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THE MYTHIC ORIGINS
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The Spirit of Place and the Soul of Sports
With regard to the Olympic games, the Elean antiquaries say that Kronos first reigned in Heaven, and that a temple was made for him by the men of that age, who were named the Golden Race ...
— Pausanius, second century C.E.
The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part; the important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.
— Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement
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Never a city, always a sanctuary, Olympia has been regarded as a sacred site for untold thousands of years. The spirit is strong there, the sense of presence undeniable. The roots of reverence run deep. If Delphi was the omphalos, the mythic navel, of the ancient Greek world, then Olympia was its mythic heart.
Olympia lies a few miles from the sea in the northern Peloponnese, in a serene valley flanked by mountains at the point where the Alpheios River meets the Kladeos. Situated thirty miles from the nearest major city, Elis, which ruled over the sanctuary through its glory days, Olympia is worlds apart from the rocky reality of other Greek sites. Warm, fertile, and scented by wildflowers, the voluptuous valley was beloved by the ancient Greeks. Their poets wrote that its tranquility inspired the idea of reconciliation among the constantly warring city-states whose citizens visited the sanctuary. The Greek word for the area—Arcadia—has come down to us virtually unchanged as the name of a distant paradise, a region of simple pleasures and untroubled people. As Roberto Calasso writes, "Olympia was the home of happiness to the ancient Greeks, who knew unhappiness better than any other people." This mythic memory is a key to understanding the grip the Olympics have had on the world's imagination for the past twenty-eight hundred years.
The sacred nature of Olympia was recognized by its earliest settlers and pilgrims, who believed the land belonged to the gods and goddesses. They sought out the oracle who dwelled in a rock cleft high on the Hill of Kronus; made sacrifices at the altars of the goddess Ge, or Gaia; conducted rituals in honor of Themis, goddess of justice; and held fertility festivals in honor of the earth mother, Ilithyia, and her divine child, Sosipolis.
According to ancient Greek history, Olympia was the site of various funeral games, military exercises, or local religious events as early as the thirteenth century b.c.e. Then a hundred years later, in the twelfth century B.C.E., waves of tribes—Achaeans, Dorians, and Elians—descended from the north and inundated the valley. These early Greek immigrants muscled their way into the goddesses' ancient sanctuary along the banks of the Alpheus and replaced them with their agrarian warrior god, Zeus. This transfer of power was symbolically portrayed in Olympia's founding myth when Zeus boldly claimed ownership of the sacred grove with a single javelinlike toss of his thunderbolt from his palace on Mount Olympus, as if signifying the spirit of the human ritual play that would follow. The scorched bit of earth where his bolt struck was marked by the ashen altar where Zeus was later worshipped, and the sacred ground in front of the altar became the staging area for the first athletic contests.
Legend has it that these rudimentary competitions were first organized into distinct Games in the twelfth century B.C.E. by their leader, King Oxylus. For the next few centuries, the Elians paid tribute to Zeus in the form of sacrifices, prayers, and races held in the sacred precinct. Then, for reasons lost to the ravages of time, the Games were abandoned. Ancient chronicles tell us that by the eighth century B.C.E. the Greeks had forgotten the Games ever existed—and were in dire misery because of it. They needed divine inspiration to remind them about the healing power of ritual play and peaceful competition. When the Games resumed in 776 B.C.E., they were considered sacred contests. Their revival so impressed the Greeks that they declared that date the very beginning of their history, and it is when the Greek calendar officially starts. From then on, the whole society measured time, not in political terms, as we might refer to "the Kennedy era," but in terms of their most revered champion sprinters—as in, "Back in the time of Ageus of Argos, victor in the 113th Olympiad ..."
THE FIRST REVIVAL
But how did it all begin? asks Italian classical scholar Roberto Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, his spellbinding book on Greek mythology. As he suggests by incantatorily posing this question again and again, if you want to know the many-layered meanings of the sacred stories that describe our bittersweet relationship with the gods, you must seek out the origins of everything that matters to the soul.
