TWH – The Modern Olympics website quotes Professor Paul Christesen of Dartmouth College when noting the pagan origins of the Olympics. Dr Christesen said: “Basically, the ancient Olympics were a religious festival held in a religious sanctuary.”
Dr Christesen added: “It wasn’t just about playing sports.” The Olympics were located at a temple site. “The Greeks were aggressively polytheistic,” Christesen said. “So although Olympia was a sanctuary for Zeus, we know that he was not the only deity worshiped at the site. There were over 70 different altars, you could sacrifice just about anyone.
In ancient games, the runner in the foot race served as the officiant at a ritual sacrifice. A priest sacrificed the animals and placed the portion for the gods on the altar. In “Greek Religion”, Walter Burkett described the sacrificial ritual at the ancient games. Before burning the offering, a priest used a torch to give the signal. This signal would trigger the run. The runner would then run towards the sacred olive tree of Zeus at the finish line. This tree provided the leaves for victory crowns. The winner would then go to the ash altar of Zeus. Once there, they lit the fire to consume the offering.
The Perseus Project of the Classics Department at Tufts University described the ancient games as “part of a great religious festival honoring Zeus, the chief Greek god”. These games have become one of the biggest events in the Greek world. In the middle of these games, the priests sacrificed 100 oxen. Athletes prayed and made offerings to their gods for victory.
The ancient games have always been held in Olympia in the northwest of the Peloponnese, facing the Ionian Sea.
Walter Burkett wrote in “Greek Religion” that the Olympics began as a funeral game. Like someone who screams and moans, the athlete would accomplish grief by expending energy.
Performative grief may have driven the earliest ancient games. Over time, “virtue ethics” became more dominant.
Zeus did not issue commands. Instead, the Greeks developed a set of virtues, or habits of behavior, that promoted their idea of a good life. This tradition has come down to us today as a field of virtue ethics.
Both Plato and Aristotle described virtue. According to them, virtue “is linked to the exercise of a function”. The habitual practice of virtue reinforces this function.
Aristotle held that people had the function of living a good life. When virtue has become habitual, a good life follows. Like Jefferson, he was talking about the male elite, not everyone.
People competed as individuals. They did not compete as representatives of city-states. This individual competition reflected the Greek value of Arete. Scholars usually translate this term par excellence with more than a hint of honor. In the Greek world, the habitual practice of Arete led to fame and glory. Usual Arete led Greek art, athletics, culture and philosophy to their heights.
An Olympic winner did not just win a sporting event. The pursuit of Arete’s athlete led to their victory. Losing a contest brought shame and disgrace. Athletes caught cheating had to pay a fine. These fines paid for bronze statues of Zeus. On these statues, the authorities had inscribed the offenses which paid the statue. These statures also carried ambitious messages. Some messages stressed that skills, not money, lead to victory. Others emphasized the “Olympic spirit of piety towards the gods and fair competition”. These statues lined the stadium road.
Arete also permeated the artistic works throughout the ceremonial complex. The habitual practice of Arete prompted architects, sculptors and stonemasons to create the beauty of the monumental structures of Olympia. It also prompted poets to praise the prowess of the victors. Great poets like Pindar wrote these poems of praise. Some of these poems have survived in the statues and temples of Olympia. Unlike modern games, non-athletes had ways to excel in ancient games.
Sex and who could compete and attend
The ancient games were far from egalitarian. Tufts University Classics Department’s Perseus Project described the differences between the ancient and modern Olympics. Only Greek-speaking free men could compete. For most events, they competed naked. In the 30 days prior to competition, athletes should abstain from sex and meat.
The Perseus Project said authorities barred women from competing. It was a capital crime for married women to attend. Young girls could, however, attend. The ancient Olympics were part of the cult of Zeus.
The cult of Hera, however, had running races for women in Olympia. Three races took place. One for girls, one for teenage girls and one for young women. Unfortunately, very few of these foot races have survived.
The sacred truce
National Geographic noted that the Greek world put an end to organized violence at these games. This truce protected the people who went to the games. During this truce, the Greek armies would stop waging wars. Truces frequently held. A similar truce occurred during the Eleusinian rites.
The ceremonial complex
Olympia was home to a large ceremonial complex as well as a stadium. The complex contained a sacred grove for Zeus, an altar of ashes for Zeus, and a temple for Zeus. Befitting a polytheistic culture, there were also 70 altars for sacrifices, each to a different god.
The ancients called the sacred grove of Zeus at Olympia “Altis”. It was shaped like an irregular quadrilateral with sides measuring 183 meters (600.4 ft). The Altis also housed other altars and votive offerings. The Greek city-states had small treasures in the Altis.
Theoi quoted Pausanias, a Greek traveler, who lived from around 110 to 180 CE. He described his experience in the sanctuary. He said that after leaving the temple of Zeus, a person would climb into the citadel. From there, they could see several temples: that of Dionysius Nyctelius (Nocturne), that of Aphrodite Epitrophia, and that of Zeus Conius. Nearby stood the Chamber of Demeter. Other temples in the area included those of Isis, Apollo and Artemis.
The altar of the ashes of Zeus
The Joukowsky Institute for Archeology and the Ancient World at Brown University explained that the Greeks did not build the altar of Zeus at Olympia out of stone. The accumulation of hundreds of years of bones and ashes made the altar. At each sacrifice, the priests would place another femur wrapped in fat on the altar and burn it. In the second century AD, Pausanias estimated its height. Modern scholars have converted its measurement into modern measurements. It would have been 7 meters (22 feet) tall.
It is suspected that on hot days the altar would have given off a memorable aroma.
This ash altar dedicated to Zeus marked the spot where a thunderbolt struck, long before the ancient games began. The myth says that Zeus threw it himself from Mount Olympus, on the other side of Greece.
The Temple of Zeus
Inside the Temple of Zeus stood the statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the Greco-Roman world. Historians have estimated that it would have reached over 12 meters (40 ft) high. Sculptors used ivory and gold for the face of Zeus. Clay and gypsum made up the rest of the statue.
Ancient games were organized around the cult of Zeus. Unfortunately, that sounded the death knell. In 393 CE, the fanatical Christian emperor Theodosius banned pagan rituals throughout the Empire, ending the games for 1,500 years, but not forever. The modern Olympics began in 1896.
Today, the Olympics are resolutely secular, more inclusive and more egalitarian than in the past. They created their own rituals and traditions, and yet the pageantry of the ancient Olympic games still persists.