Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part III: Athleticism beyond Hēraklēs – Essay 4

2022.11.07 | By Gregory Nagy

Essay 4. Ritual “origins” of athletics

4§0. Here I invoke, as I have invoked in my earlier research on the ritual “origins” of Greek athletics (Nagy 1990a:118 at 4§4), the relevant evidence assembled by Walter Burkert in his handbook on Greek religion, showing that the traditions of ancient Greek athletics evolved out of practices that originated from (1) rituals of initiation into adulthood and (2) rituals of compensation for death (Burkert 1985:105-107). These two kinds of rituals are actually related, since the ritual process of initiation, in and of itself, can be seen as a compensation for death. From an anthropological point of view, a common characteristic of initiation rituals is the figuring of death as a prerequisite for a rebirth from one given age class to another, as in the case of initiations from pre-adult into adult status; in terms of the mentality underlying such rituals of initiation, you must die to your old self in order to be reborn to your new self (Nagy 1990a:118-119 at4§4, 121-122 at 4 §§8–9, with examples and references). [H24H 8a§§2-3]

4§1. Here is a salient example: in the case of athletic competitions at the festival of the Lykaia in Arcadia, these competitions are organically connected with rituals that re-enact the separations of pre-adult and adult age classes, and these rituals are in turn organically connected with a myth that tells about the death and regeneration of an infant hero named Arkas (Nagy 1990a:126 at 4§12, following Burkert 1983:86-87). By contrast, in the case of athletic competitions held at the festival that we know as the Olympics, the Olympia, the existing patterns of separation between pre-adult and adult age classes are no longer overtly ritualized, though the myth that tells about the death and regeneration of the hero Pelops as an infant is still organically connected with an actual athletic competition. In this case, the ritual competition is a single-lap footrace known as the stadion, which is motivated by an aetiological myth about the death of Pelops (Burkert 1983:100; Nagy 1990a:125 at 4§§11-12). In terms of myth and ritual, the single-lap and double-lap footraces known respectively as the stadion and the diaulos at the Olympic Games need to be viewed together as an organic unity (Philostratus On athletics 5 and 6 respectively, as analyzed by Nagy 1990a:123-127 at 4§§10–14). The myth about the death and regeneration of Pelops is artfully retold in Pindar’s Olympian 1 as an alternative narrative within an overall narrative about the origins of the Olympic Games (Nagy 1990a:121-135 at 4§§8–26; Pache 2004:84-94). [H24H 8a§§4–5]

4§2. By applying a comparative perspective, then, we can observe the initiatory aspects of athletics at work in the myth about the death and regeneration of the infant hero Pelops. In this case, the point of comparison is a corresponding myth about the death and regeneration of the infant hero Arkas, which as we have seen serves as an aetiology for the festival of the Lykaia. Such myths can be understood in terms of initiation from boyhood into manhood, for the purpose of preparing men for warfare. Such a ritualized purpose is evident also in such institutions as the seasonally recurring mock battle known as the Ballētus, which we have considered in the context of the Eleusinian Games. More famous examples include the mock battle of Spartan boys in a sacralized space known as the Platanistās ‘Grove of the Plane Trees’ (Pausanias 3.11.2, 3.14.8-9; at 3.20.8, we read that the boys sacrificed to the hero Achilles before they started their mock battle). On the basis of such rituals, we may infer that the institutionalized practices of athletics and warfare were originally viewed as parts of one single ritual continuum. [H24H 8a§6]

4§3. Such an inference, I must note in passing, is not an attempt to essentialize warfare. Given the exponentially increasing horrors of war in modern times, most observers today, including myself, would be repelled by any such attempt. Still, there is no denying that warfare was a fact of life in premodern times —and that it was ritualized in different ways in different societies. [H24H 8a§7]

4§4. Besides the narrative about the death and regeneration of the infant hero Pelops, there is also another narrative that serves as another aetiological myth for yet another athletic event at the Olympics. In this case, the narrative is about the victory of Pelops as an adolescent hero in a four-horse chariot race, which was a race-to-the-death in competition with the hero Oinomaos, father of Hippodameia, the intended bride of the victorious young charioteer. In fact, this narrative serves as the aetiological myth for the athletic event of four-horse chariot racing at the Olympics, as we see from the artful retelling in Pindar’s Olympian 1 (Nagy 1990a:127–135 at 4§§15–26).  [H24H 8a§8]