But how did it all begin? This is the question that launched a thousand myths. The ship of sacred story sets sail every time a human being asks how things came to be. Our ancient and modern myths are deep narratives that provide us with the inner meaning of outer events, root stories that allow us to trace things down to their depths.
Given the power and influence of myth, it is helpful for anyone who seriously questions the relevance of the ancient or modern Olympics to seek their mythic origins. Unless we distinguish the nature of those origins and understand how they still influence us today, David C. Young writes, "We will never perceive how legitimate it is to call our modern Games 'Olympic Games.'"
The mythic origins of Olympia's sacred games—symbolically the dawn of organized athletic activity for the entire Western world—is a tale with a thousand faces. Myths are protean—shape-shifting and ever-changing—because the truth of our interior life is inexhaustible. Thus, the ancients said, there is no one true reading of a myth. All versions are true because all are needed to complete the original story. For this reason, all of the Olympic origin stories bear repeating at the beginning of every modern version of the Games.
Some say the polyfabulous—many-storied—Games began when Zeus wrestled with his father, Kronus, the Titan god of time, on the hilltop overlooking the sacred grove at Olympia. This wrestling match would become symbolic of the titanic struggle with time itself, as well as the inborn competition between fathers and sons.
By the fifth century B.C.E., the honor of founding the Games had been passed to Herakles. One variation of the story tells of his arrival from Mount Ida on Crete, olive branch in hand, with his four brothers, who slept on olive branches with him and ran against him in a footrace. Herakles himself measured the distance they would run by pacing six hundred steps, or two hundred meters, which was called a stadia, the origins of our word stadium. The great hero is also credited with declaring that the Games be held every fifth year (by the ancient Greek calendar; four by our modern calendar) in honor of himself and his four brothers. The memory of these heroic gestures instilled in the ancient Greeks the ideal of brotherhood being sustained even in the heat of competition. The recognition of teammates and opponents alike as brothers or sisters remains one of the goals of modern sports.
Pindar, visiting Olympia in the first century, heard another version of the Herakles founding myth. The Games were established, he was told, after Herakles' victory over Augeas, when the hero ingeniously diverted a local river to clean the noxious stables. In William H. Race's translation, Pindar's Eleventh Olympian Ode reads:
Thereupon, Zeus' valiant son gathered the entire army
And all the booty of Pisa,
And measured out a sacred precinct for his father
Most mighty. He fenced in the Altis and set it apart
In the open, and he made the surrounding plain
A resting place for banqueting ...
and at that founding ceremony
The fates stood near at hand,
As did the sole assayer
Of genuine truth, Time ...
He then founded
The quadrennial festival with the first Olympiad
And its victories.
Herakles' godlike feats of strength, courage, and selflessness of spirit became the model for athletes all over the ancient Greek world. Yet he embodied the very spirit of the ancient Greeks for reasons beyond his legendary power: he was loved by the gods—so much so that they allowed him to become one himself.
Another origin myth attributes the Games' founding to Pelops. One of the great authorities on the Olympics, E. Norman Gardiner, writes, "Pelops was certainly the chief local hero of Olympia. There he had a shrine and was worshipped as a hero. In late times it was supposed that the [Olympic] festival originated in the funeral games held at his tomb."
The grisly story of Pelops, son of Tantalus, torn asunder by his father and brought back to life by the pitying gods, is suffused with symbolism. After the gods revived him they gave him a golden chariot, which he used to drive across the Aegean in search of a wife. He took up the challenge for the hand of a beautiful princess, Hippodameia, daughter of Oenomaus, king of Pisa, near Elis. All he had to do was compete in a do-or-die chariot race against her father. If he lost, he would be slain by the king. Twelve other suitors had died for lack of speed and cunning. Pelops swore he would not be the thirteenth. He bribed Myrtilus, the king's master charioteer, to replace the iron thole pins in the king's chariot with wax pins, and near the end of the race the king was thrown to his death. Pelops won the princess and the kingdom. In thanksgiving, it was said, Pelops founded the Games, highlighted by chariot races that were a ritual reenactment of his own triumph over an otherwise cruel fate.
