Some of the most timeless stories in western literature are about the heroes of ancient Greece.
For millennia people have been inspired by Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus, Achilles and Odysseus. Many an ancient king and warrior has tried to emulate the actions and personae of these heroes, and even claimed descent from them.
Far and away, the greatest hero of all was Herakles.
There are so many stories related to Herakles (‘Hercules’ of you were Roman) in mythology that it’s impossible to cover all of them in a simple blog post. A book would be required for that.
So, this post is going to be the first in a two-part series on the hero. There are countless triumphant deeds associated with Herakles, but for our purposes here, I’m going to cover the most famous of all – The Twelve Labours.
The Twelve Labours of Herakles have been the subject of art, sculpture and song for ages. Their portrayal decorated the ancient world from the images on vases to the metopes on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. In our modern age, we’ve seen him in comics, television shows, and movies.
But who was Herakles? Where did he come from?
Herakles was born in the city of Thebes. He was the son of Zeus who begat him on Alcmene, a granddaughter of Perseus and Andromeda. Zeus came to her in the guise of her mortal husband, Amphitryon, and so Herakles was born.
From the beginning, Herakles showed that he was not a ‘normal’ person. Out of jealousy, Hera, Queen of the Gods and wife of Zeus, sent two snakes to kill the baby Herakles in his cot. Herakles strangled the snakes with his bare baby hands.
When he was 18 years of age, Herakles began to really make a name for himself by slaying a lion on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron after hunting it for fifty days. During that time, he stayed with the king of Thespiae who was so impressed with the youth that he had him beget children on all fifty of his daughters.
Herakles was a man of extreme prowess, deeds, emotion and appetites.
King Creon of Thebes rewarded Herakles for helping him against his enemy, Erginus, king of the Minyans by giving him the hand of his daughter Megara, with whom the hero had several children.
This is where things sour for the young hero. After all, this is a Greek story, and tragedy is never far behind to bring even the mightiest of heroes back to Earth.
Hera stepped in to afflict Herakles with madness, causing him to kill his wife and children. When his sanity returned, he was overcome with grief and went to the Oracle at Delphi for advice.
The Oracle told him to go to Tyrins and serve its king, Eurystheus, for twelve years, as punishment for his brutal crime. He had to complete all tasks set for him by the king, and this is the origin of The Twelve Labours.
It’s curious that the name ‘Herakles’ means ‘Glory of Hera’, since she persecuted him so much throughout his life. Then again, perhaps as Hera is the root cause of his Labours, his triumphs reflect on her?
I – The Nemean Lion
This first labour is probably his most famous, and takes us to the ancient land of the Argolid peninsula. The lion that was terrorizing the hills about Nemea had skin that was impenetrable to weapons and so Herakles, when he faced it, choked it to death with his brute strength and then used the claws to skin it. It’s this skin, which he used as a hooded cloak, that the hero became known for in art. If you see someone with a lion’s head on their own, it’s likely Herakles, or someone trying to emulate him.
As a side note, Nemea was thereafter the site of the Nemean Games, one of the four sacred games of the ancient world, which also included the Isthmian Games, the Pythian Games, and the Olympic Games. You can read more about ancient Nemea by CLICKING HERE.
II – The Lernean Hydra
When he faced the Hydra in the Peloponnesian swamps of Lerna, it’s a good thing that Herakles brought along his nephew and companion, Iolaus. Facing the monster, he discovered that when he cut one head off, two more grew back in its place. And so, after each head was cut, Iolaus would cauterize the stump before it could grow again. When the Hydra was dead, Herakles dipped his arrows in the blood which was poison, even to Immortals. These arrows would come in useful in later episodes of the hero’s life.
III – The Ceryneian Hind
Eurystheus, this time, thought he would set Herakles against Artemis with this third labour by telling him to capture a deer with golden horns that was sacred to the goddess. But Herakles pursued the hind for a whole year until he finally captured it and brought it before Eurystheus who, by this time, was always hiding in a jar whenever his cousin would return. The hind was allowed to go once it was brought before the king and so Herakles was able to avoid Artemis’ wrath.
