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Ancient Greek Olympic Games and Women

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Ancient Greek Olympic Games and Women

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Olympia

Olympia was a cult site in the Northwestern Peloponnesus near Ellis. Even in Archaic times the site included a temple of Hera and of Zeus, as well as the Stadium. The land around the site was unproductive and could not be used for agriculture. Early Greece developed as a number of city states and it is plain that Olympia was a neutral and international site that served them all. The athletic contests that were held there were part of a larger goal of providing a neutral place where influential citizens could meet and settle differences or communicate on matters of politics and trade. Other events were also held that emphasized the religious nature of the activities. It is certain that the athletes felt that their contribution was religious in nature.

The following story is told in the Olympian 10.55 of Pindar of the first Olympics:

"Time moved forward and told the clear and precise story, how Heracles divided the gifts of war and sacrificed the finest of them, and how he established the four years' festival with the first Olympic games and its victories. Who won the first garland, with the skill of his hands or feet or chariot, setting the boast of victory in his mind and achieving it with his deeds? In the foot race the best at running the straight course with his feet was the son of Licymnius, Oeonus, who had come from Midea at the head of an army. In wrestling, Echemus won glory for Tegea. And the prize in boxing was won by Doryclus, who lived in the city of Tiryns. And in the four-horse chariot the victor was Samos of Mantinea, the son of Halirhothius. Phrastor hit the mark with the javelin. Niceus sent the stone flying from his circling arm beyond all the others, and his fellow soldiers raised a sudden burst of loud cheering. The lovely light of the moon's beautiful face lit up the evening and in the delightful festivities the whole precinct rang with a song in praise of victory."

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Ancient Greek Olympic Games and Women

Hesiod Theogony (ll. 429) "Good is she(Hecate) also when men contend at the games, for there too the goddess is with them and profits them: and he who by might and strength gets the victory wins the rich prize easily with joy, and brings glory to his parents."

Pausanias, 5.7.1, states: "As for the Olympic games, the most learned antiquaries of Elis say that Cronus was the first king of heaven, and that in his honor a temple was built in Olympia by the men of that age, who were named the Golden Race. When Zeus was born, Rhea entrusted the guardianship of her son to the Dactyls of Ida, who are the same as those called Curetes. They came from Cretan Ida--Heracles, Paeonaeus, Epimedes, Iasius and Idas. [7] Heracles, being the eldest, matched his brothers, as a game, in a running-race, and crowned the winner with a branch of wild olive, of which they had such a copious supply that they slept on heaps of its leaves while still green. It is said to have been introduced into Greece by Heracles from the land of the Hyperboreans, men living beyond the home of the North Wind. [8]"

In the book "Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion" by Jane Ellen Harrison there is a chapter on the ancient Olympic games by F. M. Cornford. He thinks the origin of the Olympic games is much older than what was thought by Pausanius. And he thinks women were very important in the founding of the Olympics. Before the events described by Pausanius the calendar was set by the moon. There was a need to select a moon-bride because in the early times women were more important for religious ceremonies. Originally Cornford felt this was an annual affair. It was decided to use a footrace to determine who would become the moon-bride. After a while, as the sun became more important, it was decided to use a similar foot race to choose a sun-bridegroom for the moon-bride. He believes that the Olympic festival was originally similar to the Laconian Karnia. That festival was held annually but every four years an especially spendid festival was held. The young man who won was decked out in garlands and a skin so as to be the 'muming representative of the daimon' who embodied the luck of the year.

Herarea participants Girls running in the Herarea to determine the Moon-maiden.

The Herarea was the first to separate off from this ancient festival. "This festival was held every fourth year. A college called the Sixteen Women wove a robe for Hera and held the games. The race was run between virgin girls who ran in order of age, the youngest first and the eldest last. The course was what is now the olympic stadium less about one-sixth of its length. Since the Herarea was held perhaps 2 years away from the male games at Olympia it is conceivable that the facilities at Olympia were used by the women. To the winner was given a crown of olives and a share of the cow sacrificed to Hera. The winners were able to dedicate statues of themselves. The girl-runner in the Vatican is probably one of these. On a stump beside the girl is a palm branch, a symbol of victory. There is also a Spartan statue of a girl running. On that statue the hairs are left hanging down, while her tunic reaches a little above the knee and her right shoulder is bare, as far as the breast. When the Olympics were founded its dates had to accomodate the dates of the Herarea.