4§5. From other retellings of this aetiological myth, we learn that the basic motivation for the athletic event of the four-horse chariot race at the Olympics was the death of the hero Oinomaos while he was competing in his prototypical four-horse chariot race with Pelops. We learn what the Delphic Oracle is reputed to have said about the consequences of this prototypical death when we read the reportage of the antiquarian Phlegon of Tralleis, who lived in the second century CE. Here are the words of the Oracle as quoted by Phlegon (FGH 257 F 1 verses 7-8): θῆκε δ’ ἔπειτα ἔροτιν καὶ ἔπαθλα θανόντι | Οἰνομάῳ ‘then he [Pelops] established a festival and contests for prizes [ep-āthla] in honor of the dead Oinomaos’. In terms of this wording as quoted by Phlegon, not only the chariot race but the entire festival of the Olympics was founded by Pelops. Moreover, as we learn from the words of the Delphic Oracle as reported by Phlegon (F 1 verses 6-7), Pelops was in fact only the second founder of the Olympics: the Oracle says (F 1 verses 5-6) that the first founder was Pisos, the eponymous hero of Pisa. As we saw in Part II, Pisa was the city that controlled the Olympics before control of the festival was seized by a rival state, Elis. In this connection, I recall a relevant detail I highlighted in Part II Essay 2§3: Pisos too, like Pelops, was a charioteer. The charioteering of Pisos is mentioned by Pausanias at 5.17.9, where he says that he saw adorning the Chest of Kypselos a picture of this hero, along with lettering that labeled him as Pisos, in the act of driving a two-horse chariot in a race held at the Funeral Games for Pelias. So, in terms of the myths underlying the words of the Oracle as quoted by Phlegon, we can see a clear parallelism: just as the second founder of the Olympics was Pelops the charioteer, the first founder of the festival, Pisos, was also known as a charioteer. Also relevant is a third founder: as I noted in Part II Essay 2§4, the words of the Oracle quoted by Phlegon say not only that Pisos was the very first founder of the Olympics (F 1 verses 5–6), and that Pelops was the second founder (F 1 verses 6–8), but also that Hēraklēs was the third founder (F 1 verses 9–10). And the wording of the Oracle draws a parallel between the act of foundation by Hēraklēs and the act of foundation by Pelops. I show here the relevant wording about Hēraklēs as quoted by Phlegon (F 1 verses 8-10): τρίτατος δ’ ἐπὶ τοῖς πάϊς ᾿Αμφιτρύωνος | ῾Ηρακλέης ἐτέλεσσ’ ἔροτιν καὶ ἀγῶνα ἐπὶ μήτρῳ | Τανταλίδῃ Πέλοπι φθιμένῳ ‘after them [= the first two founders of the Olympics] the third was Hēraklēs  son of Amphitryon: he established the festival and the competition [agōn] in honor of [epi] his maternal relative, the dead Pelops, son of Tantalos’. [H24H 8a§9]

4§6. In the case of Hēraklēs as also in the case of Pelops, we see in the wording that describes their agency in the founding of the Olyympics the same syntactical construction that we saw earlier in the compressed retelling of the aetiological myth that motivated the foundation of the athletic competition ‘in honor of’ the infant hero Demophon. I repeat here the wording as we found it in Hesychius: Βαλλητύς· ἑορτὴ Ἀθήνησιν, ἐπὶ Δημοφῶντι τῷ Κελεοῦ ἀγομένη ‘Ballētus is a festival in Athens, celebrated in honor of [epi] Demophon son of Keleos’. Once again, I have translated the preposition epi (ἐπὶ) here in combination with the name of Demophon in the dative case as ‘in honor of the dead Demophon’. But this translation, as I have noted already, is inadequate, and it would be more accurate to word it this way: ‘in compensation for [the death of] Demophon’. After all, as we saw in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the athletic competition of the Ballētus is overtly described as an act of compensation, recurring at the right season into all eternity, and this competition is understood to be an eternal compensation for one single all-important fact: that the hero Demophon must die. [H24H 8a§10]

4§7. The necessity of this death, of this primal ordeal of the hero in myth, is what motivates in aetiological terms the corresponding necessity of the seasonally recurring ordeals of participants in the ritual athletic competition of the Ballētus. And we have just seen a corresponding expression in the words of the Delphic Oracle as reported by Phlegon (FGH 257 F 1 verses 8-10): τρίτατος δ’ ἐπὶ τοῖς πάϊς ᾿Αμφιτρύωνος | ῾Ηρακλέης ἐτέλεσσ’ ἔροτιν καὶ ἀγῶνα ἐπὶ μήτρῳ | Τανταλίδῃ Πέλοπι φθιμένῳ ‘after them [= the first two founders of the Olympics] the third was Hēraklēs son of Amphitryon: he established the festival and the competition [agōn] in-honor-of [epi] his maternal relative, the dead Pelops, son of Tantalos’. And again, it would be more accurate to reword the translation: ‘in-compensation-for-the-death-of [epi] his maternal relative, Pelops, son of Tantalos’. A parallel translation is needed for the wording attributed to the Delphic Oracle’s description of the competitions in honor of Oinomaos as instituted by Pelops. I repeat here the wording as quoted by Phlegon (F 1 verses 7-8): θῆκε δ’ ἔπειτα ἔροτιν καὶ ἔπαθλα θανόντι | Οἰνομάῳ ‘then he [Pelops] established a festival and contests for prizes [ep-āthla] in-honor-of [epi] the dead Oinomaos’. I now retranslate this way: ‘then he [Pelops] established a festival and contests for prizes [‑āthla] in-compensation-for-the-death-of [ep‑] Oinomaos’. In this case, the myth makes it clear that the compensation was needed because Pelops himself had caused, wittingly or unwittingly, the death of Oinomaos in the course of their chariot race with each other (“Apollodorus” Epitome 2.7). [H24H 8a§11]