IV – The Erymanthian Boar
Around Psophis, in the Arcadian region of the Peloponnese, a massive boar had been giving the locals trouble and so Herakles was sent to capture it. He did so by pursuing it through deep snow in the mountains until it was so exhausted that he was able to capture it. Such a massive specimen would have made quite a sacrificial feast!
V – The Stables of Augeas
Augeas was the King of Elis, and he had a cattle stable that had never been mucked out, EVER! In this case, it was not a monster that terrorized the locals, but rather the monumental stench. In this very different labour, Herakles was told he had to clean out the stables. So, what did he do? What all heroes would do, he diverted the rivers Alpheius and Peneius so that they flowed through the stables and washed the titanic stink away. It’s no wonder the land thereabouts is so fertile!
VI – The Stymphalian Birds
In Stymphalia, there were flocks of man-eating birds with bronze beaks that infested the woods around the Lake of Stymphalus, again in Arcadia. Herakles was told he had to get them out. So, he scared them all from their hiding places and then shot them down with his great bow. No more birds.
VII – The Cretan Bull
For his seventh labour, Herakles had to leave the Peloponnese for the Island of Crete to capture and bring back the Cretan Bull. This was no ordinary bull. This was the bull that Poseidon sent to Crete for King Minos to sacrifice. When Minos refused, Poseidon made his wife, Pasiphae fall in love with it and from that union was born the terror that was to become the Minotaur. The Cretan Bull rampaged all over Crete until Herakles arrived, wrestled it to the ground, and brought it back to Greece. The hero’s friend, Theseus, would come back to Crete years later to take care of the Minotaur.
VIII – The Mares of Diomedes
Once more, Herakles was forced to deal with another group of man-eating animals. But this time they were not birds, but rather horses! The mares of Diomedes were in Thrace.
When Herakles arrived in that northern kingdom, he had a run-in with Diomedes himself and so, to tame the horses, Herakles fed them their own master. After that, the mares followed him back to Eurystheus.
IX – The Girdle of Hippolyte
Near the River Thermodon, just off the Black Sea, Herakles and his followers, including Theseus, went to the Amazons and their Queen, Hippolyte. The story goes that Herakles just asked this lovely daughter of Ares for her girdle, or belt, and she said ‘Yes’. Hera decided to step in and whispered to the rest of the Amazons that their queen was being abducted.
The Amazons attacked Herakles and his men who fought back, and in the bloody engagement, Hippolyte herself was killed. Herakles managed to get the girdle, but the cost of this labour was indeed heavy.
X – The Cattle of Geryon
The tenth labour is a sort of epic cattle raid. Herakles was told he had to bring back the red cattle of the three-bodied giant, Geryon, from the Island of Erytheia which was far, far to the west. This took the hero on a long journey into the Atlantic. On his way, he set up the Pillars of Hercules to mark his way.
But Herakles began to grow weary with the heat, and so Helios, God of the Sun, lent Herakles his great golden bowl or boat so that he could sail the rest of the way to Erytheia. Herakles succeeded in raiding the cattle and sailed in Helios’ boat back to Spain. From Spain he travelled to Greece and had many adventures on this mythic cattle drive.
There is a whole list of adventures he had on his way home, but the one I would like to highlight brings him in touch with the Romans. When Herakles arrived in Rome he came into conflict with a monster named Cacus after the beast killed some of the cattle. Herakles killed Cacus in what must have been a great battle of strength.
It’s interesting that in Rome, there are some steps leading off of the Palatine Hill called the Steps of Cacus which is where the monster is said to have lain in wait for passers-by. In the Forum Boarium, or cattle market, near the banks of the Tiber, there is a round Tholos temple dedicated to Hercules, commemorating the hero’s time in Rome.
XI – The Golden Apples of Hesperides
Hesperia was the garden of the gods, and Herakles must have been exhausted when he discovered that he had to go back to the Atlantic. Some believe Hesperia was located on the Atlantic side of the North African coast. The garden was said to be beyond the sunset, where Atlas, the Titan, was holding up the sky.