This development relates to Hera and hero. A hera is a feminine hero. The Herarea selects the girl hera who is worthy to receive the hero that is selected by the Olympics. The Olympics started as a form of hero worship that provides a hero of both sexes. The union of these was thought to provide the most beneficial cosmic result. That Hera was queen of the heavens seems to suggest that marriage has cosmic implications. In the early days of the Olympics both the hero and his bride were selected by a footrace. Later other events were added and the bride was isolated from the hero in her own festival. Herakles is often mentioned as starting the olympics but he is just an example of a hero. Pelops also serves as an example of the hero while his bride, Hippodamia, is an example of the hera or moon-maiden. Hera became the bride of the ultimate hero Zeus. And so the Olympics became a religious festival for Zeus.

The Olympics were held in Olympia in the northwest Peloponessus in southern Greece from 776 BCE until they were prohibited by the Romans in 394 AD. They consisted of a chariot race, a boxing match, wrestling, a footrace, a sword duel, and archery. The archeological investigation of Olympia stimulated the modern Olympic games which began in Athens in 1896. All the buildings in ancient Olympia were for religious worship or for athletic games.

Mainly men participated, because it was a religious festival for men. Proper women were not allowed as spectators. It was said that women who were caught would be thrown off a cliff. But no one ever was. Even so there were women who participated. Of course many of the men were followed by their female companions, the hetaerae. Other men did not want to cross their wives so they snuck them in. Finally there were the women who actually competed. In the 3rd Century Cynisca, the daughter of the King of Sparta, won several victories in the chariot races. Other women followed her. She bred her own horses and was the first woman in recorded history to do so.

In the Electra of Sophocles it is mentioned that Orestes participated in games similar to the Olympics. This would have been about 1175 BCE, well before the ancient Olympics line 693

"Having gone to the shrine which is Greece's common glory in order to compete for Delphi's prizes and having heard the herald's loud summons to the foot-race, the first contest, [685] he entered the lists, a brilliant form, a wonder in the eyes of all there. When he had finished the race at the point where it began, he went out with the glorious honor of victory. To say the most with the least words, I do not know the man whose deeds and triumphs have matched his. [690] But this one thing you must know: in all the contests that the judges announced, he carried away the prize, and men deemed him happy as often as the herald proclaimed him an Argive, by name Orestes, son of [695] Agamemnon, who once marshalled Greece's famous expedition."

The women had their own festivals which sometimes excluded the men. The Herea involved a footrace. More common were festivals involved with dancing and singing in choruses. There may have even been beauty contests such as the Judgement of Paris. Minos may have used a beauty contest to select the victims that were sent to the Minotaur. The women were not as literate as the men so their activities are not as well recorded.

The developments that took place in Greek sport between Homeric times and the 5th century BC included: Athletic contests established as important religious events even before the Trojan war, by the time of Homer the Olympics were established. Within the next 250 years other athletic events were established and the performing in the nude was established. At first only running was included but as time went on other events are established. The idea that these events were politically neutral was also established. Wars and battles were stopped to accomodate some of the games.

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Ancient Olympic Ceremonies

The ceremonies began with the official oath that was taken by the athletes at the altar of Horkios Zeus, in the Bouleuterion, swearing that they would compete with honour and respect the rules.

