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Were There Women at the Ancient Olympic Games?

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Frieze of Demeter and Persephone Consecrating Triptolemus

Frieze of Demeter and Persephone Consecrating Triptolemus

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Question: Were There Women at the Ancient Olympic Games?
Answer:

Also see: Why Weren't Women Allowed at the Olympics

In Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Donald Kyle addresses the related questions of:

  • whether there were women at the Olympic games, and
  • whether virgins were allowed, but not more mature women,
and tells the story about a transvestite mother who sneaked into the Olympics. The following answer to the question of whether women were allowed at the ancient Olympic games is based mainly on Kyle.

The Olympic games were but one of the panhellenic (open to all Greeks) games, but it was the most prestigious. Most of what we think we know about the Olympics is based on legends, the poetry of the victory ode (epinician) writers, dedicatory statues and vases, and the writing of Pausanias, who lived in the second century A.D., well after the heyday of Classical Greece.

The stories of the origins of the Olympics are mythical. We're not even sure when the games began.

  1. Priestess and Virgins at the Olympics

    Pausanias mentions a priestess of Demeter Chamyne looking on the Olympic games [See Pausanias [6.20.9]]. Some scholars think the cult of Demeter Chamyne in Elis predates the Olympics. Kyle thinks the mention of the priestess could mean that the priestess was there to make sure the Olympic rituals were done properly. Pausanias also mentions virgins at the Olympics. While scholars have made various suggestions about the virgins (perhaps only virgins and not matrons were allowed; perhaps men took their eligible daughters to the events husband-hunting), Kyle thinks the presence of virgins could mean those girls, representing Demeter's daughter Persephone, presumably only one at a time, accompanied the priestess-Demeter.

  2. Female Olympic Victor

    There were Olympic victors who were women, but they were the owners of the winning chariots. They were not present at the events. In about 170 A.D. Pausanias (6.1.6, 5.12.5) saw the Spartan woman Kinisca's victory monument. Plutarch and Xenophon also write about her winning the 4-horse chariot race, first in 396 and then in 392. Kinisca was the sister of the Spartan King Agesilaus. Plutarch (Ages.20.1) says Agesilaus persuaded his sister to enter the race to convey a lesson to the rest of the Greeks that all horseracing took was money, not excellence.

  3. Transvestite Mother at the Olympics

    In Pausanias 5.6.7-8, there is also a story that a mother named Kallipateira (or Pherenike), from a famous athletic family, dressed herself as a trainer and accompanied her son to the event.

    [5.6.7] 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.
    Pausanias - Loeb translation from 1918

    In an effort to climb out of the area reserved for trainers, the woman revealed her private parts and was caught. From then on trainers had to be naked. Kyle thinks this is a false etiology of the trainers' nudity. What is particularly significant about this supposed event is that the mother was spared. She could have been tossed to her death from a cliff of Mt. Typaion for even being on the wrong side of the Alpheios River.

In summary, Kyle believes there were a few women possibly present at the Olympics, but the policy of the games was strict in prohibiting them: There were no women physically present and competing in the events at the ancient olympics.

A side note: We don't know whether Kallipateira (or Pherenike) was the first mother to attend to Olympics in any form, but since trainers subsequently had to be naked, whether or not it was in response to her presence, she is subtly responsible for the failure of other mothers to sneak in. She might be said to be the last mother at the ancient Olympics during the Greek period.

A related question is why women weren't allowed to participate in the ancient Olympic Games.

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