Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part I: Twelve Olympian Essays – Essay 1: Hēraklēs, Mount Olympus, and the Olympia of the Olympics

2022.06.20 | By Gregory Nagy

0. I proceed to Essay 1, even though the Introduction to this book has been left hanging. I stopped short after I commented on that haunting image of an Amazon rounding the arc of her bounding leap, between life and death—an image that evokes thoughts of suspension, not of conclusion. I proceed here to Essay 1 with that same stop-motion picture kept firmly in mind, since I plan to re-engage with my analysis of female athleticism in Essay 12, where I will follow up by looking at historical evidence for seasonally recurring athletic competitions for women only. Essay 12 will thus address the basic fact that my overall study of heroes as models for athletes will need to continue tracking female-centered as well as male-centered modelings of athleticism. For now, however, here in Essay 1, as also in the other essays leading up to Essay 12, I narrow the focus by concentrating on male-centered models for athletes. And the ultimate such model is the hypermasculine hero Hēraklēs. In Essay 1, I start by highlighting two sets of myths about him. In one set, we will see a myth about Mount Olympus, where we learn that this near-celestial mountain was the site where Hēraklēs was personally immortalized—after having suffered a death so painful as to be near-unimaginable. The picture I show as my leading illustration for Essay 1 here is a daring attempt, against all odds, to engage with the near unimaginability of the hero’s death. The death is depicted in the lower register of the picture, followed, in the upper register, by a “happy ending” where Hēraklēs is now heading for an afterdeath immortalization at the heights of Mount Olympus—an experience traditionally known as the hero’s apotheosis. The meaning of this Greek-derived term can best be rendered as ‘transformation into a god [theós]’. The myth about the hero’s death and subsequent apotheosis is fully narrated in the “universal history” of Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the first century BCE, and I have paraphrased his narration (4.38.1-4.39.3) in my book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (H24H 1§§46–47), with commentary. As for the other set of myths that I will highlight here in Essay 1, they center on the seasonally recurring festival of the Olympics at a site called Olympia. These myths, as we will see, tell how Hēraklēs himself was involved in the actual foundation of the athletic competitions that took place at this festival.


“The death of Hercules” (ca. 1730). After Cornelius Bloemaert (1603–1692) and Abraham van Diepenbeeck (1596–1675); print by Bernard Picart (1673–1733). Image via the British Museum.


“The death of Hercules” (1634). Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. I begin with a fundamental question: can we connect the name Olympus, referring to the near-celestial mountain where Hēraklēs the hero experienced his apotheosis, with the name Olympia, referring to the place where the ancient festival of the Olympics was traditionally celebrated every four years?

§2. Aiming for a unified answer to this question, I will collect here seven facts about Mount Olympus. These facts, taken together, show that there was a genuine connectedness between the name of this mountain and the name of the site where the seasonally recurring festival of the Olympics took place, Olympia.

§3. In Section A of this essay, I will present my collection of the seven facts. Then, in Section B, I will make seven points that connect these facts with my overall question about the naming of Olympus and Olympia. Finally, in Section C, I will comment on the politics of controlling Olympia and the Olympics.

Olympus. Image via Flickr under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

Section A: seven facts about Olympus

A§1. Here is the best-known fact that is relevant to my question. The fact is, Homeric poetry pictures Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods. The god Zeus lives there, as we read in the Iliad and Odyssey—and so too does his divine wife, Hērā, along with the other Olympian divinities.

A§2. But where is ‘there’? Where is Olympus, actually? This question brings me to a second well-known fact, which also concerns Mount Olympus. The fact is, this mountain is located in a region that is known today as Macedonia, in northern Greece. On a clear day, if you look across the Thermaic Gulf from the Macedonian city of Thessaloniki as your point of outlook, you can actually see Mount Olympus looming from afar over the western horizon. The site of the mountain was known as Macedonia, as we know from the reportage of the geographer Strabo, who lived in the overlapping first centuries BCE/CE. Mount Olympus is in Macedonia, according to Strabo (10.3.17 C471). Likewise earlier, in the middle of the second century BCE, the location of Olympus was understood to be Macedonia, as we see from the testimony of Aristarchus of Samothrace (as reported for example in the scholia for Iliad 8.19), who was at that time the director of the Library of Alexandria and who had earned the reputation of being the most accomplished editor of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.