4§8. This kind of aetiology is typical of athletic contests. A case in point is the Tlēpolemeia, a seasonally recurring festival of athletic contests held on the island of Rhodes and named after Tlepolemos, son of Hēraklēs and founder of Rhodes (Nilsson 1906:462-463). In the words of the poet Pindar, this athletic festival was founded by the hero Tlepolemos as a lutron ‘compensation’ for a ‘pitiful misfortune’ (Olympian 7.77 λύτρον συμφορᾶς οἰκτρᾶς). The ‘misfortune’ or catastrophe to which Pindar’s wording refers is the hero’s deranged slaying of a maternal relative (7.27-32, with commentary by Nagy 1990a:140 at 5§§6–7). [H24H 8a§12]

4§9. It can be said in general that athletic festivals were aetiologically motivated by myths that told of a hero’s catastrophic death (Roller 1981a:107n4; an extensive set of examples is collected by Pfister 1912:496-497; see also Brelich 1958:94-95). In the case of the three other most prestigious athletic festivals besides the Olympic Games in the Peloponnesus, that is, in the region recognized by all Hellenes as the cradle of their ancient Hellenic civilization, the relevant foundation myths are as follows (Roller 1981a:107n5; Nagy 1990a:120 at 4§6):

– Pythian Games, founded by the Amphiktyones in compensation for the killing of the Python by Apollo: ἐπὶ τῷ Πύθωνος φόνῳ ‘in-compensation-for [epi] the killing of the Python [by Apollo]’ (Aristotle F 637.16).

– Isthmian Games, founded by the hero Sisyphus in compensation for the death of the infant hero Melikertes, who was also known as Palaimon: τὸν ἀγῶνα ἐπ’ αὐτῷ ‘the competition [agōn] in-compensation-for [epi] him’ (Pausanias 2.1.3).

– Nemean Games, founded by the heroes known as the Seven against Thebes, in compensation for the death, by snakebite, of the infant hero Arkhemoros, who was also known as Opheltes: ἄθλησαν ἐπ’ ᾿Αρχεμόρῳ ‘they [= the Seven] endured ordeals [āthloi] in-compensation-for [epi] Arkhemoros’ (Bacchylides 9.12). In poetic terms, the antidote for the prototypical snakebite is the singing of ep-aoidai ‘incantations’ (Pindar Nemean 8.49), and such songs (aoidai means ‘songs’) counteract the deadly venom by celebrating athletic victories that are won at the Nemean Games in compensation for the prototypical death (Nemean 49-53). [H24H 8a§13]

4§10. As we have seen, then, the idea of athletics as a ritual activity that compensates for the death of a hero in myth can be expressed by combining the prefix / preposition / preverb epi‑ (ἐπι‑) with the dative case referring to that hero. So far, we have seen this usage in the context of athletic competitions that are aetiologically motivated by the death of a hero in myth, as in the case of the Eleusinian Games as well as the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean Games. But the aetiological motivation of compensating for a death can extend from mythical times to historical times as well. For example, I cite the evidence of dedicatory inscriptions that memorialize various prizes won at athletic competitions held in honor of persons who died in historical times: from a study of eight such inscriptions (collected by Roller 1981b:2-3), ranging in date from the early seventh to the middle fifth century BCE, we can see that the texts of seven of these eight inscriptions show a combination of the preposition epi with the dative case of the name of the dead person who is being honored by way of the competitions (Nagy 1990a:120-121 at 4§7). The same combination can also be found in inscriptions on gravestones where the gravestone itself is notionally speaking by way of the letters inscribed on the gravestone, saying that ‘I am’ here as a compensation for the death of the person whose dead body is marked by ‘me’ (for example, IG VII 605 επι Φαεινιδι ειμι ‘I am [here] in-compensation-for [epi] [the death of] Phaeinis’; examples collected by Häusle 1979:130n330)

4§11. Conversely, the aetiological motivation of compensating for a death can extend from historical times to mythical times. That is to say, ritual competition in athletics can be performed not only by athletes in historical times but also by heroes who compete as athletes in mythical times. A case in point is the hero Hēraklēs, who as we saw was considered to be a founder of the athletic festival of the Olympics. Here again are the words of the Delphic Oracle as quoted by Phlegon (FGH 257 F 1 verses 8-10): τρίτατος δ’ ἐπὶ τοῖς πάϊς ᾿Αμφιτρύωνος | ῾Ηρακλέης ἐτέλεσσ’ ἔροτιν καὶ ἀγῶνα ἐπὶ μήτρῳ | Τανταλίδῃ Πέλοπι φθιμένῳ ‘after them [= the first two founders of the Olympics] the third was Hēraklēs son of Amphitryon: he established the festival and the competition [agōn] in-compensation-for [epi] his maternal relative, the dead Pelops, son of Tantalos’. In terms of this myth, as we have already seen in Part I Essay 3§24 from a retelling by Diodorus of Sicily (4.14.1-2), the hero Hēraklēs not only founded—or re-founded—this major athletic festival but also competed in every athletic event on the prototypical occasion of the first Olympics as founded—or re-founded—by this hero: on that occasion, he won first prize in every Olympic event.



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