However, as the story reminds us, Pelops paid a price for his chicanery. Soon after the chariot race he silenced the king's charioteer by hurling him over a nearby cliff, but not before Myrtilus cursed Pelops and all his descendants, which included his doomed sons, Atreus and Thyestes.
Compressed into this grim but poignant story are threads relevant to our own athletic competition—the reward that often comes out of a life of sacrifice, the cosmic marriage of beauty and strength, the metaphor of life as a race against death, the dire price that is paid for attempting to win at all costs.
Each variation on the origins of the ancient Olympic Games so far related rings out with rich insight, but perhaps the most compelling of all is the legend from the Greek Dark Ages, around the ninth century b.c.e., concerning King Iphitus of Elis, a descendant of King Oxylus.
According to the chronicles, King Iphitus grieved deeply. His land had been laid to waste by endless war and plague. As was the custom of the time for peasants and kings alike, he sought advice from the oracle of Delphi. Upon his arrival at the temple of Apollo, the good king told the priestess he longed to know a way to end the warfare and heal the disease that ravaged his land.
As Judith Swaddling of the British Museum writes, "The priestess advised that he should restore the Olympic Games and declare a truce for their duration." For King Iphitus, the priestess's pithy reply was clear enough, but he wondered about the deeper implications of her holy counsel. Tradition tells us that Iphitus nevertheless eventually signed a treaty with Lycourgos, king of Sparta, and Cleisthenes, king of Pisa, to ensure no fighting for a month before and after the festival so pilgrims, spectators, athletes, and trainers could travel safely and coexist peacefully at Olympia. The treaty was inscribed on a discus and kept in the Herarion, the temple to Hera, at Olympia.
Regardless of whether the oracle's role in the story is history or fiction, Swaddling adds, the astonishing longevity of the Games speaks to the truce's vitality. "The Olympic Truce was a major instrument in the unification of the Greek states and colonies."
For historians and literary scholars, the legend of the king and the oracle is evidence that organized games were staged at Olympia at least a century before 776 B.C.E., the Games' official beginning. Historically, the treaty helped forge the national and spiritual unity of the Greek nation, but mythically its message of peaceful reconciliation extended across centuries to influence the later revival of the Games, in Athens in 1896—as well as to provide hope for fans of the modern Games.
The legend of King Iphitus reveals another aspect of athletics' spiritual dimension. The king's pilgrimage to the oracle and her response reveal that sacred games—athletic competition with a deeper purpose—are divinely inspired as a way to help human beings sublimate their most violent instincts. The legend says that there was a time when we played sacred games and that they helped make us peaceful. The world is at war, it says, because we have forgotten how to compete in the game of life. We must remember how to participate in competitions not for ourselves alone but for the honor of the gods, our families, or our homelands.
In his guidebook to the Olympic ruins, Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronicos comments on the Games' subliminal message: "The supreme significance of the Games demanded that all be present in peaceful assembly in the sacred grove." Both athletes and spectators, he says, couldn't help but notice that friends and foes alike were mingling peacefully without fear of violence. Often, men who had fought one another in battle were now fighting in peace. The Games were a golden opportunity for one and all to contemplate the dream of Greek unity.
No one pretended that the Games would permanently replace war. The Greeks loved battle too much—as symbolized by the marriage of Aphrodite and Ares, the gods of love and war—to dispense with it permanently. But as their mythic marriage shows, the fusion of the two—loving combat—can bring Harmony (the name of their love child) into the world.
Mythically and psychologically, this is what the ancient Games provided—an ideal, a model, along the lines of the inspired dramas of Euripides, the poems of Pindar, and the speeches of Pericles—a transcendent vision of our better selves. The loss of this uplifting vision, the legend suggests, leads to disintegration of the land and despair, as embodied by the sorrowful king.
