Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part I: Twelve Olympian Essays – Essay 12: Olympian women, Olympian girls, Olympian running

2022.09.05| By Gregory Nagy

§0. In this essay, I will quote and translate and comment on an ancient text about female athleticism. The source for this text will describe, uniquely, a traditional athletic event, involving only female participants, that was truly and distinctly “Olympian.” The event, as our ancient source pointedly says, was a footrace that took place at the seasonally recurring festival of the Olympics. The competitors in this footrace were all girls, and the organizers of the event were all women. To picture the female athleticism as described in the text of our ancient source, I show here as an illustration a photograph of a miniature bronze statue of an “Olympian” girl whom we see running in her own “Olympian” footrace.

Bronze figure of a running girl via the British Museum; for dating and commentary, I recommend the work of Thomas Scanlon 2008.

§1. The ancient source for our text is the traveler Pausanias, who lived in the second century CE. This text of Pausanias, 5.16.2–4, which I will quote below at §5, is relevant to another text of his that I had quoted at the very start of Ancient Greek Heroes, Athletes, Poetry, in Phase 1 of my Introduction. In that other text of Pausanias, 2.32.1, we had read about the hero cult of Hippolytus in the city of Troizen, and I had argued, starting in Phase 2 of the Introduction, that the athleticism of that male hero was relevant to female athleticism, as exemplified in the mythological construct of Amazons. Analyzing the mythological genealogy of Hippolytus, I argued in Phases 2 and 3 of the Introduction that the athleticism of this hero was connected with a basic mythological fact about him: while his father was the hero Theseus, king of Athens, his mother was an Amazon, and she was a hero in her own right. And, as I went on to argue, Amazons in general were not only heroes but also athletes in their own right. In Phase 2, I compared the role of Amazons as heroic athletes with the primary role of the hero Hippolytus as an athlete, which was charioteering. Then, in Phase 3, I went on to compare the heroic role of Amazons as athletes with a secondary role of Hippolytus as athlete, which was the hunting of wild animals. Then, in Phases 4 and 5 of the Introduction, I analyzed in general the athleticism of Amazons as mythologized women who lived in a long-gone heroic age and who were viewed primarily as a counterpoint to the athleticism of mythologized men in the same heroic age—men like Hippolytus. And then, finally, as I came to the end of Phase 5 in my Introduction, I stopped short, without yet considering the athleticism of real women in the post-heroic age. Instead of delving, right away, into such considerations, I predicted that I would return to the subject of female athleticism in Essay 12 of Part I. And the set of Twelve “Olympian Essays” in Part I has now finally culminated in such a twelfth essay. It was going to be here in Essay 12, in this new context, as I had predicted at the end of Phase 5 of the Introduction, that I could finally come back to that earlier context where I had stopped short—where I had found myself in the middle of looking at the highest point in the arc of a mythologized Amazon in motion—a motion suspended, as we saw, at a supreme moment of athleticism. At that moment, the Amazon was bounding and leaping while running. It was a runner’s supreme athletic moment. And now, here in Essay 12, I reconnect with that moment, since I am about to show another supreme moment in the athleticism of running. But, this time, the moment will be framed in the post-heroic age, in the athletic world of the Olympics as described by Pausanias in the second century CE.

§2. The picture of the running Amazon that I showed at the end of Phase 5 in the Introduction will now be matched here in Essay 12 of Part I with a comparable picture—but, this time, the picturing is verbal, taking the form of a vivid description found in an ancient text, Pausanias, 5.16.2–4.

§3. As we will see when I get to quote this text of Pausanias at §5 below, our traveler is describing here the athleticism of running, and the athletes are female runners, competing in a footrace. I have already shown, at the start of this essay, a photograph of a miniature bronze statue of such a runner.