A§3. Mention of Aristarchus brings me to a third fact that is relevant to my overall question about Olympus, and this fact has to do with Aristarchus himself. For him, Mount Olympus in Macedonia was not only the abode of the Olympian gods. As we read in a book by Francesca Schironi (2018:323–329), Aristarchus was convinced that his poet Homer thought of this Macedonian Olympus as the only possible abode of these gods. To put it negatively, Aristarchus thought that the existing references in the Homeric textual tradition to ouranos or ‘sky’ as the real abode of the gods must be post-Homeric. As Aristarchus would have said it, references to the sky as the heavenly home of the gods must have come from poets who are neōteroi, that is, ‘newer’ than Homer.

A§4. As we read further in the book by Schironi (2018:323–329), Aristarchus has in this case stretched too far the textual evidence of Homeric poetry, since we can find occasional passages in both the Iliad and the Odyssey where the abode of the Olympian gods is pictured as the sky, not as a mountain. But the fact remains that Aristarchus did indeed think that such a picturing is post-Homeric. And that fact, which has been the third of relevant facts I have dealt with so far, can now be linked with a fourth fact that I will introduce here. The fact is, an analysis of Homeric formulas referring to the abode of the gods in the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey shows that the picturing of this abode as a mountain is relatively older than the picturing of a heavenly home that hovers on high in the pure sky above (on this point, I cite the work of Sale 1984). So, even if Aristarchus had overextended his interpretation by arguing that the sky as a divine abode is a post-Homeric construct, he was at least partly correct in preferring the mountain over the sky as the older way of visualizing poetically the place where gods live. I should add that, in the post-Homeric era of classical Greek poetry, as we see for example at verse 1655 of the Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, as I note in H24H 18§42, the abode of the gods is visualized more generally as the pure sky, not more specifically as a mountain.

A§5. All this is not to say that Zeus, as the primary divine resident of Mount Olympus, was not a sky god. He was always a sky god, but his celestial essence was linked more with physical picturings of high points that reach up from earth to sky and less with abstract picturings of the highest imaginable point in the sky. And here we have the fifth of the relevant facts that I have collected so far concerning Mount Olympus. The fact is, Zeus is a sky god precisely by way of his connectivity with a mountain named Olympus. I have pointed out this fact in other work as well, where I concentrated on the physicality of Zeus as a sky god (Nagy 2016.05.12), and I quote here from that work (§2) just one example, taken from Homeric poetry. In this Homeric example, a defeat of the enemy in war is being compared to a violent rainstorm sent by Zeus from his abode high above on Mount Olympus (Iliad 16.364–366):

|364 Ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἀπ’ Οὐλύμπου νέφος ἔρχεται οὐρανὸν εἴσω |365 αἰθέρος ἐκ δίης, ὅτε τε Ζεὺς λαίλαπα τείνῃ, |366 ὣς τῶν ἐκ νηῶν γένετο ἰαχή τε φόβος τε.

|364 Just as when, down from Mount Olympus, a cloud [nephos] comes upon the sky [ouranos], |365 following an earlier moment of bright [diē] air [aithēr], and when Zeus stretches [over the sky] a violent rainstorm [lailaps], |366 so also was there a clamorous routing of them [= the Trojans], driven away from the ships [of the Achaeans].

A§6. In the light of such specific mental associations of Mount Olympus with Zeus in his generic role as a sky god, our thinking may now run the risk of getting clouded over—as we go on to consider a troubling new question. What happens every time it rains? When rain happens anywhere in our world, surely we do not expect Zeus himself, as a single sky god, to generate that rain from his abode on high on Mount Olympus, which in our minds has been firmly anchored in a region known as Macedonia. The question can be clarified, however, by way of considering at this point yet another relevant fact that I have collected—the sixth one. And this sixth fact is not nearly as well-known as the previous five facts we have already considered. Here it is. The fact is, the very idea of Mount Olympus had taken shape in a different kind of world—a world sometimes described by archaeologists today as the Mycenaean Empire—and the political macrocosm of such a world consisted of a far-reaching network of kingdoms, each one of which could potentially have a Mount Olympus of its very own. What I have just described here as a sixth relevant fact—that there were many mountains named Olympus in the world of the Mycenaean Empire—is documented in a book by Martin P. Nilsson, The Mycenaean Origins of Greek Mythology. Published in 1932, this book was based on the author’s Sather Classical Lectures, delivered in 1930/1 at the University of California, Berkeley.