The words to the oath the athletes had to take: It was the custom for athletes, their fathers and their brothers, as well as their trainers, to swear an oath, upon slices of boar's flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training. An oath is also taken by those who examine the boys, or the foals entering for races, that they will decide fairly and without taking bribes, and that they will keep secret what they learn about a candidate, whether accepted or not. (Pausanias 5.24.9ff)

Other special ceremonies took place during the Olympics

During the Olympics a temporary community was set up for the visitors and participants. Some indication of the situation can be gathered from the following:

"Again, on going to Olympia, he tried to rival Cimon in his banquets and booths and other brilliant appointments, so that he displeased the Hellenes. For Cimon was young and of a great house, and they thought they must allow him in such extravagances; but Themistocles had not yet become famous, and was thought to be seeking to elevate himself unduly without adequate means, and so was charged with ostentation." Plut. Them. 5.3

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Ancient Olympic Training

Formal education in ancient Greece may have begun at Olympia. When the decision to run the Olympics nude was made the need for a place to prepare for the Olympics by removing clothing became evident. Other preparations were recognized and a gymnasium was built. This word means the place of nudity. Other preparations involved training that could be quite punitive as the trainers are often shown with a switch for punishing athletes. The following suggests that the training period might be as long as 10 months: Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.24.9; "Beside this image (Statue of Zeus) it is the custom for athletes, their fathers and their brothers, as well as their trainers, to swear an oath upon slices of boar's flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games. The athletes take this further oath also, that for ten successive months they have strictly followed the regulations for training."

Athletes usually spent some time before the Olympics at Olympia, There they were involved with strict rituals. One such practice was described by Plato as follows: Plato, Laws, 8.839e: "Do we not know by report about Iccus of Tarentum, because of his contests at Olympia and elsewhere,—[840a] how, spurred on by ambition and skill, and possessing courage combined with temperance in his soul, during all the period of his training (as the story goes) he never touched a woman, nor yet a boy? And the same story is told about Crison and Astylus and Diopompus and very many others."

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Olympic Games for Women

Olympia, the site of the men's olympics, provided an opportunity for female athletes. Every four years the Sixteen Women and other married women organized The Heraea Games for maiden competitors. Pausanias indicates these games consisted of footraces, and the maidens competed against other maidens of the same age. The maiden athletes competed in the Olympic stadium but it was shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length The Heraea Games did not have the prestige of the men's Olympic competition, but the Greeks still regarded them as a serious athletic event. The victors were well honored. Pausanias says "To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed on them" (Pausanias, 5.16.3).

Pausanias also states (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.16.2): "The games consist of foot-races for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. They run in the following way: their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them."

A bronze statue which fits the description of these girls exists at the British museum: click here

The Ancient Greeks had many religious festivals for only one sex. They liked to think that men and women had different roles in life and that they were not meant to compete. The fact that the men performed naked was not a reason. In the myths Atalanta was able to compete with men both in running and wrestling. The women of ancient Sparta did participate in athletic training. There was some indication that the women participated in their own festival, the Herarea at Olympia, but this was not well documented. Eventually women did participate in the chariot races with the men.

In the Description of Greece 5.6.7 Pausanias states:

"As you go from Scillus along the road to Olympia, before you cross the Alpheius,there is a mountain with high, precipitous cliffs. It is called Mount Typaeum. It is a law of Elis to cast down it any women who are caught present at the Olympic games, or even on the other side of the Alpheius, on the days prohibited to women. However, they say that no woman has been caught, except Callipateira only; some, however, give the lady the name of Pherenice and not Callipateira.

[8] She, being a widow, disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus, for so her son was called, was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, bared her person. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip before entering the arena."

The time of Classical Greece was a time of radical change in society but it was not a time when women gained any rights. What they got was a system of law in which they received some protection, but only in reference to the rights of their husbands or other male relatives. Women were able to participate in sports because it was a practice in the past. Society at this time was very much bound by tradition and ritual. What was different about the Greeks was that their rituals seemed so much more productive than those of other societies. Women did obtain a release from the taboos of other societies. Though they secluded themselves they obtained freedom from rituals that restricted their lives and activities in other societies.

