The spades and shovels of archaeologists ushered in the rebirth of the Olympic Games in 1896. The original games were an exclusively male domain: women not allowed to compete, or even to watch. Now two temples dedicated to goddesses have been found by the Olympic Hippodrome, providing archaeological evidence for the report of the second-century C.E. writer Pausanias, that certain priestesses were exempt from the ban.
At least, the priestesses observed the races from some point: The temples to Demeter Chamyne and Eileithyia date to about 2,500 years ago, a few hundred years after the earliest record of the games, in 776 B.C.E.
The Olympic Games began, history tells, because a wily suitor gained his wife by killing her father, resulting in the need to propitiate potentially angered gods.
According to Greek mythology, King Oenomaus had been prophesied to be killed by his son-in-law. A superlative charioteer, he set about foiling the prophesy by systematically killing potential husbands for his daughter, Hippodameia. He would challenge the suitors to race, and behead them when they lost.
One volunteer for this dubious honor was a ruler from afar, Pelops, who hailed from Phrygia (modern Turkey) and for whom Greece's southern peninsula, Peloponnesus, is named. When his turn came, Pelops persuaded the king's saddler to sabotage the king's chariot, which indeed broke apart, killing him. Pelops killed the traitorous saddler too, for good measure. He then held funeral games for King Oenomaos to appease the gods, hoping to be purified of murder.
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Whatever Pelops' motivation, the Games were on. Later, games for women would also be held, starting 200 years after the original men-only Olympic Games.
Yet whatever their attitude towards despite the female Heraean games, the Greeks took the prohibition on female involvement in the male games seriously. A surviving tale is that of Kallipateira, wife and mother of athletes. When her husband died, she assumed the training of her son and came to Olympia to watch him fight, the story goes. He won and she jumped into the arena, losing her disguise in the process, and also shouted her joy in a soprano, to the astonishment of her fellow spectators. She was spared death by virtue of her son's victory.
The goddess temples to Demeter Chamyne and to Eileithyia may support the thesis that once they began, the Heraean Games were treated with the same gravity as the men's contest, and were accompanied by ceremony and worship. “These excavations have brought to light new and significant evidence about the role and the different aspects of the female divinities and their cult in Olympia,” Dr. Erofili Iris Kolia, director of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia, told Haaretz.
The recent excavations by the Greek Ephorate also reveal that the sanctuary of Olympia was much larger than they're realized, she said.
Veneration from the dimmest reaches of history
Female deities were adored in Olympia even before Zeus himself, though his temple would come to dominate the site. In fact, an oracle sanctuary to Mother Earth goddess Gaia in a nearby cave dates to the Bronze Age, and may be the oldest cult in Olympia.
“In the prehistoric period, there were small shrines on the lower slopes of Mt. Kronion, where mostly female deities related with fertility were worshipped, as Gaia, Eileithyia, Themis and Rhea,” Kolia told Haaretz.
The first temple known to have been erected in Olympia itself was one dedicated to Hera, in about 600 B.C.E. Zeus received his shrine only some 100 years later.
Chamyne adoration also goes back to antiquity. Her name stems from the Greek words χάω, κάτω: lying on the earth. “The cult of Chamyne is connected with the first deities worshipped on the foothills of Mount Kronion,” says Dr. Christos Liagkouras of the Greek Ephorate, who has been working at the newly revealed temple to her.
Over time, as the local peoples fought with and conquered one another, Chamyne's image came to embody Demeter as well, hence her double-barreled soubriquet. The merged goddess was connected with the underworld and fertility, says Liagkouras.
These dual properties of the goddess are confirmed by archaeological finds in the temple area - including a striking (if broken) terracotta figurine of the two-headed Hades-hound Cerberus, with offering breads in his muzzles.
The second temple, dedicated to Eileithyia, was excavated by the former director of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia, Georgia Chatzi in collaboration with Prof. Aliki Moustaka of Thessaloniki University.
In search of Zeus
Located near the merging point of the Kladeos and Alphaeos rivers, Olympia was sacred since remote antiquity. Cultic sites there date back to prehistoric times.
One might wonder that there's anything left in Olympia to discover, let alone whole temples. Archaeologists have been exploring the site for more than 300 years, starting in the 18th century by English and French missions.
During the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829), artists and scientists allied with French troops fighting with the Greeks against the Turks, and began to excavate the temple to Zeus. In 1875, research in Olympia finally took a scientific turn with large-scale excavations under the auspices of the Royal Museums in Berlin. That was when the pediment sculptures of the Temple of Zeus were found, showing Pelops vanquishing King Oenomaus in that fateful chariot race.
So all in all the archaeologists were happily surprised to find a rectangular platform by Olympia’s Hippodrome, the stadium for chariot races, south of Mt. Kronion. Based on the materials and the Doric capitals, which were like in Zeus' temple, the archaeologists dated it to the early fifth century B.C.E., says Liangouras.
They also deduced that it had been the shrine of Demeter Chamyne, about which Pausanias wrote: "At the end of the row of statues… is what they call the ‘hidden entrance’. Through this entrance the hellanodikai [judges] and competitors enter the stadion.… Opposite the hellanodikai there is an altar in white marble. Seated on this altar a woman, the priestess of Demeter Chamyne, watches the Olympic games" – Pausanias VI 20, 8-9.
So, archaeologists seem to have found the altar from where the cult priestess could have seen the games.
