Greek Olympic Games

Prior to the opening ceremonies of each festival, messengers were dispatched to the far corners of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor to announce the coming of the games. Only free citizens of Greek blood were allowed to participate but ‘barbarians’ and slaves were allowed to view the festivities from the grandstands. Interestingly, unmarried women were allowed to watch but married women could not. Penalties for disobedience of these rules were harsh; violators could sometimes face execution. At the Olympic Games, a separate festival called the Heraia (dedicated to Hera) took place at roughly the same time in which women competed.

Besides this, however, women normally did not participate in the games (though there were a few exceptions in the equestrian events). In addition to their significance as athletic events, the Athletic Games were one of the most important forces uniting the Greek world. Its political and economic importance is difficult to overstate. Before and during the games, a sacred truce [called ekecheiria] was called between all warring cities. This allowed every athlete to enter the games safely and promoted a sense of unity among an otherwise quarreling group of states.

Beginning in the 6th century BCE, Olympia became the premier venue for the signing of inter-city treaties. These gatherings clearly created a sense of unity, and the symbol of the naked body helped to produce a feeling of pride among the Greeks. Economically, a great deal of trade revolved around the festivals and it undoubtedly continued even after they completed. Pindar and Bacchylides, choral lyric poets, composed victory odes honnoring famous victors (who also happened to have enough money to pay for the privelege).

These odes are particularly important for modern scholars of mythology since they often constitute very important sources for various versions of mythology. They usually began with praise for the person whom they honored and then proceeded to give mythological examples that served to enhance the glory of their victories. Mythological references were often made to heroes coming from the winner’s country of origin, serving to glorify the winning towns in addition to their athletes. They often ended with a short prayer for the victor’s continued prosperity.

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