§4. The competition of female runners in a footrace, described in the text of Pausanias that I am about to quote and then translate, was an athletic event that was truly “Olympian” in the sense that the running took place in Olympia, on the occasion of the seasonally recurring Olympics. So, this text of Pausanias is all about female athleticism—a subject that had also been the subtext, as it were, of another text of Pausanias, 2.32.1, the very first ancient text that I had quoted in Ancient Greek Heroes, Athletes, Poetry, back in Phase 1 of the Introduction. In that other text of Pausanias, 2.32.1, our traveler was highlighting the athleticism of the cult hero Hippolytus, son of an Amazon, as a charioteer. As I then went on to argue in Phases 2 through 5 of the Introduction, often relying on further testimony from Pausanias, the subtext of this mythologized genealogical derivation of the cult hero Hippolytus from Amazons could best be understood by viewing Amazons themselves, cult heroes in their own right, as models for athleticism. In terms of my overall argument, then, Pausanias is a most reliable guide for viewing athleticism as an elemental experience to be shared, ideally, by female as well as male athletes in the post-heroic age.

§5. Here, then, is the text of Pausanias, 5.16.2–5, describing an event of female athleticism at the Olympics in Olympia:

{5.16.2} διὰ πέμπτου δὲ ὑφαίνουσιν ἔτους τῇ Ἥρᾳ πέπλον αἱ ἓξ καὶ δέκα γυναῖκες· αἱ δὲ αὐταὶ τιθέασι καὶ ἀγῶνα Ἡραῖα. ὁ δὲ ἀγών ἐστιν ἅμιλλα δρόμου παρθένοις· οὔτι που πᾶσαι ἡλικίας τῆς αὐτῆς, ἀλλὰ πρῶται μὲν αἱ νεώταται, μετὰ ταύτας δὲ αἱ τῇ ἡλικίᾳ δεύτεραι, τελευταῖαι δὲ θέουσιν ὅσαι πρεσβύταται τῶν παρθένων εἰσί.

{5.16.3} θέουσι δὲ οὕτω· καθεῖταί σφισιν ἡ κόμη, χιτὼν ὀλίγον ὑπὲρ γόνατος καθήκει, τὸν ὦμον ἄχρι τοῦ στήθους φαίνουσι τὸν δεξιόν. ἀποδεδειγμένον μὲν δὴ ἐς τὸν ἀγῶνά ἐστι καὶ ταύταις τὸ Ὀλυμπικὸν στάδιον, ἀφαιροῦσι δὲ αὐταῖς ἐς τὸν δρόμον τοῦ σταδίου τὸ ἕκτον μάλιστα· ταῖς δὲ νικώσαις ἐλαίας τε διδόασι στεφάνους καὶ βοὸς μοῖραν τεθυμένης τῇ Ἥρᾳ, καὶ δὴ ἀναθεῖναί σφισιν ἔστι γραψαμέναις εἰκόνας. εἰσὶ δὲ καὶ αἱ διακονούμεναι ταῖς ἑκκαίδεκα κατὰ ταὐτὰ ταῖς ἀγωνοθετούσαις γυναῖκες.

{5.16.4} ἐπανάγουσι δὲ καὶ τῶν παρθένων τὸν ἀγῶνα ἐς τὰ ἀρχαῖα, Ἱπποδάμειαν τῇ Ἤρᾳ τῶν γάμων τῶν Πέλοπος ἐκτίνουσαν χάριν τάς τε ἑκκαίδεκα ἀθροῖσαι γυναῖκας λέγοντες καὶ σὺν αὐταῖς διαθεῖναι πρώτην τὰ Ἡραῖα· μνημονεύουσι δὲ καὶ ὅτι Χλῶρις νικήσειεν Ἀμφίονος θυγάτηρ μόνη λειφθεῖσα τοῦ οἴκου. σὺν δὲ αὐτῇ καὶ ἕνα περιγενέσθαι φασὶ τῶν ἀρσένων·

{5.16.2} Every fourth year [= ‘every fifth year’, where the inclusive count starts from year “one” by contrast with an exclusive, count, which starts from year “zero”], there is woven for Hērā a robe [peplos] by [a collegium known as] the Sixteen Women, and the same women also arrange [tithénai] a competition [agōn] known as the Hēraia. This competition [agōn] is a contest [hamilla] in running [dromos = footracing] for girls [parthénoi]. 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 who run [theein] are the oldest of the girls [parthénoi].

