Origins in Death
The mythological origins of the Olympics, like the origins of the other Panhellenic Games, involve compensation for death (or rituals of initiation), according to Hungarian-born Harvard Classical scholar Gregory Nagy.
In his 1986 article on the 1st Olympian Ode, by Pindar [the Greeks' top lyric poet who is now known for his poems to commemorate Olympic athletes as well as other competitive games], Nagy says the four sets of Panhellenic games were founded by the following Greek heroes as compensations for the following deaths:
|Name of the Panhellenic Game||Founding Hero and Cause|
|Olympics||By Pelops for the death of Oinomaos
or by Herakles, for the death of his great-grandfather, Pelops.
|Pythian||By Apollo for his having killed the Python.|
|Isthmian||By Sisyphos for the death of Melikertes.|
|Nemean||By the Seven against Thebes
or the death, by snakebite, of Opheltes.
Pelops and the Origin of the Olympics
Pindar's Olympian Ode 1 (the one discussed in Nagy's article) celebrates the early 5th century* B.C. Olympic victory of Hieron tyrant of Syracuse in a horse race. Pindar ties the praise of Heiron to a mythological theme, the story of Pelops (son of Tantalus, the horrible father who served up his son -- the same Pelops -- as a feast to test the gods) and the origin of the Olympics.
Although Pelops is associated with a deadly horse race (against Oinomaos) [for that story from Greek mythology, see Olympics Origins II: Curses], the first event at the Olympics was not a horse and chariot-race, but a foot-race. The single course foot-race remained the only event in the Olympics from the first Olympics (dated conventionally to 776) to c. 724 when a double course foot-race was added. In Pindar's day, the 4-horse chariot race was the most prestigious event, but the chariot-race wasn't on the docket until, perhaps, 680. Thus, the pairing of Hieron and Pelops with the origin myths of the Olympics is puzzling.
Nagy says the first Olympics began with a black ram-sacrifice to honor Pelops, unique among humans for having experienced death and rebirth. The gods had restored Pelops after his father, Tantalus, had killed him and Demeter had replaced the shoulder she had eaten with one of ivory. At those early Olympics, the Pelops-honoring ram was slaughtered at the Pelopion, Pelop's burial site, in Olympia. From this bloody site, athletes ran a foot-race to the altar of Zeus where a bull sacrifice, including burning, was performed. Nagy discusses the implications of the blood and burning and their connection to the ritual.
One Woman's Presence Was Mandatory at the All-Male Olympics
To round out the story of Demeter absent-mindedly eating Pelops' shoulder and having to repace it with ivory, alone among women, her priestess was obliged to attend the Olympics.
Pindar Denies the Cannibalism
Pindar mentions, but explicitly disavows the familiar story of cannibalistic feast. He denies that Demeter ate Pelops' shoulder or that Pelops' father, Tantalus, cooked up his son and served in his feast to the gods. Yes, Tantalus provided the gods with a feast, but there was nothing untoward about it. Pindar suggests Pelops was simply born with one ivory shoulder. Hmm....
The crime Tanatalus committed and for which he was sentenced to an eternity of torture, did involve improper food. Tantalus, at one point a close friend of the gods, took advantage of the gods' hospitality, and stole some of the nectar and ambrosia to serve his mortal drinking buddies. The gods found out and were not happy. As a result of his crime, not only would Tantalus endure an eternity of unquenchable thirst and unslakable hunger, but his son Pelops lost his Olympian home.
You might be wondering, "Why did Pelops have an Olympian home?" Poseidon had caught a glimpse of the young Pelops at the feast for the gods Tantalus had served. It was enough for the god to fall in love and abduct the youth. But then, because of the familial disgrace, Pelops had to return to earth.
On earth, Pelops decided he wanted to marry Hippodamia, but to do so, he had to beat her father, King Oinomaos, in a chariot race. Losers of the race were killed. When Pelops asked for help from his divine patron, Poseidon gave it. Pelops won the race; so Oinomaos lost his life and Pelops married his daughter Hippodamia. The Olympic games are often said to have been started to commemorate this death. This provides an aetiology for an Olympics that features chariot racing to honor Pelops' dead father-in-law. A race from Pelops' tomb provides rationale for the an Olympics that features a foot-race to honor the dead hero Pelops. Nagy says these two explanations rest on top of one another.
"As an aition for the foundation of the Olympics from the standpoint of the chariot-race, the myth of the death of Oinomaos would at first seem to be at odds with the myth of the death of Pelops, an aition from the standpoint of the foot-race. But in fact the two layers of myths are integrated into a sequence, just like the two layers of athletic events. Pelops had his chariot-race with Oinomaos after he had been restored to life...."If this interests you, please read Nagy's article, which elaborates Walter Burkert's work on Greek religion and explains the construction of Pindar's Ode. I can't begin to do justice to it in this page on Olympic origins.
"Pindar's Olympian 1 and the Aetiology of the Olympic Games"For more on the conflicting myths about Oinomaos, Hippodamia, and Pelops, see:
Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 116 (1986), pp. 71- 88.
"The Winning of Hippodameia"
Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 130, (2000), pp. 19-40.
* Perseus dates the victory to 476 B.C.
This was originally posted in connection with the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010.
More on the Ancient Olympics
- Cheating at the Olympics
- The Events/Games in the Ancient Olympics
- What's the Ancient History of the Olympic Torch?
- Were There Women at the Ancient Olympic Games?
- Why Weren't Women at the Olympic Games?