We’re half-way through our series on The World of Heart of Fire, and I hope you’ve been enjoying the posts thus far.
At this point, I think it apt to stop and look at one of the central aspects of the book, and the ancient Olympics in general: Religion.
It might be difficult for us to imagine today, especially when our modern Olympic Games are more dominated by advertisements and the media in general; we are more likely to associate Adidas and Coke with the Olympics rather than a deep-rooted belief if our chosen god or gods.
But we are talking about the ancient world here, a time when the occurrence of the Olympic Games stopped wars across the Greek world in honour of the gods.
The Olympic Games were, first and foremost, a religious festival to honour Zeus.
But it is not as straightforward as that.
The concepts of ponos (one’s personal toil), philoneikia (love of competing), and philonikia (love of winning) were, as we have discussed in previous posts, central to a champion’s psyche, and to ancient Greek society in general.
To better oneself, to perfect oneself physically and mentally, was to honour the gods themselves.
In order to better understand the ancient world, we need to change our perspective. It’s important to remember that, though many people today don’t even think twice about religion, or believe in any sort of god, this was not so in Ancient Greece, or the rest of the ancient world for that matter.
In the ancient world, people believed the gods were everywhere, that they had a role to play in every aspect of life, whether one was starting a new business, setting out on a journey, going into battle, or lining up at the starting line for an Olympic foot race.
The gods affected everything, and so they were always given their due. The ancient Olympics were no exception to this.
Everything, every event at ancient Olympia was accented with religion and ceremony because the gods themselves were watching.
In the Altis alone there were sixty-nine altars where the Theokoloi, the priests of Olympia, competitors, trainers, and spectators could make offerings to the gods. These were in addition to the magnificent temples of Zeus and Hera which dominated the sanctuary.
There was a whole industry of faith at Olympia as well, for in the south stoa and other places, vendors sold votive statues in clay or bronze, including figures of horses, chariots, running men, and tripods. One could also obtain animals for sacrifice, herbs, oils and more.
Individuals would have made offerings with their prayers for victory during their time at Olympia, prior to their events, and afterward.
There were sacrifices and offerings to the gods at the opening of every day, and before events such as the chariot race where an altar lay near the starting gates on the track of the hippodrome.
There were also the marquee religious ceremonies of the Olympic Games which all athletes, trainers and others were expected to attend.
If you have watched the opening ceremony of a modern Olympic Games, you will know that the athletes always take the Olympic Oath.
In the ancient Olympics, the Oath-taking ceremony was a solemn occasion. The ceremony took place at an altar, beside the Bouleuterion, where a wild boar was sacrificed to Zeus Horkios (Zeus of Oaths).
This was overseen by the Theokoloi, and during the proceedings, athletes would swear that they had trained for at least ten months, and that they would compete honourably and not shame the games.
Another part of the Olympics we are all familiar with is the lighting of the Olympic flame.
Just to the northwest of the temple of Hera, was located a square enclosure and buildings called the Prytaneion. This was built in the sixth century B.C. and was used to put on banquets for Olympic victors and other officials.
More importantly, the Prytaneion was where the Eternal Olympic Flame burned beside the altar of the goddess Hestia, the goddess of the hearth and home. This was a sacred place at Olympia, and the fact that victors were celebrated beside the Eternal Flame speaks to the greatness, and divine sanction, of their achievement.
There were also religious relics on-site at ancient Olympia, making it not only a place for competition, but also of pilgrimage, perhaps more so the latter. These relate mainly to the story of Pelops and Hippodameia and that foundation myth of the Olympic Games.
You see, the ancient Greeks firmly believed in the tale of Pelops and Hippodameia, that particular hero-couple being the parents of Atreus, and grandparents of Agamemnon and Menelaus, the kings of Mycenae and Sparta.
To the Greeks visiting Olympia, this was history.
In the temple of Hera there was said to be an ornamental couch that served as a reliquary for Hippodameia’s bones, she who had helped Pelops win against her father and who, in thanks, established the Heraia, the games in honour of Hera in thanks for the victory.