{5.16.3} They run [theein] in the following way. They let down their hair, and their tunic [khitōn] reaches down just a little above the knee; also, they show off their right shoulder, baring it as far down as the breast. These [girls] too [like the male runners] have the Olympic stadion designated for their competition [agōn], but the extent of the stadion-length is shortened for them by about one-sixth of the stadion-length. To the winning girls they give garlands [stephanoi] of olive and a portion [moira] of the cow sacrificed [thuein] to Hērā. And it is permitted for them to dedicate [ana-tithénai] statues [eikones] with their names inscribed [graphesthai] upon them. Those who serve-as-administrators [diakoneîsthai] for the Sixteen are, like the [Sixteen] who are-arrangers-of-the-competition [agōno-theteîn], married women.

{5.16.4} They trace back [what they do] and also the competition [agōn] of the girls [parthénoi] to ancient times; they say that Hippodameia, showing to Hērā her gratitude [kharis] for her marriage with Pelops, assembled [athroizein] the [original] Sixteen Women, and that, together with them, she was the first to arrange [diatithénai] the Hēraia. They also [besides saying that the competition was founded by Hippodameia] memorialize [mnēmoneuein] a victory [in the competition] that they say was won by Chloris, the only surviving daughter of the house [oikos] of Amphion; but there also survived, they say, one of her brothers.

§6. In my translation, I have deliberately refrained from using the word stadium in translating the Greek word stadion, from which the modern term stadium is derived by way of Latin. The word stadion, as used by Pausanias, refers to a flat and level space for running in footraces, and it has nothing to do with buildings—whereas a stadium today is understood to be precisely that, a building. By contrast, the stadion of Olympia, visited by Pausanias in the second century CE, would have looked very much like the leveled space that has been restored and maintained by archaeologists for viewing by modern visitors to the ancient site.

§7. In the text that we have just read, Pausanias is saying, quite pointedly, that the athletic event of footracing for female runners took place in the same designated space, the Olympic stadion, where male runners competed with each other in their own separate athletic events of footracing during the festival of the Olympics. In the case of the male runners, there was not only the event of running the length of the stadion but also a matching event, known as the diaulos, where the extent of that footrace was doubled from one stadion-length to two such lengths, circling from the starting point and coming back to the starting point.

§8. By contrast, as we have also just read in the text of Pausanias quoted at §5, the length of the footrace in the separate athletic event for female Olympian runners was slightly shorter—though the event itself took place within the designated space of the same stadion in Olympia. We are not told by Pausanias about the scheduling of the footrace for female runners, whereas we do know about the scheduling for the corresponding stadion-length footrace for male runners—and we know it from a variety of other sources. The fact is, the stadion-length footrace for male runners was so prestigious as to be scheduled always as the very first athletic event to take place at each recurring festival of the Olympics—to be followed by the diaulos, or double-stadion footrace.

§9. In the case of the footrace for female runners, we have less information. Nevertheless, though we do not know about such details as the actual scheduling, we do at least know from Pausanias that this race too was in fact a prestigious Olympic athletic event, like the stadion-length footrace for male runners.

§10. My ongoing comments here on the ancient stadion at Olympia now lead me to highlight not only the length of this stadion as measured out for male runners who competed in Olympic footraces but also the shorter length for female runners who competed in their own Olympic footrace, within the space of the same stadion. The fact is, the length that is measured out for female runners competing in their own Olympic footrace was defined, according to the description we have just read in the text of Pausanias, by way of a male-centered standard. The length of the stadion was a male-centered length.

