Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part III: Essay 5: The hero’s engagement in athletic competitions

2022.11.14 | By Gregory Nagy

Essay 5. The hero’s engagement in athletic competitions

5§0. As we have seen by examining the relevant interactions of myth and ritual in ancient Greek thinking, athletes who participate in athletic competitions are undergoing a ritual ordeal that re-enacts the mythical ordeals of heroes. This way, the distinction between the ritual ordeals of athletes and the mythical ordeals of heroes is neutralized. And this is why heroes in their heroic past can compete as athletes in their own right, thus showing the way for humans in the historical present who compete as athletes.

5§1. As athletes, heroes compensate for the deaths of other heroes just as athletes in historical times compensate for the deaths of heroes. A case in point, as we have just seen, is the aetiological myth embedded in the verses of the Delphic Oracle as quoted by Phlegon (FGH 257 F 1, verses 8-10) about the engagement of the hero Hēraklēs in the athletic competitions at the Olympics, which he organizes in compensation for the death of his maternal relative, the hero Pelops.

5§2. In epic, we find clear examples where the actual poetry of epic views the competitions of heroes in the role of athletes. In the Iliad, we find an expanded narration of the Funeral Games for Patroklos (23.257-897), and there are explicit references to the Games for Amarynkeus (23.629-642) and for Oedipus (23.677-680). And, in the Odyssey, we find a compressed narration of the  Funeral Games for Achilles (24.85-92). A most telling feature of this Homeric narrative in the Odyssey about the Funeral Games for Achilles is the expression epi soi (ἐπί σοι at 24.91) with reference to the prizes to be won in the competitions: once again we see here the preposition epi in combination with the dative case referring to the hero who died and whose death is being compensated by way of athletic competitions for prizes. And the setting for the competitions that take place at the Funeral Games for Achilles is called an agōn here in the Odyssey (24.86), while the prizes to be won in these competitions are called aethla (24.85, 89, 91).

5§3. We find examples of such athletic competitions not only in epic but also in “lyric”: for example, the competitions at the Funeral Games for Pelias were narrated in a song by Stesichorus (PMG F 178 and F 180 ed. Campbell 1991); and there are references in the songs of Pindar to the Funeral Games for Adrastos (Isthmian 4.26), for Protesilaos (Isthmian 4.58), and for Tlepolemos (Olympian 7.80).

5§4. We also find examples in the visual arts, where most of the iconography narrating athletic competitions among heroes centers on the Funeral Games for Patroklos and on the Funeral Games for Pelias. The relevant vase paintings can be dated to the early sixth century BCE (Roller 1981a:108-113; Scanlon 2004:79). With reference to the athletic competitions held in honor of Patroklos, there are two black figure paintings attested: (1) on a fragment of a dinos by Sophilos, dating from about 580 BCE (ABV 39.16) and (2) on the “François Krater” by Kleitias and Ergotimos, dating from about 570 BCE (ABV 76.1). On the dinos we see an inscription that identifies the painting of a scene of chariot racing: ατλα Πατροκλυc = āt(h)la Patrokl(o)us ‘prizes to be won in the contests of Patroklos’ (Roller 1981a:108-109). With reference to the athletic event for Pelias, the two most important pieces of evidence are depictions on two precious artifacts, not vase paintings, that are both now lost: (1) the Chest of Kypselos, dating from the early sixth century BCE, as described by Pausanias (5.17.5-11), and (2) the throne of Apollo at Amyklai, dating from shortly after the middle of the sixth century BCE, again as described (though much more briefly in this case) by Pausanias (3.19.16). In the case of the Chest of Kypselos, it also depicts the chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops, who is shown riding together with his bride-to-be Hippodameia—she is already on board in his chariot (Scanlon 2004:71).

5§5. So far, I have considered only myths about the athletic competitions of heroes in compensation for the deaths of other heroes who lived in heroic times. But we must also consider historical documentation about people in historical times who could likewise compete as athletes to compensate for the deaths of other people who lived in their own times—if and when such other people were deemed worthy of heroic honors. Examples include the athletic festivals established in honor of historical figures like Miltiades (Herodotus 6.38), Brasidas (Thucydides 5.11), and Leonidas (Pausanias 3.14.1). And, in such cases, we can see further attestations of a combination of the preposition epi with the dative case in expressing the idea that the athletic competition is meant as a compensation for the deaths of such historical figures (Nagy 1990a:121n27 at 4§7). A salient example is the expression ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς … τιθέασιν ἀγῶνα ‘they organize a competition [agōn] in-compensation-for [epi] them’ (again, Pausanias 3.14.1), with reference to seasonally recurring competitions held near the cenotaph of Brasidas and the tomb of Leonidas (along with the tomb of another Spartan king, Pausanias).

