The Panhellenic Games
Honoring the Gods involved all aspects of the Panhellenic Games. The agon, or contest, was at the center of life for the Greeks in their striving towards individual excellence, and, at the same time, prepared them both physically and mentally for conflict.
The Olympic Games, held every four years in honor of Zeus, were the first of a series of four Panhellenic contests, founded in 776 BCE. The others were: the Pythian Games – held every four years, near Delphi, in honor of Apollo, the Nemean Games – held every two years, near Nemea, also in honor of Zeus, and the Isthmian Games – held every two years, near Corinth, in honor of Poseidon.
Participation in the games confirmed ones Greekness and fundamentally helped to shape what it meant to be Greek. Greeks became Greek by competing with other Greeks in games that were open to any male individual identified as Greek.
Since each site was dedicated to a god, competitions held there were protected by a Sacred Truce that ended all interstate warfare during the period of the games. This allowed everyone – competitors and audiences alike – the freedom to compete and travel.
According to “The Ancient Olympics and Other Athletic Games” by Alexis Belis at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Contests included footraces, the long jump, diskos and javelin throwing, wrestling, the pentathlon (a combination of these five events), boxing, the pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing), horse races, and chariot races. During competition and training, athletes were usually naked and covered with olive oil to keep off the dust. They trained in the gymnasium or xystos (covered colonnade), often coached by past victors. The Greeks believed that their love for athletics, among other things, distinguished them from non-Greeks, and only Greek citizens were allowed to compete in the games.”
Greek women rarely competed – accept in horse-racing events where they might own the animal – but they were included in the audience, where everyone came together peacefully. In addition to athletics and horse racing, there were music competitions, art competitions, and theatrical competitions.
At the core these were religious events in which the very best in each field was established. These individuals would devote their acts and abilities to the gods; the winners would receive ‘a crown’ of sacred herbs called stefanos. As with Homeric heroes, the winners were commemorated in verse and honored with “undying glory” in odes that connected them to these heroes of old.
Originally individual aristocrats competed on their own behalf, but as city states grew more powerful, these Games became a legitimate venue for the expression of the competitiveness that existed between city-states which sent their best athletes to represent them.
Simultaneously, along with the athletic competitions, music, drama, poetry and visual arts contests were held. Greek legends, myths and rituals were performed in public and attended as part of a Greek’s religious obligation, providing cohesiveness to the political community. There was always a religious element to these celebrations, even if the dominant theme appeared to be something else – such athletic competitions, as we have seen, or theatrical events.
An animated version of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave.