2022.09.19 | By Gregory Nagy
§0. The Chest of Kypselos, crafted in the early sixth century and once on display inside the Temple of Hera, is now no longer extant, but it can still be viewed in our mind’s eye, thanks to the minutely detailed account of Pausanias, 5.17.5–5.19.10, who viewed closely this treasured showpiece of visual art when he visited Olympia in the second century CE—and who described in detail the vast array of illustrations that he saw adorning the masterwork. In this essay, I will highlight a few details in the overall description by Pausanias, showing how these details shed light on earlier aspects of myths about the Olympics. As we will see, these earlier aspects of such myths are more inclusive than later aspects, and Pausanias has crafted a rhetoric for showing this inclusiveness.
§1. Most relevant to such a rhetoric of inclusiveness is the mythological pattern of synergism linking Hērā with Zeus, as described in the previous essay. That synergism comes to life in the interior of the Temple of Hērā, and here I rely on what Pausanias says about the statue of Hērā that he saw inside her temple: as we read in Pausanias, 5.17.1, this statue, representing Hērā seated on a throne, is paired with a statue of Zeus, who is represented in a supportive pose, standing upright next to the sitting goddess. So, even this view of Hērā and Zeus together inside her temple can be seen as symbolic of the synergism represented by two divinities. Such synergism, as I call it, is what Pausanias would view as a principle of divine inclusiveness that allows for the widest imaginable variety of myths. For Pausanias, his own rhetoric of inclusiveness is I think inspired by the multiplicity of myths depicted on the Chest of Kypselos as featured in the Temple of Hērā, since this work of art could include perspectives that were later occluded in the artwork adorning the Temple of Zeus.
§2. The artisan in ancient Corinth who was in charge of creating the Chest of Kypselos around 600 BCE could not have foreseen how Pausanias, almost eight hundred years later, would have interpreted the illustrations decorating the surface of this precious object of visual art. But it seems to me most likely that some of these illustrations picturing so many different myths could have been interpreted as glorifications of the Olympics as that festival existed in Olympia around 600 BCE, which was also around the same time when the Temple of Zeus and Hērā, as it was then known, I think, was built in Olympia. And such glorifications, I also think, would have enhanced the political powers that were in charge of Olympia at around 600 BCE. One myth stands out, from among the myriad other myths that were visually narrated on the surface of the Chest. And, as we are about to see, Pausanias faithfully reports this myth, together with all the other myths that were pictured on the Chest, though he does not make a special case for its political relevance. The myth, Pausanias tells us, concerns a chariot race held in honor of a dead hero, Pelias, and the living hero who presides over the competition is Hēraklēs himself. For Pausanias, this myth is just one of a multitude of myths that all glorify Olympia and the Olympics simply by virtue of being just that, a multitude, or, to say it more descriptively, an amplitude. For Pausanias it is the amplitude of details that glorifies Olympia and the Olympics, not any specific detail within the amplitude. By contrast, however, the political powers who originally commissioned the housing of the Chest of Kypselos inside the Temple of Hērā as we know it must have valued not only the amplitude but also the specificities of the myths displayed on the Chest. In this essay, I argue that these political powers, as I just now referred to them, were the rulers of ancient Pisa, and that they supported myths that promoted their political agenda. But such myths, as they were taking shape around 600 BCE, were later replaced by reinterpretations originating from the city-state of Elis in the mid-fifth century BCE. Pausanias, as we will see, includes both earlier and later versions in his own reinterpretations, and his rhetoric of inclusiveness thus provides ample background for reconstructing the evolution of myths about the origins of the Olympics.
§3. I start with the chariot race as depicted on the Chest of Kypselos. As I already noted, we see here Hēraklēs himself presiding over this athletic competition. That is what Pausanias at 5.17.9 reports in the course of his lengthy description of myths he saw illustrated when he viewed the Chest of Kypselos, housed in the Temple of Hērā at Olympia. Already we see a detail here that we have not yet seen in my book: the hero Hēraklēs is involved in the athletic event of a chariot race. It is the older kind of chariot-racing, as Pausanias notices, where the chariots of the competing charioteers are each pulled by two horses, not four. Up to now, in any case, we have seen the hero Hēraklēs specifically involved in athletic events of footracing, boxing, and wrestling—both free-form and regulated wrestling—but, so far, we have not yet seen instances of his involvement in chariot-racing. More important for now, however, is another detail that Pausanias reports about this same chariot race: one of the charioteers competing in the race is a hero who was labeled as Pisos in the lettering that Pausanias had read next to the painted figure of this charioteer.
§4. We read elsewhere, in an unconnected report of Pausanias, at 6.22.1–2, another detail about this hero Pisos, son of Perieres: according to Pausanias, Pisos was the eponymous founder of the ancient pólis of Pisa. And we also read elsewhere, from another source, still another detail—one that is most relevant to my overall analysis of ancient traditions about Pisa. The source in this case is the antiquarian Phlegon of Tralleis, who lived in the second century CE, and who is reporting a detail about the hero Pisos that is evidently partial toward the traditions of Pisa, as we see from the content of the text cited by Phlegon. The text is a poetic text, actually quoted by Phlegon (FGH 257 F 1), consisting of 13 verses of dactylic hexameters reportedly emanating from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi in response to emissaries representing the entire Peloponnesus who had been sent to Delphi to ask the god why the population has been afflicted by a devastating pestilence. In the response of Apollo as god of the Oracle, the words spoken by him in the text blame the rulers of the Peloponnesus for having dishonored Zeus as the god of the Olympics (F 1 verses 1–5) and advising a revival of this festival in compensation for having grossly neglected it (F 1 verses 10–13); in this context, the hero Pisos himself is praised for his piety in honoring Zeus by way of having been the very first founder of the Olympics (F 1 verses 5–6), and then the Oracle goes on to say that the hero Pelops was the second founder (F 1 verses 6–8), and that the hero Hēraklēs was the third (F 1 verses 9–10). I will return to this subject, with more to say about the roles of Pisos and Pelops and Hēraklēs in the founding of the Olympics, when I reach Part III Sketch 4§5. For now, however, I concentrate on the use of the word pólis by Pausanias at 6.22.1–2 with reference Pisa as a ‘city’ founded by Pisos. For the moment, but only for the moment, I translate this word pólis here as ‘city’. I say this because, as far as Pausanias was concerned, the ‘city’ of Pisa was doomed to become, in the course of time, a non-city.
§5. In Part I Essay 1 Section C§4, I already cited the relevant report of Pausanias about Pisa as a doomed city, and I now repeat here the essentials. Pausanias at 6.22.1 speaks of a khōríon ‘place’ covered by vineyards and showing no trace of any wall of any building. Then, continuing at 6.22.2, he says this about the place he has just described: ‘at which place Pisa was settled/founded [oikeîsthai]’ (ἔνθα ἡ Πίσα ᾠκεῖτο). Continuing further at 6.22.2, Pausanias adds explicitly, still in the same context: ‘they say that the city [pólis] had as its settler/founder [oikistḗs] Pisos son of Perieres son of Aiolos’ (οἰκιστὴν μὲν δὴ γενέσθαι τῇ πόλει Πίσον τὸν Περιήρους φασὶ τοῦ Αἰόλου). After saying this much about Pisos and Pisa. Pausanias at 6.22.4 goes on to report that the city of Elis ultimately destroyed the city of Pisa. Again, I translate pólis here as ‘city’, but only for the moment.
§6. Adding to the comment I make in Part I Essay 1 Section C§5 on this mention of Pisos and Pisa by Pausanias at 6.22.1–4, I now comment on a relevant mention of Pisa elsewhere, at 5.10.2, where Pausanias says that Pisa was defeated and lost control of Olympia and the Olympics in a war with Elis. As I argued in Part II Essay 1§§4–5, the war mentioned by Pausanias at 5.10.2 can be connected with the annexation of Pisa by Elis. No annexation is mentioned by Pausanias directly, but such a forcible takeover must have really happened, as we know from two other sources. Speaking directly about an annexation are Diodorus 11.54.1 and Strabo 8.3.2 C336–337, and they say it happened, in terms of our dating system, sometime in the early fifth century BCE. In any case, as I also argued in Part II Essay 1§§4–5, the defeat of Pisa by Elis in war, as reported by Pausanias at 5.10.2, was different from the other disaster that he reports at 6.22.4, where he refers to the total destruction of Pisa by Elis. The two disasters for Pisa took place at different times: whereas Elis took away from Pisa its control over Olympia and the Olympics in the early fifth century BCE, the destruction of Pisa by Elis took place only later, some time after 364 BCE.
§7. I commented further in Part I Essay 1 Section C§5, and I now epitomize from there:
I find it most interesting that Pausanias has omitted any explicit mention of the differences in time between the loss of Olympia by Pisa and the final destruction of Pisa. Such an omission by Pausanias fits the historical realities of his own era, the second century CE, by which time Elis had been in control of Olympia and the Olympics for about half a millennium. And the narrative about the winning of control by Elis—which centers on the defeat of Pisa and on its loss of Olympia to Elis—is all in favor of the winner of long-term control: the winner takes all, as it were.
§8. I now take my commentary even further. Pausanias accepts as historical realities not only the two facts that I have just outlined:
(1) Elis took away from Pisa its control of Olympia and the Olympics.
(2) Elis eventually destroyed Pisa.
There is also a third fact, which needs to be placed chronologically somewhere between fact 1 and fact 2:
(3) Elis annexed Pisa in such a way as to integrate the former social structure of Pisa into the existing social structure of Elis.
§9. The sources for this fact of annexation are Diodorus 11.54.1 and Strabo 8.3.2 C336–337, as I noted in Part I Essay 1 Section C§3.9. By contrast, Pausanias does not say anything directly about annexation. Nevertheless, he does imply it in two cases. The first case, already noted, is where Pausanias at 5.10.2 speaks about a defeat of Pisa by Elis in a war that was fought to settle rival claims about the possession of Olympia. As for the second case, there is a myth, reported by Pausanias, where we find implications of annexation. As we will now see, however, the event itself is pictured not as an act of war but as an action of reconciliation. The myth, obviously promoted by the city of Elis, sanitizes the very idea of an annexation of Pisa by Elis, since it tells not about a hostile takeover but, instead, about a peaceful solution to a problem.
§10. Pausanias at 5.16.5 retells the myth. It all starts with the supposedly tyrannical behavior of a king in the distant past. Damophon, king of Pisa, offended the people of Elis and thus embarrassed the people of Pisa; so, the people of Pisa tried to solve the problem of the king’s offense by making amends. But what was the offense? In another passage, Pausanias at 6.22.2 reports that this king almost seized from the people of Elis the custodianship of the Olympics in the Olympiad year 48 = 588 BCE. I mentioned this king Damophon of Pisa already in Part I Essay 1 Section C3§4, where I pointed out that Pausanias would have taken the side of Elis in narrating any conflict between Elis and Pisa over the control of the Olympics—and that is exactly what he does at 6.22.2, where he tells about the activities of the king Damon in Olympiad year 48 = 588 BCE. As far as Pausanias was concerned, Elis, not Pisa, was the legitimate custodian of Olympia and the Olympics ever since the equivalent of 776 BCE, which for Pausanias was Olympiad year 1. So, the offense of the king of Pisa, as we are told in the narrative of Pausanias at 6.22.2, was that he interfered with the Olympics in 588 BCE. Such is the judgment of Pausanias himself. On the basis of what I have been arguing, however, the reality was different: in the early sixth century BCE, it would have been the rulers of Pisa, not of Elis, who actually owned custodianship of Olympia and the Olympics.
§11. Returning to the myth supporting the opposite claim, that Elis and not Pisa had always been the legitimate custodian of the Olympics, we may ask: what was the solution to the problem as described by Pausanias in that paragraph of his that I already cited, at 5.16.5? As we learn from the myth as retold in that paragraph and in the next paragraph, at 5.16.6, the problem was solved by way of establishing a collegium of Sixteen Women, whose tasks were:
(1) making peace between Elis and Pisa, that is, between the two rival claimants to the Olympics
(2) establishing an agōn ‘competition’ of footracing for girls, which was an aspect of a festival called the Hēraia
(3) weaving a peplos or ‘robe’ for the goddess Hērā
(4) establishing two competing khoroi ‘choruses’ of girls—‘choruses’ are the equivalent of ‘singing-and-dancing ensembles’.