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Plato on Athletic Competitions for Women

Plato wrote that women should be involved in athletic competitions. He felt that women should be trained to defend the country and he reasoned that athletic competitions would support this. The following quotes support his ideas:

Plato, Laws, 7.804d: "For females, too, my law will lay down the same regulations as for men, and training of an identical kind. I will unhesitatingly affirm that neither riding nor gymnastics, which are proper for men, are improper for women. I believe the old tales I have heard, and I know now of my own observation, that there are practically countless myriads of women called Sauromatides, in the district of Pontus, upon whom equally with men is imposed the duty of handling bows and other weapons, as well as horses, and who practice it equally. In addition to this I allege the following argument. Since this state of things can exist, I affirm that the practice which at present prevails in our districts is a most irrational one—namely, that men and women should not all follow the same pursuits with one accord and with all their might. For thus from the same taxation and trouble there arises and exists half a State only instead of a whole one, in nearly every instance;"

Plato, Laws, 8.833c: "In the case of females, we shall ordain races of a furlong, a quarter-mile, a half-mile, and a three-quarters for girls under the age of puberty, who shall be stripped, and shall race on the course itself; and girls over thirteen shall continue to take part until married, up to the age of twenty at most, or at least eighteen; but these, when they come forward and compete in these races, must be clad in decent apparel."

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Pictures of Ancient Women Athletes

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Sports Trophies

In the Description of Greece 5.7.7 Pausanias tells the story of Herakles and the victor wreath:

"[7] Heracles, being the eldest, matched his brothers, as a game, in a running-race, and crowned the winner with a branch of wild olive, of which they had such a copious supply that they slept on heaps of its leaves while still green. It is said to have been introduced into Greece by Heracles from the land of the Hyperboreans, men living beyond the home of the North Wind."

Pictures of the wreath that was worn by the victors?

Answer: Click on each of the following links:

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Famous Women Athletes in Ancient Greece

Some of the more famous woman athletes during the archaic and classical periods:

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Rules of Sports

There were judges who had the power to punish rule breakers. In the following images the figure with the long stick may be a judge. He is ready to administer punishment as soon a a rule is broken.

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Boxing in Ancient Greece

Boxing was a combat event in which competitors wore leather straps to protect their hands. They fought without a break until one gave in or could not go on. The gloves were more to protect the hands of the boxer than to protect the opponent. Boxing was added in the 23rd Olympiad in 688 BCE.

"Pyx" (πύξ , with the fist, from Indo-European 'pēu- : pəu- : pū̆-', 'to hit; sharp') is the Greek word for boxing.

Theogenes (about 480 BCE):

The ancient historians slipped up and called Theogenes' father Timosthenes instead of Timoxenus. The statue of Theogenes at Thasos fell on an enemy, was cast into the sea and recovered by fishermen and restored to alleviate a famine. As a result he was worshipped as a hero. Theogenes is said to have won 1300 of 1400 times in the olympics and in other similar contests as a boxer and a pancratiast. He even won once in the long race at Phthia. He wanted to win a prize in the homeland of Achilles, the swiftest of heroes. Theogenes was unbeaten in boxing for nearly 22 years. This information is from the book by Golden.

Click hereRoman copy of Greek original attributed to Apollonius. Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy, supposedly of Theogenes.

Pictures of leather thongs used for ancient greek boxing:

Answer:

Rules of ancient Greece's boxing:

: There seem to have been few rules. Boxing allowed contestants to wrap their hands to protect them but they got no breaks. The victory was declared when one contestant could do nothing more.

Ancient boxers wore nothing for clothes. The ancient Athletes performed in the nude.

pictures of a man and woman boxer.

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Footraces in Ancient Greece

The Olympic program included the 200 m foot race and the 400 m foot race, and the long footrace.

Women had their own festival where they competed in foot races.

The first Olympics was a footrace run in 776 BCE.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.16.1 "Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen women, and the same also hold games called Heraea. The games consist of foot-races for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. They run in the following way: [3] their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them. Those who administer to the Sixteen are, like the presidents of the games, married women. [4] The games of the maidens too are traced back to ancient times;..."