If Chamyne's priestesses were exempt, at least at some point, from the strict ban on women watching the games, it could attest to the cult's importance in Olympia. Also, inscriptions dating to games in the later Roman period show that Demeter Chamyne priestesses were Roman aristocrats, who seem to have enjoyed social status similar to the Vestal Virgins.
The second newly-discovered female sanctuary, unearthed north of Mt. Kronion, was revealed by inscriptions to be dedicated to Eileithyia, whom Pausanias also mentions (VI, 20,2-3). Eileithyia was worshipped by women hoping for uncomplicated childbirth.
Another recent discovery was the grounds used by visitors who needed accommodation during the five-day games. Dr. Reinhard Senff from German Archaeological Institute has been digging there, south of the stadium, since 2008. The excavators found an ash pit, simple clay cooking pots and drinking vessels dating to the 5th century B.C.E., and animal bones from meals. The visitors could get water from the Alpheios, Senff adds.
South of the stadium, they found a pottery workshop dating to the Classical Period (480 -323 B.C.E.) This was no workshop of fine china but of utilitarian artifacts, it seems. “The misfired wasters' show that roof-tiles, wall-bricks and transport or storage vessels were produced. No fine ware,” Senff told Haaretz.
Gorgons and geschäft
The gods were an imperious lot, demanding that the faithful not only sacrifice animals but personal weapons and spoils of war. Among the metal artifacts the archaeologists found were bronze sheaths, helmets, weapons and shield fittings, the most spectacular being a shield decorated with a Gorgon. That may have been an offering for Athena, who reportedly had a penchant for shields featuring the fearsome face of a serpent-haired Gorgon.
Some of the weapons they found are inscribed with the name of a specific battle or athletic triumph, says Senff.
All in all thousands of votive offerings were found during the latest digs at Olympia, mostly statuettes of bronze, marble, wood, lead or clay offered to the gods by the common people. They could buy these things at markets outside the temple area – much like souvenir shops in our time.
This geschäft was commonplace at all the important pilgrimage sites in ancient Greece.
The agora south of the excavated area was also found, based on the discovery of bronze weights of various sizes and a mensa ponderaria, a stone table with variously sized cavities to control the measures used by merchants, Senff says.
Say it with sweaty horses
By the way, maybe women couldn't compete or watch naked men run or throw things, but they were welcome to sponsor charioteers.
The ancients were racing-mad; people would hang portraits of star charioteers at home; rival groups of fans would fight just like today. The Roman historian Tacitus describes a riot where Pompeiians brawled with fans from the neighboring city of Nucreia.
Races by chariots drawn by two or four horses were thus one of the main attractions at Olympia, and attracted competitors from all over the Greek world. Horse breeding was expensive and the racers were sponsored by elites: tyrants of Sicily, rulers of Sparta and statesmen from Athens. And non-men.
“The first woman to do that was the Spartan queen Cyniska in the 4th century B.C.E.,” says Dr. Sandra Zipprich, who studied the horse cult in Olympia. In fact Cyniska won twice, and her triumph spurred other women to field teams too.
Although we have no record of how much she won, Cyniska - daughter and sister of kings - was the first woman to have a hero shrine erected in her name in Zeus' temple in Olympia.
Her victory proved inspirational. After her came Euryleonis, another Spartan, whose team won the two-horse race at Olympia in 368 BCE. In all, nearly a dozen women captured victory at the Greek games.
A century and a half later in 248 B.C.E., Berenice II, the Macedonian queen of Ptolemy III of Egypt, fielded a team of mares that won a dozen races, including the Olympian races. In her victory inscription, Berenice bragged that she had stolen Cyniska's “ancient glory.”
Enter the mad Emperor Nero
Though the first recorded Olympiad was in 776 B.C.E., but they may have begun earlier. Homer's Iliad – apparently written in the 8th century B.C.E., describes Achilles arranging competitions to honor his fallen friend Patroclus.
Mind you, there were other festivals mixing religion and sport, since the ancient Greeks thought athletics please the spirits of the dead. Other contests included the Isthmian, Nemean, and Pythian games. The Olympics were held in the highest esteem, for they honored Zeus, the king of the gods.
Early games seem to have featured only one event, a chariot race, but in time they came to include other contests, such as foot racing, boxing, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, long jumps and tests of endurance, including competitions in loudness for heralds and trumpeters. They even had a competition called the rules-free pankration, “all force” - a more appropriate rendering would be rough and tumble. Pankration was a duel where almost anything went, including kicking and scratching.
But as Rome rose, the Olympics would decline, as Romans viewed athletics with a measure of contempt. One exception was Emperor Nero. He vied in the 67 C.E. games and won every contest. It seems that the other contestants knew what was good for them. The Roman historian Suetonius hails the mad young emperor's prowess in wrestling and singing. When Nero sang, Suetonius says, nobody was allowed to leave. Women had to give birth while sitting in their rows.
In any case, by 394 C.E. Theodosios II banned games and the Olympics were discontinued.
Though the excavations found signs of renovation in antiquity, all good things must end and so did the sanctuary. Theoretically abandoned after Theodosios II's edict, bronze coins found there indicate that the site remained in some use for two more centuries. Then it would be abandoned once and for all after two heavy earthquakes.
Some 15 centuries later, what the spades of German archaeologists unearthed on the plain of ancient Olympia inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a 29-year-old Frenchman, to propose reviving the event. The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. Since that year, the Olympics have been held, with rare exceptions, every four years, with few if any remembering that the original inspiration had been guilt over murder 2,800 years ago.