5§6. As for the athletic events in the mythological world as described in the verbal arts—as also in the visual arts—they closely resemble athletic events as attested in the historical period. For example, in the mythological world  that comes to life in the Homeric narration of the Funeral Games for Patroklos (Iliad 23.257-897), the setting for which is described overall as an agōn ‘competition’ (23.258) for aethla ‘prizes’ (259), the premier event is two-horse chariot-racing (262-652), followed by boxing (653-699), wrestling (700-739), a footrace (740-797), mock combat in full battle gear (798-825), tossing a lump of iron (826-849), archery (850-883), and the casting of spears (884-897).

5§7. Yes, such athletic events in the heroic would seem familiar to listeners of Homeric poetry in the post-heroic age. But such listeners would have noticed some jarring archaisms. A notable example in the Homeric narrative about the Funeral Games for Patroklos is the reference to the tossing of a lump of iron instead of a discus (Scanlon 2004:63). Another archaizing detail is the fact that the racing chariots in the narrative about the chariot race at these funeral games are pulled by two horses instead of four (Scanlon p. 67). A two-horse chariot team, known by its Latin name as the biga, was more suitable for warfare than a four-horse chariot team, known as the quadriga, and there is evidence for the active use of the biga in the Mycenaean era (again, Scanlon p. 67). As for the quadriga, visual representations of its use for racing are poorly attested before the seventh century BCE, but there are clear traces in the seventh; by the early sixth century the visual evidence is amply attested (Scanlon pp. 67-69). According to Pausanias (5.8.7), the athletic event of racing in the quadriga at the festival of the Olympics was introduced already in the 25th Olympiad, that is, in the year 680 BCE (Scanlon p. 67 finds this dating plausible).

5§8. In the text of Homeric poetry as we have it, there are two references to a racing chariot drawn by a team of four horses. In one case (Odyssey 13.81), we find the reference in the context of a Homeric simile. In the other case (Iliad 11.699-672), it has been argued that the narrative is making a veiled reference to the competition in chariot racing at the Olympics (Scanlon 2004:63-89). In terms of this argument, the dating of such a reference could be explained as follows (Scanlon 2004:79):

There can, of course, be no certainty in determining when the Iliad 11 quadriga passage was composed, but given the […] evidence on iconography and popularity of themes, we can reasonably conjecture that it was a product of the evolving Iliadic tradition between 680 [BCE], when the quadriga first appeared in the Olympic program, and 580-40 [BCE], when epic depictions on vases enjoyed great popularity and four-horse chariots were first widely evident in art. More precisely, […] the passage was likely an invention of the first half of the sixth century, the period when the other Panhellenic games and the Panathenaic games are founded or reorganized.

For a similar explanation, I refer also to the book of Douglas Frame (2009:727-746), who argues that the passage we see in Iliad 11.689-672 derives from a version of the Iliad that used to be performed at the festival of the Panathenaia (I note especially his p. 733).

5§9. Now I proceed to consider another relevant example of an epic narration of athletic events. In Odyssey 8, we read about aethloi ‘competitions’ (100) that are about to take place in the public gathering space of the Phaeacians (100-101). Here again, the word agōn ‘competition’ applies to the overall set of athletic events (259). The first event is the footrace (120-125), followed by wrestling (126-127), jumping (128), discus throwing (129), and, finally, boxing (130).

5§10. There are also references in epic to forms of athletic competition that are only rarely attested in the historical evidence. As David Elmer has shown, a striking example is the Homeric mention of a kind of ballgame (Iliad 12.421-423) that dramatizes “the negotiation of competing territorial claims” (Elmer 2008:420). The fighting between the Achaeans and the Trojans over the possession of the Trojan Plain is implicitly being compared here to this game, the basic rules of which can be summarized as follows (Elmer p. 414):

The team that acquired possession threw the ball toward their opponents’ half of the field, while the opposing team had the task of retrieving the ball […] and of casting it back, in turn, toward the opposite side. The object of the game was to force one’s opponents across the base line, thus claiming possession of the entire field. As far as we can tell, the game ended when the field was gained.

5§11. What appears at first to be radically different about epic narrations of athletic events, as we see most clearly in the case of the Funeral Games of Patroklos, is that the events themselves seem to happen only once, by contrast with historical attestations of corresponding athletic competitions. Such competitions, as we have already seen from an overview of the historical evidence, were not one-time events. Rather, they were seasonally recurring events that took place at festivals held year after year, notionally for all eternity. When we take a closer look at epic narrations of athletic competitions, however, we find that first appearances are deceiving. Such competitions as narrated in epic are not really one-time events, since they were narrated again and again at festivals held year after year, notionally for all eternity. And, as we will see, these recurring epic narrations took place in the form of poetic competitions that were being held at these festivals. Moreover, as we will also see, these festivals were the same festivals at which athletic competitions were being held, and the poetry of the poetic competitions at these same festivals could even be coordinated with these athletic competitions.

5§12. But before I can consider the evidence for such a festive coordination of competitions in athletics with competitions in epic performance, I need to provide background by analyzing a poetic tradition that concentrates specifically on athleticism—unlike the poetic tradition of epic, which views athleticism generally as one of the many dimensions of humanity in the world of heroes.

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