A§7. Here I will add a seventh relevant fact, which is directly connected to the sixth. In her introduction to a paperback re-edition of Nilsson’s The Mycenaean Origins of Greek Mythology, published forty years after the original appearance of the book (1972), my sorely missed friend and colleague Emily Vermeule (1972:xiii) highlighted something special about the Sather Lectures of Nilsson: “A few years ago,” she noted, “it was said [by Sterling Dow 1965:22] that, if one lecture of the more than four hundred Sather Lectures delivered [up to that point in 1965] had to be chosen as the most valuable, it might be Nilsson’s last [of four], entitled ‘Olympus’.” As Vermeule (again, 1972:xiii) acutely observes about that lecture, which became Chapter 4 in Nilsson’s Mycenaean Origins (1932:221–251), it “explores the nature of the kingdom of the gods as Homer sang of it,” and the model for such a “kingdom of the gods” —as Vermeule goes on to say in the course of summarizing the thesis of Nilsson—can be viewed as “the real kingdoms of the Mycenaean age.” This formulation, stemming from Nilsson and reinforced by Vermeule, encapsulates what I now present as the seventh of the seven facts I have collected concerning the name of Mount Olympus. The fact is, for each different kingdom that had its own version of Olympus in the far-reaching world of the Mycenaean Empire, there would be a matching kingdom of divinities presiding over such a mountain.

Section B: seven points connecting with seven facts

Now, in Section B, I make seven points, numbered from B§1 to B§7, which match the seven facts of Section A, numbered from A§1 to A§7. But the matchings of Section B with Section A will proceed in reverse order: I will now be working my way backward: the points I make in SectionI B§§1 2 3 4 5 6 7 will match the facts I collected in section A §§7 6 5 4 3 2 1.

B§1. So, the first point I make matches the seventh fact I collected in Section A, as summarized in A§7. Yes, I take it as a proven fact that “the kingdom of the gods” on Mount Olympus as described in Homeric narrative must have been modeled on “the real kingdoms of the Mycenaean age,” dating back to the second millennium BCE. The proof is amply documented by Martin Nilsson in Chapter 4 of his book (1932) and effectively backed up by Emily Vermeule in her introduction (1972:xiii). But now I go on to highlight Vermeule’s use of the plural in referring to “the real kingdoms of the Mycenaean age” (again 1972:xiii). This use is in line with the emphasis placed by Nilsson on the nature of the Mycenaean Empire as a loose confederation of kingdoms that was dominated though not fully controlled by one supreme kingdom, at Mycenae. And I would emphasize that such modeling can be viewed as a two-way street, since the kingship of Zeus at Mount Olympus can be seen, in terms of Homeric mythmaking, as an ideological model for the kingship of Agamemnon at Mycenae, as described in the poetry of the Homeric Iliad.

B§2. Given that the Mycenaean Empire consisted of many kingdoms, it follows that each one of these kingdoms could have its own local version of Mount Olympus, dominated by a local version of Zeus the sky god. And the fact is, as I already anticipated in A§6, the world of the Mycenaeans had many mountains named Olympus. In Nilsson’s Chapter 4 on Olympus, he lists some of the examples that have survived into the historical period of Greek civilization (1932:235–236):

B§2.1. A mountain called Lykaion in Arcadia was also called Olympus, as we read in Pausanias (8.38.2).

B§2.2. Pisa, reportedly the political center of a state called Pisatis, was situated between two mountains named Olympus and Ossa. Our source for this piece of information is the geographer Strabo (8.3.31 C356).

B§2.3. In various regions throughout Asia Minor and beyond, there were mountains named Olympus: among these regions, Nilsson lists Lydia, Mysia, Bithynia, Galatia, Lycia, Cyprus.

B§2.4. In the Greek-speaking world extending into the present, there are mountains named Olympus to be found on the islands of Euboea and Skyros, also on the mainland of Attica, near Laurion. Nilsson, in listing these locations (1932:236), does not happen to mention yet another Olympus, a large mountain located on the island of Lesbos/Lesvos. This Olympus happens to be my personal favorite, and I have visited it two times already in my lifetime, thanks to the encouragement of my friend and colleague Nikolaos Panou, who is helping me investigate further the antiquity of the name that attaches to this mountain (most relevant is the analysis of Matzouranis 1949:36). On the basis of the investigation so far, it appears that the name of this mountain in Lesbos goes as far back as the second millennium BCE—so, it would date back to the Mycenaean era. Moreover, besides the large mountain Olympus/Olimpos (῎Ολυμπος), there are also two smaller peaks named Elimpos (῎Eλυμπος) on the island of Lesbos, near the towns of Basilikà and Vatoùssa (again, Matzouranis 1949:36).

