A Taste Of Greek Mythology: A Rigged Chariot Race And The Birth Of The World’s Greatest Games.

Philippeion at Ancient Olympia

The Temple of Hera was just a short walk away as I stopped to admire the impressive remains of a Macedonian king’s shrine. Across the way was Zeus’s temple, its lone column catching the early morning sun. Inscribed blocks lined the approach to the stadium, a reminder of the very public punishment doled out to anyone who was caught cheating. There on the southern slope of Mount Kronos, I was where it had all begun. Ancient Olympia, the sanctuary of Zeus and birthplace of the Olympic games.

The Olympic Games according to mythology

The life of Pelops, son of Tantalus, was a blighted one. His own father, butchered him as a boy and served him at a feast of the gods. Zeus recognising Tantalus’ deception, threw him into Hades to be punished perpetually. Pelops’ remains were reassembled except for his left shoulder (that had been devoured unknowingly by the goddess Demeter). She replaced it with one made of ivory.

Poseidon made Pelops his apprentice in Olympus and taught him how to steer the divine chariot, a chariot drawn by winged horses. That skill would come in handy.

A tale of bribery and sabotage

Pelops later left his homeland for Greece to vie for the hand of Hippodamia, daughter of King Oinomaos of Pisa. Oinomaos, the king of Pisa, had been warned by prophecy that he would be killed by the man who would marry his daughter. He had challenged and killed her 13 previous suitors. He challenged Pelops to a chariot race, with Hippodamia the prize of victory but the loser would be put to death by the king.

One account of the myth says that Pelops bribed the king’s charioteer Myrtilos to tamper with the axle and Oinomaos was killed as a result. Pelops seized control of the kingdom and when Myrtilos demanded his reward, treacherously cast him off a cliff into the sea. The dying man called down a curse upon his house which would plague Pelops and his descendants for many generations to come.

Pelops became the king of Pisa and the Peloponnese peninsula would be named after him. He was one of the most important founding-kings of myth with descendants including: Herakles, Theseus and Agamemnon.

An enduring legacy

In celebration of his marriage and chariot victory over Oinomaos, Pelops held the first Pan-Hellenic Olympic Games which carried on from 776 BCE to 393 AD.

Olympia – a brief history

Olympia was an important religious sanctuary of ancient Greece, dedicated to the worship of the God Zeus. As early as the third millenium BC there was a settlement in the area and in the Mycenaean era (1600-1100 B.C.) a wider area was in use. The sanctuary dedicated to Zeus started taking shape from 10th to 9th c. BC and the first monumental buildings were erected between 7th and 6th c. BC.

More buildings were added over time to meet the increasing requirements of the sanctuary. The games established in 776 BC played an important role in architectural planning and the sanctuary reached its peak between the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.

Destruction of the monuments began by imperial decree in AD 426 and was completed by an earthquake in the 6th century AD.

Olympia – the place to be

The Olympic Games was the highlight of the Ancient Greek calendar for nearly 12 centuries. All free Greek males were allowed to take part and not even the threat of war could stop them from attending.

By the 5th century BC, the Games had grown to a five-day event and at its height more than 40,000 spectators packed into the stadium to witness events including boxing, wrestling and chariot racing.

Olympia today

Today, visitors get to explore the stadium, ruins of temples, monuments and other buildings. The Archaeological Museum of Olympia also houses a treasure trove of artefacts found during excavations in the region. It’s no surprise that the site is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Here are a few of my favourites from across the site.

Palaestra and Gymnasium

Built in the 3rd century BC, the Palaestra was a square building, with an open courtyard and rooms around it. Here, athletes trained for wrestling, boxing and jumping. Some areas were sectioned off into special rooms for undressing, anointing the body with oil and powdering it with dust.

Palaestra

It is where the athletes would do their final training regimes before the games.

Next to the palaestra was the gymnasium, rectangular and enclosed by a wall. The court at the centre was the same length as the actual Olympic stadium, so that athletes could run the same distance during training as they would during the Games.

Adjacent to the main building was a large court of 22,000 square metres, used for javelin and discus training. The ruins visible today are what remains of a building dating back to the 2nd century BC.

Thermes of Kronios

During the Hellenistic period, this was a big complex with a heated bath, but most of it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 3rd century AD.