In the treasury of the Sikyionians, at the north end of the Altis, in the shadow of the Hill of Kronos, there were relics of Pelops himself. One of these was his dagger, and the other was an ivory shoulder blade which travelled to Troy and back during the Trojan War.
The shoulder blade was said to be the one that the gods fashioned to replace the original mistakenly eaten by Demeter when Pelops’ wicked father, Tantalus, served his son to the gods at a banquet. The gods resurrected Pelops, and the rest is Olympic myth and history.
The cult of Pelops was powerful at ancient Olympia. Other than the cenotaphs, memorials, and horse burials that were said to be raised by Pelops and Hippodameia around Olympia, the focus of the cult was the Pelopion.
This was the barrow mound, or burial, of Pelops himself which was located in the middle of the Altis between the temples of Hera and Zeus. Some important scenes in Heart of Fire take place at this monument which was surrounded by a pentagonal enclosure, and where offerings were made to the shade of Pelops.
As mentioned before, religious ceremony was central to the Olympic Games, and the greatest of these ceremonies, most agree, happened on the third day of the games.
This was the hecatomb in honour of Zeus.
What is a hecatomb?
Well, it’s the sacrifice of one hundred cattle.
Can you imagine what that must have been like…the sound of one hundred lowing cattle, the tang of blood in the air, and the smoke of the offerings as the bones wrapped in fat were offered to the gods, and the lean cuts were roasted for everyone at Olympia.
This was a solemn ritual that would have kept the Theokoloi and their attendants extremely busy, but it was all for Zeus, King of the Gods, and it did not get more serious than that.
The sacrifices would have taken place at the Great Altar of Zeus which was located in the middle of the Altis. This altar was said to be a large, cone-shaped structure that was made up of piled ash and bones from centuries of offerings.
Pausanias describes the Great Altar where the hecatomb was offered to Zeus:
The altar of Olympic Zeus is about equally distant from the Pelopion and the sanctuary of Hera, but it is in front of both. Some say that it was built by Idaean Heracles, others by the local heroes two generations later than Heracles. It has been made from the ash of the thighs of the victims sacrificed to Zeus… (Pausanias Description of Greece 5.13.8)
There can be no doubt that the most important religious structures in the Altis of ancient Olympia were the temples of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the Olympian gods. These two ancient structures rose above the mass of altars, statues, and milling crowds, the powerful, archaic columns simple and strong, fitting for the dwelling place of the gods at Olympia.
Though the Games were dedicated to Zeus, Hera was certainly given her due at Olympia.
When Pelops was victorious in his chariot race against Hippodameia’s father, Oinomaus, Hippodameia established the Heraia, the games in honour of Hera, in thanks for the victory. This was the only event for women that was held on the sacred ground of Olympia.
As mentioned, Hippodameia’s bones were kept in a couch inside the temple of Hera, but also kept within that temple were the twenty shields that were used in the Olympic hoplite race, the hoplitodromos.
The centrepiece of the Altis however, was indeed the temple of Olympian Zeus.
This temple contained the titanic chryselephantine statue of Zeus, created on site by the sculptor Pheidias, whose workshop was just outside the Altis. The statue was made of ivory and gold and portrayed Zeus seated on his throne with the goddess Nike in his hand, that goddess who crowned the victors.
Now you know where the shoe company gets its name!
The victory ceremony was a solemn religious occasion that happened after a competitor was proclaimed ‘best among the Greeks’ and given a linen headband as a sign of their victory.
After that, there was a procession of victors through the Altis to the temple of Zeus, with onlookers showering the victors with phylobolia, fresh flowers and greens.
Before Zeus, men were crowned with the sacred olive crowns in a ceremony called the ‘binding of the crown’. These crowns were made from boughs of the sacred olive trees that were located near the temple of Zeus.
It may be hard for us to imagine this moment, when an ancient athlete was crowed before the gods. It was indeed a deeply religious moment, with the singing of hymns in honour of Herakles, Zeus’ son.