Olympus in Lesbos. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

B§2.5. As I noted in my comments at A§6, Mount Olympus can be visualized generically as the mountain of the local sky god. Such a mentality is still preserved today, though of course without any direct links to Zeus, in the island of Aegina. Nowadays, the old mountain of Zeus is called simply ‘the Mountain’ by the local population of the island. In what follows, I epitomize what I wrote about this mountain in another work (Nagy 2016.05.12 §§10–11).

B§2.5.1. The divine action of Zeus the sky god as a maker of rain is ‘good’ not only in a personalized way, as when he harms the unrighteous and thus helps the righteous (I showed a Homeric example at A§5 above). The rain made by Zeus can be good also in a less personalized and more naturalistic way, since the rain that Zeus makes will sustain the livelihood of mortals by giving them water, as we see in the case of a localized myth about Zeus as worshipped in the Greek island-state of Aegina. According to Aeginetan mythology, there was once a massive drought that brought to a stop all plantlife in the known Greek-speaking world. Relief from the drought was made possible by the hero Aiakos, native son of the island of Aegina. The parents of Aiakos were Zeus himself and a nymph named Aegina (Αἴγινα), who can be viewed as the Mother Earth of the island. Aiakos prayed to his divine father, whose abode was situated on the highest mountain of Aegina, named after Zeus Panhellēnios, to make rain again for humanity. Zeus then made rain, and Aiakos commemorated the success of his prayer by setting up a sacred space on top of this mountain where Zeus had his abode. (The most revealing sources of the myth can be found in Pausanias 2.30.4 in the context of 2.29.6–8; another source is Isocrates 9.14–15.)

B§5.2. The sacred space of Aiakos on top of the mountain named after Zeus Panhellēnios was connected, in Aeginetan myth and ritual, with a fresh-water spring or fountain house built in the city of Aegina. This spring was supplied by the waters of a spring that flowed down from the mountain of Zeus Panhellēnios through an underground aqueduct that extended all the way to the city center. In this instance, the aqueduct was a product of the combined forces of “nature” and “culture.” That is, the natural pathways created over time by the course of the waters flowing down from the mountainous interior were enhanced by way of excavating artificial underground conduits to produce a continuum for the flow. (Nagy 2011:74. On the archaeological background, I cite Privitera 1988:65–67; also Fearn 2007:102–105.)

B§5.3. Theophrastus, who lived in the fourth century BCE and who became the successor of Aristotle as leader of the Peripatetics, once made a most revealing observation about this mountain. We find it in a fragment of his works (Theophrastus F 6.24). He says that if you see a nephelē ‘cloud’ hanging over the mountain of Zeus Panhellēnios on the island of Aegina, it is a sure sign of impending rain. I must add: if you visit Aegina today, you will see this most prominent mountain looming in the center of the southern part of the island, and the local population has given it a commandingly generic name: it is simply tò Oros, ‘the Mountain’. This generic naming of the mountain is a survival, I argue, of localized ancient versions of what became the Panhellenic Olympus of Homeric poetry. What Theophrastus said in the ancient world about the mountain of Zeus in Aegina holds true to this day: even now, the appearance of clouds gathering above Mount Oros on this island is understood to be, once again, as ever before, a sure sign of impending rain.

B§3. As I noted in my comments at A§5, an earlier visualization of the gods’ abode as a mountain named Olympus was giving way, even in the evolving medium of Homeric poetry, to a later visualization of Mount Olympus as synonymous or at least near-synonymous with the sky itself. I see here a gradual erosion of an earlier Mycenaean model, since the synonymity or even near-synonymity of Olympus with the sky would eventually lead, in newer times, to the political and cultural emergence of one and only one Olympus, as distinct from the many instantiations of mountains that had the same prestigious name of Olympus in the older and more diverse world of the Mycenaean Empire. After the collapse of this empire near the end of the second millennium BCE, what evolves in the centuries that follow is the eventual idea of a single Olympus, matching the singular absoluteness of the sky. That single Olympus ultimately became the Mount Olympus of Macedonia, emerging as the winner-take-all. Meanwhile, the many other mountains that had inherited the same proud old name were being relegated to an inferior status, becoming mere local curiosities that could ultimately be of interest only to antiquarians of the future.