§12. What I have just summarized here from two consecutive paragraphs of Pausanias, 5.16.5 and 5.16.6, is the essence of the myth, promoted by the state of Elis and faithfully retold by Pausanias, about the origins of a collegium of Sixteen Women in the state of Elis. The textual transmission of these two paragraphs is at some points garbled, and there are perhaps also genuine confusions in the actual composition of the content. But some of the confusions may not really be confusions after all. Instead, we may be dealing here with a mental process of fusion, not confusion. As I will now argue, there are even cases were we can see a deliberate fusing of chronologies in the version of the myth as retold by Pausanias—which is clearly a version that favors Elis over Pisa.
§13. The favoritism shown toward Elis in the myth as narrated by Pausanias at 5.16.5–6 is most evident in those moments in the narrative where the activities of the Sixteen Women, who are consistently the center of attention in this myth, seem to involve only Elis as a super-territory while at other moments the activities seem to involve women from Pisa as well as women from Elis. In this case, I am ready to argue formally that such moments of hesitation signal not confusion but deliberate fusion—political fusion, ideologizing the realities of an annexation of Pisa by Elis. And the peacemaking performed by the Sixteen Women in the myth, as I argue, is a sanitized way of imagining an annexation that really happened in the fifth century BCE.
§14. My reconstructing here an ideology of political fusion can be linked with aspects of the history of Elis in the fifth century, as analyzed in Part I Essay 1, Part I Essay 9, and Part II Essay 1. And I can summarize here in one sentence the most relevant aspect: Elis, as a state, became a city-state only in the fifth century. Only after Elis became a city-state, in the fifth century, could the political subdivisions of Elis as a state be properly described as phūlaí, which I translate as ‘subdivisions’ of a city-state. Before the fifth century, I argue, the subdivisions of Elis as a territory could simply be called póleis—a word that is actually used by Pausanias, 5.16.5–6, in referring to the native lands of the original Sixteen Women: each one of those women, the myth says, was selected from one of sixteen póleis. I interpret the plural of singular pólis here to mean ‘citadel’ or ‘acropolis’, not ‘city’. In terms of my interpretation, each pólis as a citadel or acropolis would dominate its own sub-territory, while all the sub-territories would be loosely connected to a super-territory that called itself Elis.
§15. After what Pausanias says at 5.16.5–6 about the Sixteen Women as mythologized by the city-state of Elis, he goes on to mention explicitly at 5.16.7 the phūlaí of Elis—I continue to translate this word phūlaí as ‘subdivisions’—and he says that there were eight of them in number. Pausanias adds, again at 5.16.7, that the process of selection for the Sixteen Women was the choosing of two from each one of the eight phūlaí. So, now we see at work here the newer meaning of pólis as ‘city-state’ instead of ‘citadel’ or ‘acropolis’. After all, as Pausanias also says explicitly in this same context, at 5.16.7, the new city-state of Elis came into existence as a pólis only after an older system of confederated territories ruled by póleis in the sense of ‘citadels’ came to an end. Again, I interpret the use of the plural póleis here as a reference to citadels, as if there had once been twelve citadels ruled by twelve rulers, each one of whom would have dominated a subterritory of Elis before Elis ever became a city-state.
§16. The question is, do we see a contradiction here? Pausanias says at 5.16.7, in speaking of the eight phūlaí in the city-state of Elis, that two women were selected from each one of these subdivisions to constitute the collegium of Sixteen Women, but he was saying earlier at 5.16.5–6, in speaking of the sixteen póleis in the territory controlled by Elis, that one woman was selected from each one of those póleis to constitute the original collegium of Sixteen Women.
§17. I see no contradiction. The selection of one woman from each of the sixteen póleis is viewed in terms of myth, whereas the selection of two women from each of the eight phūlaí is viewed in terms of ritual. When I say “myth” and “ritual” here, I follow a working definition of these two terms viewed together (Nagy 2013, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, at 00§13):
Ritual is doing things and saying things in a way that is considered sacred. Myth is saying things in a way that is also considered sacred. So, ritual frames myth.
