising their immortality, while the edible parts were for the humans, a reminder of man’s basic need for food, resulting from his perishable, animal nature. The sacrifice and the ritual meal — as Vernant notes — emphasise the concept of cosmic order and confirm the extreme distance that separates mankind from the gods and the end of that mythical time when gods and humans lived and ate together. The manner of the worship, with the sacrifice and the ritual meal (the most important event of the games) did not aim to isolate the participant from the usual activities dictated by his social role, but to integrate him more fully into it through the cosmic order dictated by the gods.

However much it was respected and however frequently its need to be strengthened and promulgated was instituted, this cosmic order created a deterministic situation with regard to human existence that condemned man to be shackled to his nature. Man’s natural urge, however, was to transcend this situation not only in a sensory way, relating to the body and the physical, but also intellectually, in terms of the mind and the soul, which aim towards the unified One.

In the mythical past, this need was expressed in the form of the hero who, although from the world of men, transcended it and drew near the world of the gods. In the historical age, on the other hand, this occurred through a process which revealed who had the particular physical, mental and spiritual qualities to excel and reach the highest level. The process of competition during the games revealed the one victor who most fully demonstrated these characteristics and who offered the opportunity to mankind, while accepting the boundaries of the human within the cosmic order, to aim to transcend them. Victors emerged after brief contests against opponents and not as the result of a particular performance, which was neither measured nor recorded. The importance of victory was independent and absolute, being part of the perception of an annual, repeated cycle. Today, sporting competition is an opportunity to excel, not a ceremonial event, and the significance of victory can change when it is surpassed by another, better performance, and the two are viewed according to a linear, progressive perception of time.

The death rituals with which games began in mythical times underlined their religious origins. The first detailed reference to games is in Homer’s Iliad, where those organised by Achilles in honour of his dead friend Patroclus are described. Similarly, the start of the games at Olympia was associated with the death of King Oenomaus; at Nemea with that of the young prince Opheltes; at Delphi with the slaying of the dragon Python by Apollo; and at Corinth with the unfortunate death of Melicertes, who was deified as Palaemon. At the mundane or practical level, competition revealed who was most capable of using weapons of war on the battlefield, or who was most fit to succeed to the throne of the dead king. At the religious level, it was about the need for catharsis from murder, an initiation into priestly duties, the honouring of the gods. At the symbolic level, the games were a kind of ritual process revealing the excellence that might, however momentarily, transcend the perishability that is man’s fate and to which he is irreversibly tied, achieving divine favour and immortality. In every case there was death, loss, and awareness of the sad destiny of mankind, and at the same time, rebirth and transcendence. The prizes awarded at the games (wreaths of wild olive at Olympia, laurel at Delphi, pine branches at Corinth and wild celery at Nemea) were associated with the regenerative power of nature.

The great importance of the games in the ancient world, in combination with the love of the human form demonstrated by Greek art, has given us a huge number of works of sculpture and vase painting association with sport and the games.

In sculpture, the interest focuses on the depiction of that instant in which the human form contains, however transiently, that element of divine timelessness that is made tangible through the beauty of the statue and which makes it is difficult even today to discern the difference between statues of gods, heroes and man. Looking at the statue provoked awe and wonder, reactions directly linked with religious experience.

In vase painting, the interest shifts to the manner in which this situation becomes possible. It is rendered in picture form and with specific descriptive references, and covers all stages of the process. In the scenes of preparation, the compositions are closed and static suggesting concentration, the exercise of self-control, subordination to rules and the harnessing of turbulent forces. In scenes of contests, the compositions imitate the characteristics of the events being depicted. In short races (the stadion and diaulos) they open up, acquire greater speed, reflecting the long strides of the athletes and their intensity. In middle-distance (ippeios) and long-distance (dolichos) events they are arranged with more restraint, replicating the technical control required by the races. In the heavyweight events (wrestling, boxing, pancration), the compositions are solid and powerful, standing firm and clearly expressing the characteristics of the athletes and their movements. In the pentathlon (long jump, discus, javelin, foot race and wrestling) they become more complex, impressively balancing the different characteristics of the disciplines and the positions of the body with the same success that a pentathlete combines such different qualities as strength, suppleness and speed. In horse- and chariot-races, the compositions are centrifugal, opening up in dynamic fashion with the galloping rhythm of the horses.

In the prize-giving scenes, the intensity of competition is followed by calm. It is not so much physical fatigue that is suggested in the static poses of the victors (prizes were awarded on the last day of the games), but rather the wonder and self-consciousness that accompanies the achievement of a feat and the transcending of human boundaries. This stiff awkwardness is disrupted by the active form of the judge, who represents the values of the city and the winged victories that symbolise divine acknowledgement and the religious provenance of the values that govern the games.

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One response

18 02 2008
- Theo Koletsis

Very nice information about ancient olympic games, let me add a piece of mythology:
Pindar, a great poet of Greece, in his famous Eleventh Olympic Ode to victory, says that the Games began at the dawn of man’s life on earth. He claimed the Games were started by Herakles (the Roman Hercules), son of Zeus after his victory from a wrestling match with Augeus between the two rivers Kladeos and Alpheos at Olympia.

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