It was believed that men won, not only by skill and training, but more so by divine grace. Sacrifices were made at this time, and then victors enjoyed a meal in the Prytaneion in the presence of the eternal Olympic flame.
Of course, ancient sources are sparse, and the exact details of every aspect of ceremony at the ancient Olympics cannot be known for sure. However, what has come down to us paints enough of a picture to help us understand that the ancient games were not just about running and pounding away at one’s opponent.
Attending the ancient Olympics, for ancient Greeks, was a pilgrimage that deserved respect, a sacred rite to honour the gods through skill and performance, and, if the gods smiled, through victory.
If you ever get a chance to walk the grounds of ancient Olympia, you will certainly get a sense of the deep connection between religion and the Olympic Games.
In the next post, we will look at one of the oldest Olympic sports that plays a big role in Heart of Fire: Boxing.
Thank you for reading!
Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics is now available in e-book and paperback formats. CLICK HERE to check it out!
When you enter the abode of the god
Which smells of incense, you must be pure
And thought is pure when you think with piety
This was the inscription that greeted pilgrims who passed through the propylaia, the main gate into the sanctuary of the god Asklepios at ancient Epidaurus.
Last week we looked at the world-famous ancient theatre of Epidaurus, and the marvel of artistic engineering that it was. This week, however, we will step into the quiet realm of the sanctuary of the God of Healing, a place that was famous around the ancient world for the miracles of health and healing that occurred there.
After our visit to the theatre, when the sun was at its most intense, we walked back down the steep stairs toward the back of the sanctuary where the small, but wonderful, site museum is located. It was time to get into the shade for a few minutes.
This museum is quite unassuming, but it has some amazing architectural and everyday artifacts.
The vestibule contains cabinets filled with oil lamps, containers and phials that were used for medicines and ointments within the sanctuary, as well as surgical implements and votive offerings.
Above the cabinets and into the main room of the museum, there are reliefs and cornices from the temple of Asklepios decorated with lion heads, acanthus, and meander designs, many of which still have the original paint on them.
However, in the first part of the museum are some plain-looking stele that are covered in inscriptions recording the remedies given at Epidaurus, and the miracles of healing at the sanctuary in ancient times. These inscriptions are where much of our knowledge of the sanctuary comes from.
We walked out of the vestibule into the slightly crowded main museum room where most of the tourists who were on site seemed to be cooling off.
But I didn’t notice the people. My eyes were drawn, once more, to the magnificent remains of the Tholos, and temple of Asklepios – ornate Corinthian capitals, cornices decorated with lion heads, and the elaborately-carved roof sections of the temple’s cella, the inner sanctum.
I stood before the statues of Athena and Asklepios that had adorned various parts of the sanctuary, and the winged Nikes that stood high above pilgrims, gazing out from their corners of the roof of the temple of Artemis, the second largest temple of the sanctuary.
I wondered if the people walking through the museum realized how beautiful the statues they were walking by actually were, the meaning they held for those coming to the sanctuary in search of help.
Once we had cooled off a bit, we gathered ourselves to head back out into the heat and head for the sanctuary of Asklepios just north of the museum and theatre.
The site was completely empty.
It seemed that most visitors headed for the theatre alone, some to the museum afterward, but none wanted to tough it out among the ruins of one of the most famous sanctuaries in the ancient world.
The Sanctuary of Asklepios lies on the Argolid plain, with Mt. Arachnaio and Mr. Titthion to the north. The former was said to have been a home of Zeus and Hera, and the latter, whose gentle slopes lead down to the plain, was said to have been where Asklepios was born.
To the south of the sanctuary is Mt. Kynortion, where there was a shrine to Apollo, Asklepios’ father, and farther to the south are the wooded slopes of Mt. Koryphaia, where the goddess Artemis is said to have wandered.
This is a land of myth and legend, a world of peace and healing, green and mild, dotted with springs. The sanctuary was actually called ‘the sacred grove’.