The labour was to pick the golden apples that were guarded by a giant snake. In some stories, Herakles asks Atlas to pick the apples for him while he holds the heavens in his stead. In others, Herakles picks the apples himself and kills the serpent.
XII – Cerberus
There is one archetype that is common to most hero stories, and that is the journey to the Underworld. And this is where Herakles must go in his final labour, to bring the three-headed hound of Hades back to Eurystheus.
To get to the Underworld, Herakles gets help from the god Hermes, who travelled there regularly. Supposedly, they entered through the gate at Taenarum, in the southern Peloponnese.
There is a fascinating episode when they arrive in Hades’ realm. The shades of the dead flee from Herakles who wounds Hades himself with one of his poison arrows. The only shades who do not flee are Meleager, famed for bringing down the great Calydonian Boar, and Medusa, the Gorgon slain by Perseus.
Herakles drew his sword against Medusa, but Hermes told him to leave her be. But Meleager told the hero his sad tale. Herakles, inspired by Meleager, said that he would marry the sister of such a noble man. And so, the shade of Meleager named his sister, Deianaira, to be Herakles’ wife. This at the end of his long penance for killing his family. Was it a new beginning?
Hades told Herakles that he could take Cerberus if he could bring him to heel without using his weapons. In true Heraclean fashion, he wrestled the hell hound and then brought it to Eurystheus.
Afterward, Hades got his dog back.
The Labours of Herakles are not just adventure stories. They are stories of atonement, of courage, of strength of mind and body. Over and over, the hero is taken to extremes until he attains his final triumph, and his debt is paid.
But this is a Greek story. There is no celebration. For laurels dry out on the brow of even the greatest of heroes.
There is much more to Herakles’ story. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of these tales.
Next week, in the second part of this series, we are going to be looking at the tragedy of Herakles.
Thank you for reading, and until then, stay Strong!
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!
I think I’m feeling that deep-winter urge to travel again.
I’m thinking of warmer climes, of faraway lands, and the sanctuary that ancient places provide in contrast to the chaos of a big city.
Today, I’d like to take a brief look at a site that may be known to some of you, but which often falls off of the tourist radar – Ancient Nemea.
If you’ve heard of Nemea, it’s probably in relation to the first labour of Herakles in which the hero defeated the Nemean Lion.
Nemea was, of course, also the site of one of the four ‘Crown Games’ of the ancient world, the other three being the Isthmian Games (at Isthmia, near Corinth), the Pythian Games (at Delphi), and the greatest of the four games, the Olympic Games (at Olympia).
But the Nemean Games were not started in honour of Herakles’ great labour.
In legend, the Nemean Games are related to the ‘Seven Against Thebes’, the group of warriors who went with Polynices to take back Thebes from his brother, Eteocles. On their way to Thebes, the Seven stopped in Nemea where King Lykourgos ruled with his queen, Eurydike.
The king and queen had a newborn son named Opheltes, whom they were told by the Oracle at Delphi that they could not let touch the ground until he could walk.
However, one day, the baby’s nurse, Hypsipyle, was walking with the baby when the Seven stopped in Nemea. The Seven asked where the nearest well was, and so Hypsipyle put the baby Opheltes on a bed of wild celery while she took the generals to the well.
The baby was set upon the ground in contradiction of the Oracle of Delphi’s warning, and so a snake came along and killed the baby Opheltes.
The Seven saw this as a bad omen and sought to honour the soul of the slain child, and propitiate the Gods by holding funeral games on site.
Thus were the Nemean Games born.
Ancient Nemea is located in one of the most beautiful regions of the Peloponnese, a region pulsing with myth and legend. Tall mountains rise up above fertile plains filled with olive and orange groves, and miles and miles of grape vines.
The site itself is located to the north of Argos and Mycenae, and is much smaller than Delphi or Olympia, but no less interesting or beautiful.