B§4. At this point I return my comments, at A§4, on the thinking of Aristarchus, who became for the ancients the world’s leading expert in the study of Homeric poetry. As I noted in my comments there, this expert thought that Mount Olympus in Macedonia was for Homer the only possible abode of Zeus and his fellow Olympian divinities. I see an irony here. On the one hand, Aristarchus is arguing for a mountain as the definitive abode for these gods: so, he is following a Mycenaean model—without knowing it. On the other hand, Aristarchus is simultaneously following a post-Mycenaean model by thinking of Mount Olympus in Macedonia as the specific location for this abode. It is relevant to repeat here what I already noted in my comments at I§4: the emergence of Mount Olympus in Macedonia as the classical landmark for visualizing the abode of Zeus and his divine family can be correlated with the emergence of an increasingly sky-centered post-Mycenaean view of this abode in the medium of Homeric poetry.

B§5. We now need to consider the ownership, as it were, of Homeric poetry as an evolving medium that eventuated into the sixth century BCE, as I argue in my book Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010|2009). Or, to say it even more narrowly, we need to consider the shareholders who were involved in the ownership of Homeric poetry in the sixth century. There are complications to be noted here, from the very start. And the biggest of these complications is the historical fact, which I noted in A§3, that the Mount Olympus of Homeric poetry as analyzed by Aristarchus is located in Macedonia. But now we must confront another historical fact: the location of Mount Olympus, viewed by Aristarchus as a landmark belonging to the territory of Macedonia, was viewed differently in earlier times. In the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, Mount Olympus was considered to be a landmark that belonged to the territory of Thessaly—or, to say it more accurately, to the territory dominated by the dynasts of Thessaly. And these Thessalian dynasts were also shareholders, as we will see, in the ownership of Homeric poetry.

B§6. In order to reconstruct the role of the Thessalians in the ownership of Mount Olympus in Macedonia, we need to go back to sources that predate Strabo in the first century BCE/CE and Aristarchus in the second century BCE. Both of those authorities, as we saw at A§2, were already thinking of Macedonia as the site of Mount Olympus. But if we consult other sources, we can reconstruct an earlier state of affairs.

B6.1. As we read in the History of Herodotus (7.128), who lived in the fifth century BCE and who was reporting on historical events that date back to the sixth as well as the fifth century BCE, Mount Olympus was in that era considered to be a landmark that belonged to the dynasts of Thessaly, not to the Macedonians. And these same Thessalians, as we learn from still other sources, were at the same time also shareholders in the ownership of Homeric poetry. The major shareholders in this case, however, were not these dynasts of Thessaly but rather the Peisistratidai, dynasts of the city of Athens during most of the second half of the sixth century BCE.

B§6.2. In my book Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010, at II§§47–48 in the online version of 2009), I noted an ongoing alliance, highlighted by Herodotus (5.63.3), between the dynasts of Thessaly and the Peisistratidai of Athens, and I argued that the politics of this alliance can be connected with the poetics of references made in Homeric poetry to the Thessalian identity of the hero Achilles (Nagy II§49 in the online version of 2009). But now, for the first time, I argue further that the politics of this same alliance can also be connected with the poetics of privileging Mount Olympus, which was a landmark for territory controlled by the dynasts of Thessaly, as the definitive abode of Zeus. Such poetics, after all, also privileged the territory of Thessaly itself as the homeland of Achilles, the premier hero of Homeric poetry.

B§7. Here I come back full-circle to the first of the seven facts I collected in Section A, as formulated in A§1. As I noted there, the fact is that Homeric poetry pictures Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods, and that the god Zeus lives there, as we read in the Iliad and Odyssey. But now, by continuing to connect the dots, as it were, I can add a further formulation by tracing the evolution of Homeric poetry forward in time, toward the second half of the sixth century BCE. At that time, an alliance between the dynasts of Thessaly and the Peisistratidai, who were then the dynasts of Athens, led to two levels of “ownership,” as it were: while the dynasts of Athens “owned” Homeric poetry, the dynasts of Thessaly could at the same time “own” the mountain that was celebrated as the abode of the gods in that poetry.