§18. In terms of this working definition, I now offer an overall analysis of what Pausanias at 5.16.2–7 is saying about a ritual complex, the festival of the Hēraia, which was part of a broader ritual complex, the festival of the Olympics. This ritual complex of the Hēraia, which is a set of activities that I describe as rituals, frames a mythological complex, which is a set of myths that aetiologize the rituals. The rituals of the ritual complex that is the Hēraia are organized by a collegium of Sixteen Women, and these rituals include the following activities, recurring every four years on the occasion of the Olympics:
(1) athletic competitions of girls, in footracing, supervised by the Sixteen Women
(2) choral competitions of girls, that is, competitions in dancing and singing, supervised by the Sixteen Women
(3) weaving of a péplos ‘robe’ for the goddess Hērā, performed by the Sixteen Women themselves
In part of the narrative by Pausanias, at 5.16.2–4, he mentions two of the three ritual activities that I have just listed, the weaving of the robe for Hērā and the footracing. Later on, at 5.16.6, he mentions again the weaving and the footracing, but now he mentions also the third ritual activity, that is, the dancing and the singing of the girls—as also of the women, perhaps. Meanwhile, already at 5.16.4, Pausanias begins to narrate the myths that aetiologize these rituals, starting with a myth about the female hero who was said to have originally organized the collegium of Sixteen Women. She was Hippodameia, bride of Pelops, and she was expressing to Hērā, goddess of marriage, her gratitude for her own marriage to the hero Pelops—who had won Hippodameia in marriage by way of being victorious in a primordial chariot race, a race-to-the-death in competition with Oinomaos, father of Hippodameia. I will have more to say about this chariot race in Part III Sketch 4§§4–5, but I need to emphasize already now the fact that the athleticism of chariot racing, as a ritual activity in its own right, is here being linked, by way of myth, to the athleticism of another ritual activitiy, footracing. The overall ritual complex of the Olympics, which even includes athletic competition by female athletes in footracing, can be seen here as a frame for a central myth that tells about the athletic competition of a male athlete, Pelops, in a prototypical chariot race. The victory of Pelops as a prototypical athlete in that myth aetiologizes, as we will see in Part III Sketch 4§§4–5, the entire ritual complex of the Olympics. And part of that entirety, as I have been arguing, is the festival of the Hēraia, featuring such ritual activities as the competition of female athletes in footracing.
§19. Concluding my analysis of the overall narrative by Pausanias at 5.16.2–7, I now turn from 5.16.4 to 5.16.5–6, where he now narrates another myth, again partial to Elis, about the peacemaking that was supposedly accomplished by the Sixteen Women in persuading the states of Elis and Pisa to settle their dispute over the management of the Olympics. At 5.16.6, it is made explicit in the narrative of this myth that these sixteen women who made peace for both Elis and Pisa had been selected from supposedly sixteen póleis, and that they included women of Pisa as well as women of Elis. This myth aetiologizes not only the annexation of Pisa by Elis—I already made that point earlier—but also the establishment of a permanent status quo for the management of the ritual complex of the Olympics by Elis instead of Pisa. Further, in the middle of 5.16.6, Pausanias starts to round out his narrative by mentioning again the ritual activities supervised by the Sixteen Women, and, this time, he mentions all three of these activities: the footracing, the weaving, and the choral competition.
§20. Still further, at 5.16.7, Pausanias engages in an excursus about the choral competition of dancing and singing at the Hēraia, supervised by the Sixteen Women. And then, finally, toward the end of 5.16.7, Pausanias notes the transformation of Elis into a city-state comprised of eight phūlaí—which was the political status quo of Elis as Pausanias knew it. Here we see the present time of ritual, not the past time of myth. In the present as opposed to the past, the process of selecting the Sixteen Women is different: now two women are selected from each one of the eight phūlaí of Elis, which is now a city-state. By contrast, in the time of myth, there had been sixteen women who were each selected from each one of sixteen póleis in what was all too vaguely described at 5.16.5 as the general territory of Elis. It is as if everything that Pausanias has said in these paragraphs at 5.16.2–7 could now add up as a grand aetiology for such a status quo, to be defined in terms of the ritual practices of the present. Here I must note the relevance of another myth, narrated by Pausanias elsewhere, at 5.3.1, as also by Diodorus (4.33.3–4) and by “Apollodorus” (2.7.2; pp. 249 and 251 ed. Frazer 1921 volume I): according to this myth, Hēraklēs wages war against Augeias, king of Elis, and overthrows him, installing the king’s son Phyleus as the new king of Elis (Pausanias says that Hēraklēs spared the life of Augeias, but the other two sources say that he killed him). As I already pointed out about this myth in Part I Essay 9 §17, the “speaking name” of Phyleus, Phūleús, means that he is ‘the man of the phūlaí’, and, in that sense, Phyleus is the hero of Elis in its new and ostensibly permanent political status as a city-state. I would even argue that the myth of Phyleus is an aetiologization of such a status quo.