Asklepios, as a god of healing, was worshiped at Epidaurus from the 5th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. According to archaeologist Angeliki Charitsonidou, it was the sick who turned to Asklepios, people who had lost all hope of recovery – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed, the dumb, the wounded, the sterile – all of them wanting a miracle.
But who was Asklepios?
Some believed he learned medicine from the famous centaur, Cheiron, in Thessaly. Another tale from the Homeric ages makes Asklepios a mortal man, a king of Thessaly, whose sons Machaon and Podaleirios fought in the Trojan War, and who learned medicine from their father.
Eventually, it came to be believed that Asklepios was a demi-god, born of a union between Apollo and a mortal woman. His father was also a god of healing and prophecy, both of which went hand-in-hand in the ancient world. The snake was a prophetic creature, and a creature of healing, so it is no wonder this animal came to be associated with Asklepios and medicine.
At Epidaurus, snakes were regarded as sacred, as a daemonic force used in healing at the sanctuary. These small, tame, blondish snakes were so revered that Roman emperors would send for them when in need.
The thing about Asklepios was that he was said to know the secret of death, that he had the ability to reverse it because he was born of his own mother’s death. Zeus, as king of the gods, believed that this went against the natural order, and so he killed Asklepios with a bolt of lightning.
There are no written records of medical interventions by the priests of Epidaurus in the early centuries of its existence. The healing that occurred was only through the appearance of the god himself. However, over time the priesthood of Epidaurus began to question patients about their ailments, and prescribe routines of healing or exercise that would carry out the instructions given to pilgrims by Asklepios in the all-important dreams, the enkoimesis, which they had in the abato of the sanctuary.
It is quite a feeling to walk the grounds of the sanctuary at Epidaurus, to be in a place where people believed they had been touched or aided by a god, and actual miracles had occurred and were recorded.
Faith and the Gods are a big part of ancient history, and cannot be separated from the everyday. I’ve always found that I get much more out of a site, a better connection, when I keep that in mind. You have to remove the goggles of hindsight and modern doubt to understand the ancient world and its people.
From the museum we walked past the ruins of the hospice, or the ‘Great Lodge’, a massive square building that was 76 meters on each side, two-storied, and contained rooms around four courtyards. This is where later pilgrims and visitors to the sanctuary and the games that were held in the stadium there would stay.
Without a map of what you are looking at, it’s difficult to pick out the various structures. Most of the remains are rubble with only the foundations visible. This sanctuary was packed with buildings, and apart from a few bath houses, a palaestra (22), a gymnasium (23), a Roman odeion (24), the stadium (26) and a large stoa (7), there are some ruins that one is drawn to, notably the temples.
I’m not sure why temples, among all those other ruins, are such a draw. Perhaps it is the mystery that surrounds them? Maybe it’s the fact that they were the beating heart of ancient sanctuaries where, for centuries, the devout focussed their energies?
The sanctuary of Asklepios has several temples the largest being dedicated to the God of Healing himself, within which there stood a large chryselephantine statue of Asklepios.
There were also temples to Artemis (the second largest on-site), Aphrodite, Themis, Apollo and Asklepios of Egypt (a Roman addition), and the Epidoteio which was a shrine to the divinities Hypnos (sleep), Oneiros (Dream), and Hygeia (Health). These latter divinities were key to the healing process at Epidaurus.
As I sit at my desk writing this post on a chilly November evening, fighting my first cold of the season, I’m warmed by my memories of the sanctuary – the sunlight, the heat, the fresh air, the sight of green trees with a backdrop of mountains with the sea not far beyond.
That’s the type of place ancient Epidaurus was, and still is; a sacred escape where the mind, body, and soul could recuperate. It still feels like that, even in memory.
As the cicadas yammered on in their bucolic frenzy, and bees and butterflies wended their way among the fallen pieces of the ancient world, our feet crunched along on the gravel pathway, past the ruins of the palaestra, gymnasium, and odeion to an intersection in the sacred precinct of the sanctuary.