Today we can still enjoy the fantastic remains of a mosaic from the Roman period.

Temple of Zeus

South of the Temple of Hera stands the imposing Temple of Zeus. Broad steps led up to the Temple with its tall columns that supported roof and pediments although only one column remains reconstructed on the site. The pediments at each end were decorated with marble sculptures depicting mythological scenes, and inside the temple stood the 40-foot statue of Zeus created by Pheidias late in the fifth century B.C.

Temple of Zeus

The East pediment features the foundational myth of Olympia, the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos. Zeus, patron of the sanctuary, stands at the centre with Oinomaos and his wife Sterope at his right, and Pelops with Hippodameia to his left. Next come the four-horse chariots of the two contestants.

East pediment – preparation for the chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops
The West Pediment depicts the Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs. Apollo stands at its centre, right hand outstretched as he seeks to restore peace and order.
West Pediment – Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs
On his right, Perithos attacks the Centaur Eurytionas who has grabbed new bride Deidameia, while Theseus on his left is about to hit another centaur. Both of these pediments along with other artefacts are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Philippeion

After victory in the battle of Chaeronea, 338 BC, Phillip II started the construction of a great monument. Dedicated to Zeus, it was completed by his son, Alexander the Great, and is the only circular structure at the Altis of Olympia.

Philippeion

Philippeion was built to glorify the Macedonian dynasty and placed inside were five gold and ivory statues crafted by the famous sculptor Leochares. The statues represented Philip and his family.

Temple of Hera

Constructed in 600 BC, the Temple of Hera is the oldest building in the sanctuary. The temple is long and narrow with six Doric columns across the ends and 16 columns along the side. In the temple was a chryselephantine table on which were laid the olive wreaths used for crowing the Olympic victors. The disc of Iphitos on which the Sacred Truce was inscribed was also kept there. It provided for a safe and peaceful environment for both the athletes and spectators at the Games. Both Hera and Zeus were worshipped in the temple.

Temple of Hera

In front of the Temple of Hera was the altar of Hera where the Olympic flame was originally lit signifying the opening of the Games.

Nymphaeum of Herodus Atticus

An ornamental fountain constructed in the 2nd century AD which collected the waters of a big aqueduct originating in the nearby mountains.

The curved wall consisted of evenly spaced columns and niches housing statues of members of the Roman Imperial Antonine dynasty and of the family of Herodes Atticus. Those are on display at the Archaeological museum of Olympia.

Statues from the Nymphaeum
Statue of bull from the Nymphaeum

The Bases of the Zanes

Most cheating in the ancient Olympics was related to bribery or foul play and the perpetrators were not let off easy. Statues of Zeus were erected on these bases, paid for by fines imposed on those who were found to be cheating.

Bases of the Zanes

The names of the athletes were inscribed on the base of each statue to serve as a warning to all.

Crypt and Stadium

A vaulted entrance for the athletes and thirty-two metres long, the crypt was built in the late third century BC.

Crypt leading to the stadium

The stadium of Olympia was where the ancient Olympic Games and the Heraia, the women’s games in honour of Hera, were held. Before the sixth century BC the running events were held on a flat area east of the great altar of Zeus. It stretched 600 Olympic feet (192.27 meters)according to a Heraklion myth in which the hero measured out the distance of the first race by placing one foot in front of the other 600 times. At either end of the track were a series of marble slabs that marked the races’ beginning and end.

Starting blocks

The stadium reached its final form in the fifth century BC when the great temple of Zeus was built. By then the Games had become very popular, attracting numerous visitors and athletes.

The priestess of the goddess Demeter was the only married woman who had the right to attend the Olympic Games. The stone altar of the deity is preserved at the north bank of the ancient stadium, where her priestess stood during the Games. Across the way sits  the judges’ stand.

Final thoughts

As Roman influence grew, the Olympic games were banned by Emperor Theodosius I in 393 AD. He deemed the games a pagan festival that had no place in a Christian country.

Fifteen centuries would pass before the Olympics returned when a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, came up with the idea in 1894. The first modern Olympics would be held in Athens in 1896 and it has continued every four years since.

Today, this celebration of the world’s best athletes is once again the highlight of the sports calendar, hopefully for centuries to come.

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