The first historical games at Nemea were held in 573 B.C., and they took place every two years. There was no settlement at Nemea, and the games were most often under the auspices of Argos, moving to that ancient city to the south for long stretches of time, except during the period of Macedonian hegemony.
The sanctuary at Nemea was important in the ancient world, but somehow experienced more neglect than others when the Games were moved to Argos:
In Nemea there is a temple of Zeus Nemeios worth visiting, although the roof has collapsed and there is no longer any statue. Around the temple is a sacred cypress grove. Here was Opheltes, put on the grass by his wet-nurse, killed by the snake, according to the story. The inhabitants of Argos sacrifice to Zeus also in Nemea and choose a priest of Zeus Nemeios. They organize a running contest for men in armour at the festival of the Winter Nemea. So there is the grave of Opheltes, with a stone enclosure around it and inside the enclosure altars. There is also a tumulus as a monument for Lykourgos, the father of Opheltes. (Pausanias II 15, 2-3)
Pausanias, in his second century A.D. tour of Greece, describes the run-down ruins of the site during the Roman period.
I’ve only been to ancient Nemea once, but I still remember it quite well. The drive there was supremely pleasant, the cypress and plane-tree-lined roads winding among miles of vineyards that seemed somehow reminiscent of Tuscany’s Chiantigiana.
But this is Greece, and the difference is the sense of antiquity and legend that permeates the very air, the light, the landscape.
We pulled into the small parking lot, one of only a handful of cars, and entered through the small site-museum where we were met by a bust of none other than Julia Domna, the Roman empress of Septimius Severus, about whom I’ve written quite a bit.
Some people may say that the museum and the archaeological site are a bit of a let-down compared with Olympia, but I would say that this place is of utmost importance. A lot of archaeological work has been done here to improve our knowledge of Nemea’s importance and the importance of athletics in the ancient world.
There have been excavations on and off here since 1884, but the bulk of the work has been carried out by the University of California at Berkeley since 1974, and that important work is ongoing.
There are two parts to the Nemea archaeological park – the Sanctuary of Zeus, and the Stadium.
We started in the sanctuary where one is drawn to the ruins of the temple of Zeus which was built c.330 B.C.
There is a wonderful, if small ruin that contains the remains of a sunken crypt accessed through the cella, or inner chamber. It is believed the crypt was either used as the site of an oracle, or as a treasury for the sanctuary.
On the east side of the temple is a feature that is unique to Nemea, and Isthmia (an altar to Poseidon), and that is a very long altar to Zeus where athletes and trainers swore their oaths and made sacrifices prior to the competitions. This altar dates to the fifth century B.C.
The temple is surrounded by a square precinct that contained monuments, smaller altars, and a sacred grove of cypress trees.
It was a peaceful experience roaming this area of the sanctuary, the trees adding to the atmosphere. However, watch where you step! One of our party found a snake skin jutting from beneath one of the fallen column drums, and when he lifted it up, it had to be about five feet long.
Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes!
Fortunately, the originator of that shed skin was nowhere to be seen.
With the cicadas whirring all around us, we looked over the scant remains of the other structures located on the site, including a bath house, a row of nine oikoi, club houses built by the various city states to shelter their attendant citizens at Nemea, and the large xenon, a hotel for dignitaries that is located on the south side of the sanctuary.
The interesting thing about Nemea is that there was never a real settlement there during the Classical or Hellenistic periods. There were probably just a handful of people who lived there to tend the fields and care for the buildings the rest of the time.
During the Nemead, however, tens of thousands of Greeks gathered there for the games so that the valley of Nemea became a giant tent city, probably not unlike that which pops up at the Glastonbury festival.
After visiting the main archaeological site, and then the roaming through the small site museum, we went back to our car to drive 400 meters down the road to the southeast where the stadium of Nemea is located.
During the Nemead, after the athletes had taken their oaths and made their offerings to Zeus in the sanctuary, they would have processed from the temple of Zeus to the stadium which was created by hollowing out a part of the nearby hill.
