Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part III: Athletics at Panhellenic festivals – Essay 7

2022.11.28 | By Gregory Nagy

Essay 7. Athletics at Panhellenic festivals

7§0. Pindar’s epinician songs were textual transmitted in the form of four scrolls canonically arranged to match the four most prestigious festivals celebrated in the Peloponnesus:

– The Olympic Games, operating on a four-year cycle, were celebrated at Olympia in the summer of every fourth year of the calendar as we number it, starting at 776 BCE.

– The Pythian Games, starting at 586 BCE, also operating on a four-year cycle, was celebrated at Delphi in the summer of every second year after the Olympics.

– The Isthmian Games, starting at 582 BCE, operating on a two-year cycle, was celebrated at the Isthmus of Corinth in the spring of each even-numbered year of the calendar as we number it, before the summer festivals of the Olympia and the Pythia.

– The Nemean Games, starting at 573 BCE, operating on a two-year cycle, was celebrated at Nemea on odd-numbered years of the calendar as we number it, one year before and one year after the festival of the Olympia.

The four scrolls of Pindar’s epinician songs, the Olympians, Pythians, Isthmians, and Nemeans, originally followed the order that is given here, though the ordering of the Nemeans and the Isthmians was accidentally switched at a later point in the course of their textual transmission (Irigoin 1952:100). These four festivals are known as the Panhellenic Games.

7§1. The Panhellenic prestige of these four festivals, headed by the Olympics as notionally started in 776 BCE, was rivaled, however, by the newer Panhellenic prestige of the festival of the Great Panathenaia, started in 566 BCE. This newer festival, operating on a four-year cycle, was celebrated at Athens in the late summer after the earlier summer celebration of the Pythian Games in that same year, which as we have seen took place every second year after the Olympics (Bell 1995:18).

7§2. The seasonally recurring celebration of the Great Panathenaia in Athens, a grandest of festivals, was evidently designed to rival and even to outdo the four most prestigious older festivals celebrated in the Peloponnesus. And, as in the case of the Olympic and the Pythian and the Isthmian and the Nemean Games in the Peloponneus, the Panathenaic Games in Athens, outside the Peloponnesus, were likewise ritually motivated by an aetiological myth about the death of a prototypical hero. In this case, as we can see from what we read in Hesychius (under the entry ἐπ’ Εὐρυγύῃ ἀγών) with reference to the testimony of Amelesagoras (FGH 330 F 2), the combination of the preposition epi with the dative of the name Euruguēs indicates that the death of the hero who was called by this name led to the founding of the Panathenaia (Nagy 1990a:121n26 at 4§7).

7§3. Here are two indications of the rivalry between the Great Panathenaia and the other four Panhellenic games:

– the parallelism between the athletic competitions (agōnes) at the Great Panathenaia and at the Olympics

– the parallelism between the ‘musical’ competitions (agōnes) at the Great Panathenaia and at the Pythia.

As we will see in Essay 8§3, the idea of ‘musical’ competitions is essential for understanding the correlation of epic and athletics.

 



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