Pictures:

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Chariot races in Ancient Greece

A chariot is a two-wheeled cart drawn by one or more horses. The driver stands in the cart. Chariots were made out of wood, leather, bone, ivory, bronze, copper, or iron. Chariots were a street vehicle, but they raced them in special stadiums called a hippodrome. As long as there were chariots there were chariot races. They became part of the Olympics in 680 BCE. Chariots were raced during the Trojan war and before. In the ancient Olympics there was a 4-horse chariot race and a 2-horse chariot race. A four hourse chariot race is called a quadriga race. This was the most spectacular event at the Olympics. This was an aristocratic event used to compete for status by wealthy patrons. These races were run in a Hippodrome.

As to the history of the chariot race, Oemomaus was the kin of Pisa, son of Alxion and Harpina, and the husband of Sterope. He offered the hand of his daughter Hippodamia to the victor in a chariotrace. He then raced the suitors and cut off the heads of all the suitors he defeated. Hippodamia loved Pelops and when Pelops came to race, she convinced Myrtilus, her father's charioteer to betray her father. Oenomaus was dragged to death by his own horses horses. Pelops deposed him and became king. Pelops was the son of Tantalus and the founder of a dynasty with a porpoise as a totem. The Peloponesus is named for him. He was one of the first to hold games in honor of Zeus. A number of myths are associated with him, but the most relevant seems to be the one that involved a chariot race to win his wife. See: Pausanias, 5.8.2

Pelops was the grandfather of Agamemnon and so his chariot race happened before the Trojan war. The records of the ancient olympics start in 776 BCE with only running races. The four-horse chariot race was added in 680 BCE and the two-horse race was added in 408 BCE. A quadriga is a four-horse chariot. A biga is a two horse chariot.

Images of Ancient Chariots

Ancient chariot races were limited by the fact that on the course the racers were required to turn at a post. Under these circumstances even three would be a lot and a dozen would be silly.

The only event that women were allowed to enter in the olympics was the chariot races, and it is not clear whether they were allowed to drive. Nor is it clear what the drivers wore.

Films or pictures showing women driving in chariot races:

In the Description of Greece 3.8.1 Pausanias states:

"Archidamus had also a daughter, whose name was Cynisca; she was exceedingly ambitious to succeed at the Olympic games, and was the first woman to breed horses and the first to win an Olympic victory. After Cynisca other women, especially women of Lacedaemon, have won Olympic victories, but none of them was more distinguished for their victories than she."

For a reference on chariot racing Click on the Menu Directory below and click on Bibliography. The book by Mark Golden has this information.

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Clothing, or lack of it in the Ancient Olympics

They wore in the Olympics very little. The Olympics were held in the heat of the summer. For safety men performed in the nude. Women wore a simple tunic. Nudity of men was a tradition that was maintained because the Greeks thought it made the sports safer. It also obviously reduced certain kinds of cheating. In the event of a conflict naked participants are easier to control because they had no weapons hidden in their clothes.

The judges wore clothes and the spectators wore clothes. At first the trainers wore clothes, but later they did not.

During the Heraea, the olympics for women, the women performed in tunics. The only event that women were allowed to enter in the olympics was the chariot races, and it is not clear whether they were allowed to drive. Nor is it clear what the drivers wore. Women in Sparta were encouraged to perform their athletics in the nude so they would attract a husband who would get them pregnant. The tradition is that they appeared nude at beauty contests such as the Judgement of Paris.

Athletes performed in the nude during the classical period for the last time.

The reason for performing in the nude is lost in myth, but it became customary. A number of good reasons can be given. But performing in the nude provided an identity for the Greeks since no one else did it.

The Greeks liked Athletic types of competition while other countries did not. The fact that they performed in the nude also served to identify the Greeks as a unique culture.

At first they did not perform in the nude, but later they decided that the men should perform in the nude. When the women performed at Olympia in the Heraea they wore a tunic.