The stadium is definitely worth a visit and, as can be the case with many lesser known sites, it was virtually deserted when we arrived.
Nemea’s stadium is smaller than Olympia’s, but it’s still substantial, as it should have been for one of the four Crown Games.
It could seat up to 40,000 spectators in its day on the roughly hewn stone seats of the embankments.
This place has some interesting features.
One of the most unique features is the ancient locker room which the processional way leads to from the sanctuary. It is here that the athletes would have stripped down, oiled themselves, and warmed up prior to competing.
Whereas at Olympia there were separate areas for doing these things, at Nemea, this locker room had multiple purposes.
Once the athletes were ready, they proceeded to enter the stadium through a vaulted tunnel that is still intact to this day, and graced with graffiti from some of the ancient athletes.
Visitors can walk through this tunnel and emerge into the bright sunlight of the stadium at roughly the half-way point.
It’s a wonderful feeling to step onto the stadium ground, and I was definitely reminiscent of my own track-and-field days, that familiar flutter of nerves and adrenaline rearing its long-dormant head.
It’s somewhat sobering to remember that the Nemean Games were begun, not as an entertaining athletic contest, but as a funerary event for a slain child.
When it’s not crowded, there is a perhaps a sense of gloom that lies over the place, despite the brilliant sunshine and colour of the landscape.
I walked around the edges of the stadium and looked at the other features of ancient ingenuity such as the stone channel that fed water around the edges of the stadium for athletes and spectators to drink, the water pumped in by way of pipes in the hill side.
Then there is the stone starting line across the track where you can see the bases for the starting mechanism and its thirteen gates.
As ever with these sites, it is good to pause and let your imagination fill in the gaps of what you are seeing.
As I stood in the middle of the stadium floor, I imagined the embankments filled with people, a murmur running the length of the spectators, and then a hush and the judges, the Hellanodikai, in their black robes of mourning for the baby Opheltes, came out and sat themselves in their box toward the middle of the stadium.
I imagined that familiar hush as the runners lined up at the starting line, and then a few rapid heartbeats before the mechanism’s rope drops and the runners are off.
At Nemea, the victors were crowned not with olive (Olympia), bay (Delphi), or pine (Isthmia), but rather with a crown of the wild celery, that plant on which the child of Lykourgos and Eurydike had been placed before he was taken from them.
When we finished looking at the site, and running a lap of our own, the sun was already beginning to dip behind the mountain peaks of Arkadia.
As we left the stadium behind, I felt like the place retained something of the cheers of crowds in ages past, but also the distant roar of a monstrous lion from the cave of its lair, said to be somewhere in the surrounding hills.
As I said, this land is pulsing with myth and legend, brought to life by its history and the hard work of the archaeologists who have sought to preserve and reconstruct the site, adding to our knowledge of it.
But if you think that the Nemean Games are long dead, you might be mistaken.
Since around the year 2000, the games have experienced a revival, and they are being held again, this year, in June of 2016.
If you have ever wondered what it was like to compete in some of the rituals and competitions of ancient athletics, you can sign-up to do so at the revived Nemean Games. Watch this short video to find out more from the man who started it!
This looks like loads of fun, and a wonderful opportunity to participate in a unique living history event that brings students, academics, and anyone else interested in ancient history and athletics, together.
I’ve wanted to participate myself, but the timing has never coincided with my trips to Greece. I hope that someday, I can, thankful for the fact that the modern revival games do not involve running naked. They are also open to both men and woman, boys and girls.
There is one more thing I would suggest you do before leaving ancient Nemea in your traveller’s wake.
As you drive away, be sure to stop at one of the many roadside wine sellers and pick up a few bottles of the wonderful Nemean wine.
This is wine country after all, and what better way to finish off a day of archaeology and site seeing than with a glass (or more!) of Agiorgitiko red.
You can drink to the success of your journey, to the memory of Opheltes, and the centuries of Nemean victors who participated in these ancient traditions.
Thank you for reading.