§21. Earlier, in Part I Essay 9§17, I already made a comment on the last paragraph of Pausanias that I analyzed here, 5.16.7. In that earlier comment, I emphasized that the state of Elis, in the process of evolving into a full-fledged pólis or ‘city-state’, was actually self-defined by way of its transformation into a city-state consisting of eight subdivisions or phūlaí in a relatively late period of its history, that is, in the “classical” era of the fifth century BCE (commentary in Nagy 1990a:365–366 at 12§52). As I already noted there, the eight phūlaí of Elis were the building-blocks of its new status as a full-fledged pólis or ‘city-state’. By contrast, however, we have seen that Elis prevented Pisa from continuing to exist as the old city that had once hosted the Olympics.
§22. Nevertheless, Pausanias faithfully reports myths about the Olympics that must be traced back to the reality of an era when Pisa did exist as a state—though not as a city-state—and when Pisa, not Elis, was the state that controlled Olympia and the Olympics. The clearest sign in the writings of Pausanias is all the attention he lavished on the Temple of Hērā—as it was known in his time—and on the Chest of Kypselos that was housed in this temple. The myths displayed in the decorations on the Chest, as well as the temple itself, can clearly be dated back to the early sixth century BCE or thereabouts, which would have been, in terms of my argumentation, an era when Pisa was in control. And even the description of the festival of the Hēraia that we read in the paragraphs of Pausanias that I have just analyzed shows many details that can be traced back to the era of Pisa, though they are blended with other details that date from the fifth century, the era when Elis was transformed into a city-state, and even from later times, including the era of Pausanias. And it is Pausanias himself who draws attention to the blending of traditions. He himself notes inconsistencies in what he is reporting. As I contemplate once again the myths and the rituals connected with the Sixteen Women as retold by Pausanias at 5.16.2–7, I am struck by the fact that he admits to having given two different versions about these myths and rituals. I highlight what he says after he is done with a first version about the Sixteen Women at 5.16.2–4 and before he introduces his second version at 5.16.5–6. He says it outright, when he introduces the second version with this wording at 5.16.5: ἐς δὲ τὰς ἑκκαίδεκα γυναῖκας καὶ ἄλλον τοιόνδε λέγουσιν ἐπὶ τῷ προτέρῳ λόγον ‘With regard to the Sixteen Women, they have another account besides the preceding account’.
§23. It would be near-impossible to clarify all the differences between the different versions signaled by Pausanias, where some details can be shown to stem from the era of the Olympics when Pisa was still dominant while others must be dated to the later era when Elis took over completely the management of all aspects of the Olympics—and of the Hēraia as a subset of the Olympics. True, there are some points of clarity, as when Pausanias at 6.24.10, describing his visit to the city-state of Elis, says that he saw there the building where the Sixteen Women of Elis actually perform the weaving of the péplos ‘robe’ to be presented to the goddess Hērā every four years on the occasion of the festival of the Hēraia. In this case, then, the dependence of this ritual practice on the city-state of Elis is clear. But there are other cases where the traditions of myth and ritual seem to show far less dependence on the ultimate influence of Elis. I cite as a prime example the traditions of competitions at the Hēraia, which must take place in Olympia, not in Elis, and where girls compete not only in footracing but also in choral dancing and singing.
§24. For now, however, it is enough to say that the faithful reporting of Pausanias about the myths and rituals of the Hēraia as a festival, especially at 5.16.2–7, reveals a wealth of background about earlier as well as later phases in the evolution of this festival—as also of the Olympics as the larger festival that includes the Hēraia as its subset. And such wealth, as I metaphorize it, is most aptly exemplified by the Temple of Hērā, housing the Chest of Kypselos. Lastly, I should add that it is also most apt that Pausanias introduces his narrative about the myths and rituals of the Hēraia at 5.16.2–7 by first describing, at 5.16.1, the Temple of Hērā itself. This way, the temple becomes a synecdoche for the Hēraia.