The Olympic Games evolved into the time and place where Greeks of all city-states came together for religious ceremonies, artistic and athletic competition, and opportunities for reconciliation. Historian Will Durant writes in The Life of Greece, "Religion failed to unify Greece, athletics—periodically—succeeded ... Under the rubric of athletics we find the real religion of the Greeks—the worship of health, beauty, and strength."
Third-century Greek poet Articlorus illuminated the link between religion and sport when he wrote: "Learn the rhythm that binds all men." If sport is the rhythm of movement, religion is the belief system that binds us together (from re-liger). The religion of sport is the love of games, which binds us together as a city, a nation, or ideally, in our own time, the entire human community.
In ancient Greece, inspired by tales of wondrous events, every fourth year pilgrims, athletes, trainers, and spectators made the meandering journey to Olympia from every corner of the known world. The five-day long Olympiad, the Festival of Zeus, combined elaborate religious ceremonies with art and athletics in a fusion of festivities scarcely imaginable today.
For nearly twelve hundred years—293 Olympiads—the pilgrimages and contests continued virtually without interruption. After the Roman occupation of Greece, in 142 b.c.e., however, the Games steadily deteriorated. Finally, in 393 c.e. the crazed Roman emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of all pagan temples throughout the empire, including those at Olympia, and banned the Games. A Christian basilica was constructed over Phidias's workshop, where he had built the statue of Zeus and where, it is rumored, the Venus de Milo was carved. The sanctuary became a marble quarry for distant churches and villas. Earthquakes and floods slowly buried the entire site thirty feet deep in silt.
The last documented champion, his triumph recorded in 369 C.E., was Prince Barasdates, a boxer from Armenia.
THE SECOND REVIVAL: ATHENS, 1896
For the next fifteen hundred years, the fabled Greek ideal of "a healthy mind in a healthy body" faded, like frescoes exposed to light and air. Olympia and her Games were entombed but not forgotten; the stories of valor and strength submerged but not lost, the sacred roots of modern sports smothered with the earth but alive. The Olympic idea of a way of life based on the ideal kalou k'agathou—beauty, health, and virtue—awaited its second revival. In Roman times the purpose of sport was to provide, in Juvenal's famous phrase, "blood and the games of the circus" but also to maintain the high military standards demanded by the emperors. The organized games held in Roman amphitheaters, however, likewise declined, yielding to what John Arlott, in Pageantry of Sport, calls "the localized, sometimes religiously inspired, but largely spontaneous play of the Middle Ages and the extravagancies of the Regency."
Excerpted from The Olympic Odyssey by Phil Cousineau. Copyright © 2003 Phil Cousineau. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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Posted December 11, 2003
I order sports books for the Corona (Calif.) Public Library adult collection and was appalled at the number of factual mistakes that jumped out at me after just a cursory skimming of this book: 1. p. 13, last paragraph: Muhammad Ali did NOT light the Olympic cauldron at the 1992 Barcelona games. He did it at the 1996 Atlanta games. 2. p. 14, caption: same as above PLUS Ali was NOT the Olympic heavyweight champion. He was the lightheavyweight champion. 3. p. 47, top quote: The Tanzanian marathoner's name was NOT Akhwar but AKHWARI (spelling). 4. p. 107, top quote: The 1964 Olympics were in Tokyo, NOT Rome. 5. p. 201, caption: Gebrselassie ran the 10,000 meters, NOT the 1,500. 6. p. 215, caption: Percy Cerutty was an Australian, not a New Zealand, track coach. 7. p. 219, last line: Herb Elliot (book incorrectly spells it 'Eliot') was a 1,500 meter champion, NOT 5,000 meters. 8. p. 220, second paragraph: same as no. 7 What happened with the research and editing? With so many inaccuracies, it's hard to take the book seriously. I'm considering returning it to the publishers. Too bad! I expect many people - including junior high and high school students - to ask for books on the Olympics in 2004, an Olympic year, and this is one book I will definitely NOT recommend to them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.