§11. And there is a further relevant fact. The length of the run that was measured out for the male runners in the stadion was defined by a standard that had been set, in mythological terms, by a centralized male hero of athleticism who has been dominating the first eleven of the twelve “Olympian” essays of Part I in this book. That dominant hero is Hēraklēs. I cite here a relevant myth, reported by Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights, dated to the second century CE. Here is what we read in Scroll 1 sections 1–3 of Aulus Gellius, with reference to a work of Plutarch, no longer attested, where that author wrote about the theorizing of Pythagoras about the foot-size of Hēraklēs:

{1.1} Plutarchus in libro quem de Herculis quam diu inter homines fuit, animi corporisque ingenio atque virtutibus conscripsit, scite subtiliterque ratiocinatum Pythagoram philosophum dicit in reperienda modulandaque status longitudinisque eius praestantia. {1.2} Nam cum fere constaret curriculum stadii, quod est Pisis apud Iovem Olympium, Herculem pedibus suis metatum idque fecisse longum pedes sescentos, cetera quoque stadia in terra Graecia ab aliis postea instituta pedum quidem esse numero sescentum, sed tamen esse aliquantulum breviora, facile intellexit modum spatiumque plantae Herculis ratione proportionis habita tanto fuisse quam aliorum procerius, quanto Olympicum stadium longius esset quam cetera. {1.3} Comprehensa autem mensura Herculani pedis, quanta longinquitas corporis ei mensurae conveniret secundum naturalem membrorum omnium inter se competentiam modificatus est atque ita id collegit, quod erat consequens, tanto fuisse Herculem corpore excelsiorem quam alios, quanto Olympicum stadium ceteris pari numero factis anteiret.

{1.1} Plutarch, in a book he wrote about the inborn nature, in both mind and body, of Hēraklēs, and about his achievements, during the time when he was among mortals, says that the philosopher Pythagoras came up with a theory, in his learned and finely textured way, for figuring out and measuring the outstanding dimensions of Hēraklēs in size and height. {1.2} You see, since it was generally agreed that Hēraklēs had paced off, measuring with his own feet, the race-course of the stadion at Pisae, where the temple of Olympian Zeus is located, and that he had made it six hundred feet long, and since the other stadia in the land of Greece, established later by other men, were indeed six hundred feet in length, but were somewhat shorter than the one at Olympia, Pythagoras came to the simple conclusion that the measured length of the foot of Hēraklēs was greater than that of others in the same proportion as the stadion at Olympia was longer than the other stadia. {1.3} Then, having figured out the size of the foot of Hēraklēs, Pythagoras made a calculation of the height of the body of Hēraklēs in terms of that measure, based upon the natural proportion of all parts of the body, and thus he calculated that Hēraklēs was consequently just as much taller than others as the stadion at Olympia was lengthier than the other stadia that had been made to have the same number of feet.

§12. Up to this point, it would have seemed as if Essay 12 here could have been the only one of my twelve “Olympian” essays that was not to be dominated by Hēraklēs. But now we see that even here, in Essay 12, the hypermasculine hero Hēraklēs makes his presence felt. Still, I am not overly disappointed. The hypermasculinity of Hēraklēs, as we will now see, needs to be counterbalanced by the hyperfemininity of the goddess Hērā in her mythological relationship with this hero. As I argued already in Essays 3 and 4 of my “Olympian” essays, Hērā redefines Hēraklēs, who owes to the goddess not only his identity as a hero in general but also his status as a model for athletes in particular. Even the “speaking name” of Hēraklēs, ‘the one who has the glory [kleos] of Hērā’, speaks to the personal involvement of this hyperfeminine goddess Hērā in shaping not only the hero’s general role as the performer of Labors—which are marked by the athleticism of his heroic performances—but also his specific role as a mythologized founder of the Olympics. And now, starting in Part II, we will see that Hērā actually had a special role in the evolution of the Olympics—a role signaled by the Temple of Hērā in Olympia.




Kahil, L. G. 1983. “Mythological Repertoire of Brauron.” In Ancient Greek Art and Iconography (ed. W. Moon) 231–244. Madison WI.

Scanlon, T. 2008. “The Heraia at Olympia Revisited.” Nikephoros 21:159–196.

Scanlon, T. 1990. “Race or Chace at the Arkteia of Attica?” Nikephoros 3:73–120.

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