B§7.1. A visible sign of such “co-ownership” in Homeric poetry is the narrative in Odyssey 11.305–320 about two young Giants named Otos and Ephialtes (308) who try to overthrow the gods by piling on top of the mountain named Olympus another mountain, named Ossa, and, on top of that mountain, another mountain named Pelion (315–316). By piling these three mountains on top of each other, they reckoned, they could reach the ouranos ‘sky’ (316)—and thus capture it for themselves. Curiously, this act of aggression against the gods abiding in the sky is described at an earlier point in this same text as an attack against the gods who abide on Mount Olympus (310). We see at work here an interaction between a later post-Mycenaean model that pictures the divine abode as the sky and an earlier Mycenaean model that pictures this same abode as a mountain. The Giants fail, of course, and the futility of their attempt to reach the abode of the gods in the sky is even actualized in this story by the very idea that it takes three of the highest mountains, piled one on top of the other, to reach the sky.

B§7.2. Highest mountains where? In the Homeric text at Odyssey 11.305–320, it is no coincidence that the mountains that are named there—Olympus, Ossa, and Pelion—were all three of them seen as landmarks belonging to territory controlled by the dynasts of Thessaly in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. The whole region of Thessaly itself, bounded on its east side by the coastline of the Aegean Sea, was shielded from access along that coastline by these three mountains Olympus and Ossa and Pelion, one next to the other, from north to south. And here it is relevant for me to recall what is said by Herodotus (7.128), cited back at B§6.1. As we saw there, Herodotus thinks of Thessaly as the actual location of Mount Olympus. But there is more to it. As Herodotus also says (again, 7.128), Mount Olympus is to be paired with Mount Ossa. The mountain ranges of Olympus and Ossa are split by a narrow pass, through which the river Peneios flows into the sea, from west to east. In describing the routes contemplated by Xerxes, ruler of the Persian Empire, in that monarch’s plan to invade mainland Greece with his enormous army and navy, Herodotus (yet again, 7.128) describes this narrow pass as a gateway for entering the territory of Thessaly.

B§7.3. The fact that Mount Olympus is thus paired with Mount Ossa, is relevant, I argue, to another fact. It has to do with another pairing, which I highlighted earlier at B§2.2 while summarizing Chapter 4 of Nilsson (1932). There we saw that Pisa, reportedly the political center of a state called Pisatis, was situated between two mountains named Olympus and Ossa. Our source, as we saw, was the geographer Strabo (8.3.31 C356). And now I can add another relevant fact: over time, the political existence of the state of Pisa was obliterated by a deadly rival, the state of Elis, and this obliteration can be linked with a takeover, by Elis, of the sacred site named Olympia, which had once been under the control of Pisa.

Section C: preliminary comments on the politics of controlling Olympia and the Olympics

C§1. Delving into the historical background of a rivalry between the states of Pisa and Elis. I will now comment on the politics of controlling Olympia—and the Olympics. As we will see, the name of Mount Olympus is relevant.

C§1.1. I start with the point I made in Section B§2, that there had existed in the past many mountains named Olympus in many regions of the Greek-speaking world, and, as I observed specifically, one of these local instantiations of ‘Mount Olympus’ was actually situated in the environs of Olympia. Our ancient source, as we saw in Section B§2.2, is the geographer Strabo (8.3.31 C356), who reports that a site named Pisa, which had once been the political center of a region named Pisatis, was located between two mountains named Olympus and Ossa. What Strabo says here about Pisa is most relevant, I think. In terms of my overall argument, as we will see when we reach Part II Essay 1, the state of Pisa had once upon a time controlled Olympia and the Olympics until it was defeated by the state of Elis—which took control of both Olympia and the Olympics. Not only the victory of Elis over Pisa but also its takeover of Olympia are mentioned by Pausanias (5.10.2), who adds that Elis eventually destroyed Pisa . But our traveler does not make it clear, I argue, that the defeat of Pisa must have happened earlier than any final destruction. And such a defeat, I further argue, must have been gradual. But I do leave room for thinking that the gradual victory of Elis over Pisa did involve some episodic events of destruction—especially when it comes to visible signs of power, such as a citadel, that is, an acropolis. I would not be surprised if an old citadel of the state of Pisa would have been ostentatiously demolished, whether earlier or later, by the rival state of Elis. Thus Strabo’s reference to the precise location of Pisa, situated between two relatively miniature mountains named Ossa and Olympus, still leaves us in the dark about this location—if the buildings on the citadel of Pisa were demolished without a trace. And we might be left forever in the dark unless—or, I hope, until—ruins of a citadel are found. In the area surrounding Olympia, there are too many miniature mountains that could look like Ossa and Olympus. So, only the ruins of an acropolis located between two miniature mountains could lead to certainty about the precise location of a political center for Pisa.