The word gymnasium translates as a place where men exercise in the nude, so it does not indicate a specific facility. The fundamental structures used by Greek athletes in training were the practice rack, bath house, and wrestling school. Formal competition took place in a stadium, a great public arena, sited where the one constructed for the 1896 Olympics now stands. reference

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Relation of Ancient Olympics to Modern Olympics.

The idea of the modern Olympics came from the archeological discoveries at Olympia during the 19th century, but the Olympics in ancient times was more local. The idea was to have a sports event that would substitute for war. It did not work because the worst wars ever were in the 20th century. But the world likes the idea of the Olympics, so we still have it. The ancient Greeks had torch races, which may have given the idea of lighting the torch at the modern olympics. In ancient times the winner light the torch on an altar.

The marathon race is named after a famous run duning the Persian wars to announce the victory at Marathon in 490 BCE. This was 286 years after the start of the ancient Olympics. The first marathon race was run in 1894 at the first modern olympic games.

The modern marathon race is based on the fact that Pheidippides, a professional messenger, ran from Athens to Marathon to join the battle there, then he ran back to Athens with the words "Greetings, we win!" and then dropped dead. The length of the marathon is the distance he ran from Marathon to Athens. Just before the battle he is supposed to have run to Sparta and back to Marathon to request the help of the Spartan army. There was no marathon in the ancient Olympics.

Citius,Altius,Fortius is Latin for "Faster,Higher,Braver". This might have related to the later olympics, but not the ancient Greek. Baron de Coubertin borrowed the motto from Father Henri Martin Dideon, the headmaster of Arcueil College in Paris. Father Dideon used the motto to describe the great achievements of the athletes at his school. Coubertin felt it could be used to describe the goals of great athletes all over the World. According to most accounts, the rings were adopted by Baron Pierre de Coubertin (founder of the modern Olympic Movement) in 1913 after he saw a similar design on an artifact from ancient Greece.

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Games Ancient Greeks Played

The games of the Olympics were individual competitions. They did play team or group games in other contexts. Especially at Sparta there were team sports involving a ball. There were also board games illustrated as follows:

In the Odyssey there is this quote (Book IV) that is informative: "Meanwhile, in front of Odysseus' palace, the Suitors in their usual free and easy way were amusing themselves with quoits and javelin-throwing on the level ground where we have seen them at their sports before."

The Olympic program included the following competitions: 200 m foot race, 400 m foot race, long foot race, pentathlon, wrestling, boxing, 4-horse chariot race, pankration, a race in armour, mule car race, mares race, 2-horse chariot race, trumpeters, heralds.

The pentathlon (πενταέθλιον) consisted of five separate parts: ἅλμα (jump), ποδωκείην (footrace), δίσκον (discus), ἄκοντα (javelin), πάλην (wrestling). The word 'penthatlon' itself means 5 prizes.

In the Odyssey Nausica takes her maids and servants out to wash clothes. While the clothes are drying in the sun "When they had done dinner they threw off the veils that covered their heads and began to play at ball, while Nausicaa sang for them. (Book VI)

One has to wonder if Ariadne is supervising a sporting event in the Iliad: "Furthermore he wrought a green, like that which Daedalus once made in Cnossus for lovely Ariadne. Hereon there danced youths and maidens whom all would woo, with their hands on one another's wrists. The maidens wore robes of light linen, and the youths well woven shirts that were slightly oiled. The girls were crowned with garlands, while the young men had daggers of gold that hung by silver baldrics; sometimes they would dance deftly in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as it were a potter sitting at his work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will run, and sometimes they would go all in line with one another, and much people was gathered joyously about the green. There was a bard also to sing to them and play his lyre, while two tumblers went about performing in the midst of them when the man struck up with his tune." (Book XVIII)

It is in such a context that archeology has determined that the sport of bull leaping took place.

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Resources

Web sites about the ancient Olympic games:

Books:

Images

The Politics of the Olympics

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Ask a Question about Women in Ancient Greek Sports


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Answered Questions about Women in the Ancient Olympics.

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