I looked down at my map and found that I stood with the temple of Artemis to my right as I faced the ruins of what was the magnificent temple of Asklepios to the north. You can see the foundations, the steps leading up.
The image of Asclepius is, in size, half as big as the Olympian Zeus at Athens, and is made of ivory and gold. An inscription tells us that the artist was Thrasymedes, a Parian, son of Arignotus. The god is sitting on a seat grasping a staff; the other hand he is holding above the head of the serpent; there is also a figure of a dog lying by his side. On the seat are wrought in relief the exploits of Argive heroes, that of Bellerophon against the Chimaera, and Perseus, who has cut off the head of Medusa. (Pausanias on Epidaurus – from the Description of Greece; Book 2.27.2)
I wondered how many pilgrims, how many people in need had walked, limped or crawled up those steps seeking the god’s favour.
I turned to my left to see a large, flat area of worn marble that was once the great altar of Apollo where pilgrims made blood sacrifices to Apollo and Asklepios in the form of oxen or cockerels, or bloodless offerings like fruit, flowers, or money.
Standing there, you can imagine the scene – smoke wafting out of the surrounding temples with the strong smell of incense, the slow drip of blood down the sides of the great altar, the tender laying of herbs and flowers upon the white marble, all in the hopes of healing.
As people would have stood at the great altar, they would have seen one of the key structures of the sanctuary beyond it, just to the west – the Tholos.
The Tholos was a round temple that was believed to be the dwelling place of Asklepios himself. It was here that, after a ritual purification with water from the sanctuary, that pilgrims underwent some sort of religious ordeal underground in the narrow corridors of a labyrinth that lay beneath the floor of the Tholos’ cella, the inner sanctum.
After their ritual ordeal, pilgrims would be led to the abato, a long rectangular building to the north of the Tholos and temple of Asklepios.
The abato is where pilgrims’ souls would be tested in by away of the Enkoimesis, a curative dream that they had while spending the night in the abato.
I have to admit that on previous visits to Epidaurus, I had by-passed the abato, this crucial structure where the god is said to have visited and healed pilgrims. This time, however, I went into the remains (which have been partially restored), and stood still for a while.
Miracles happened in this place, and there are over 70 recorded inscriptions that have survived which detail some of them – mute children suddenly being able to speak, sterile women conceiving after their visit to sanctuary, a boy covered in blemishes that went away after carrying out the treatment given to him by Asklepios in a dream. There are many such stories that have survived, and probably many more than that we do not know of.
As I stood in the abato, careful not to step on any snakes that may have been hiding along the base of the walls, I reflected on the examples of healing on the posted placard. It seemed that the common thread to all the dreams that patients had was that Asklepios visited them in their dreams and, either touched them, or prescribed a treatment which subsequently worked.
For a moment, I had my doubts, but then I remembered where I was, and for how many thousands of years people had been coming to this sanctuary for help, and had been healed.
Sleep. Dream. Health.
When I think of those divinities who were also worshiped at Epidaurus, right alongside Asklepios, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. In fact, standing there, in that place of peace and tranquility, it seemed highly likely.
The people mentioned on the votive inscriptions – those who left vases, bronzes, statues, altars, buildings and fountains as thank offerings to the god and his sanctuary for the help they received – those people were real, as real as you or I. They confronted sickness, disease, and worry, just as we do.
Today, some people turn to their chosen god for help when they are in despair. Others turn to the medical professionals whom they hope have the skill and compassion to cure them.
At ancient Epidaurus, people could get help from both gods and skilled healers, each one dependent on and respectful of the other.
As we walked back to our car, the sun now dipping orange behind the mountains to the west, I thought about how special this place was, how the voices of Epidaurus, its sanctuary, and its great theatre, will never die or fade.
Indeed, just as Asklepios was said to have done, this is a place that defies death.
As we drove away, I found myself looking forward to my next return visit, and the new things that I will discover.
Thank you for reading.