III§1.2. That said, I now pursue my overall argument for positing a gradual process, not an episodic event, that would have led to the replacement of Pisa by Elis as the state that controlled Olympia and the Olympics. A vital piece of textual evidence backing up this argument comes from the songs of Pindar, a most influential poet dated to the first half of the fifth century BCE. In Olympian 10 of Pindar, an ode that celebrates an athletic victory at Olympia that took place in 476 BCE, well before the building of the Temple of Zeus at the initiative of the state of Elis, we read at lines 44-45 that the city of Pisa—or let us say the citadel or acropolis of Pisa—was the site of a palace where a king named Augeias (the name is often latinized as Augeas) was ruler of the overall region that was normally called Elis in later times. I will have more to say later, in Part I Essay 9, about this king Augeias. And I will have even more to say, in Part II Essay 1, about Pindar’s Olympian 10.

III§2. In texts stemming from the fifth century BCE, it can be said in general, Olympia was still being linked with Pisa instead of Elis. Not only in Olympian 10 but also in other Olympian odes of Pindar, Zeus as lord of Olympia is linked with Pisa (Olympian 13.24–29), which is a place described as belonging to Zeus (Olympian 2.3, 6.5). Also, the wording of Pindar links the idea that Pisa belongs to Zeus with the idea that Hēraklēs, son of Zeus, was the founder of the festival of the Olympics (Olympian 2.3). And here, at long last, we can begin to see the relevance of the hero Hēraklēs, as a mythological founder of the Olympics at Olympia, to the myth about his immortalization, which takes place on Mount Olympus.

III§3. I have now reached a point where my exercise in connecting the dots, starting in Section II, has finally led from Olympus all the way to Olympia, site of the ancient Olympics. But this connectivity, as we have seen, needs to be explained in terms of a takeover of Olympia, which used to be controlled by the state of Pisa but which gradually came under the control of the state of Elis. I offer no further comments, for now, on the loss of Olympia by Pisa—and on the eventual obliteration of Pisa along with the entire state of Pisatis. For now it is enough for me to emphasize that the sacred site known as Olympia used to be under the control of Pisa before it came under the control of Elis.

III§4. Still, in the context of my reconstructing here a bygone era when Pisa had dominated Olympia, site of the Olympics, I need to add one more piece of evidence, also stemming from the fifth century BCE. This evidence shows that Pisa, as a site linked with its own Mount Olympus, was also linked with the Olympian gods. As we read in Herodotus (2.7), this historian ostentatiously connects the Temple of Zeus in Olympia with Pisa, not with Elis, as he measures the distance extending from the Altar of the Twelve Gods in the center of Athens all the way to a landmark that he describes this way: ‘[on the way to] Pisa and the Temple of Zeus Olympios’ (ἔς τε Πῖσαν καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν νηὸν τοῦ Διὸς τοῦ Ὀλυμπίου); that distance, by the reckoning of Herodotus, was 1,500 Olympic stadium-lengths minus 150. (I will have more to say in Part I Essay 12 about the Greek word stadion, which for the moment I translate loosely as ‘stadium’.)

III§5. This Altar of the Twelve Gods, which was founded by the Peisistratidai, dynasts of Athens, is linked with the corresponding idea of the Olympian gods, which was taking shape in Homeric poetry as we can see it evolving under the sponsorship of these same dynasts. The abode of these Olympian gods, as we saw already in I§1, was Mount Olympus, and the god Zeus lives there, as we read in the Iliad and Odyssey. Also living there, on and off, are other gods, including Hērā, wife of Zeus, and the canonical number for all these gods, Zeus included, is twelve. I conclude by noting that the Altar of the Twelve Gods, as founded by the dynasts of Athens in the sixth century BCE, connects all these twelve Olympians, not just Zeus, to the Olympia of the Olympics.


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