This week, I wanted to leave behind the sad and depressing subject of the destruction of heritage to write about a site steeped in myth and legend – Tiryns.
“In the south-eastern corner of the plain of Argos, on the west and lowest and flattest of those rocky heights which here form a group, and rise like islands from the marshy plain, at a distance of 8 stadia, or about 1500 m. from the Gulf of Argos, lay the prehistoric citadel of Tiryns, now called Palaeocastron.” (Heinrich Schliemann; Tiryns; 1885)
I visited the site with family during the summer of 2002. It was a scorcher of a day and the cicadas were whirring full force by 9 a.m. Luckily, the heat meant that the place was devoid of visitors – the perfect time to explore.
Tiryns is one of those sites that you likely know about if you’ve studied classics, mythology or archaeology. Most people haven’t heard about it. It lies in the broad Argive plain, a fenced-in circuit wall along the road between Nafplio and Argos itself, surrounded by orange and olive groves.
At first glance, there is no hint that Tiryns was one of the major Mycenaean power centres of the Bronze Age. The cyclopean walls are big, impressive, but there have been times when I drove by and didn’t even notice it. Perhaps that was due to the madness of driving in Greece.
When we got out of the car, the hot wind whipped across the plain to envelope us and, once we paid our entrance fee at the small kiosk, it seemed to sweep us up the ramp to the citadel, and back in time.
Tiryns is a place of myth and legend. It’s been inhabited since the 7th millennium B.C., but by the Hellenistic and Roman periods, it was already in the death throes of a swift decline. Pausanius visited as a tourist in the 2nd century A.D.
“Going on from here [from Argos to Epidauros] and turning to the right, you come to the ruins of Tiryns… The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree. Long ago small stones were so inserted that each of them binds the large blocks firmly together.” (Pausanias; Description of Greece)
I’ve spoken before about the feel of a place of great antiquity. Tiryns is a truly ancient place.
In mythology, it was founded by Proitos, the brother of Akrisios, King of Argos and father of Danae, the mother of Perseus.
It was said that the walls of Tiryns were built by the Thracian Cyclopes of the ‘bellyhands’ clan before they built the walls of Mycenae and Argos. This is why this style is called ‘cyclopean walls’. They were known as the ‘bellyhands’ because that clan of the Cyclopes were said to have made their living through manual labour.
It would have been a feat of tremendous strength to say the least, as each stone weighs several tons.
The association with Perseus is indirect as he acquired Tiryns after he killed his grandfather, Akrisios, but before he established Mycenae.
One of the most important mythological associations with Tiryns, however, is with Herakles, son of Zeus and Alkmene. The latter was the granddaughter of Perseus.
Let us go back to the time when Eurystheus was king of Mycenae, Tiryns and Argos (Note: Eurystheus was not a king of Athens, as portrayed in the recent film, Hercules.)
According to Apollodorus:
“Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal.”(Apollodorus; Book II)
After Hera drove Herakles mad, causing him to kill his own children, the Oracle at Delphi told the hero that he needed to serve King Eurystheus to atone for his horrible actions.
Herakles settled in Tiryns. His twelve tasks, or Labours, for Eurystheus are legendary and have been depicted in art for centuries throughout the ancient world. You can read a previous post about the triumphs of Herakles HERE.
Admittedly, when I visited Tiryns I had no idea of its associations with Perseus or Herakles. For me, a lot of research is sparked after visiting a site, and as a result, a follow-up visit is certainly in order.
The citadel of Tiryns is about 28 metres high, 280 meters long, and it was built in three stages. In the 12th century B.C. it was destroyed by earthquake and fire but remained an important centre until the 7th century B.C. when it was a cult centre for the worship of Hera, Athena, and Herakles.
The Late Bronze Age (1600-1050 B.C.) was the height of Tiryns’ existence. It’s during this time that the cyclopean walls and most of the fortifications were built.
Today, as in the Bronze Age, one approaches the citadel on the east side. To get to the upper citadel, which was the location of the great megaron and palace, you must walk up a massive ramp that is 47 metres long and 4.70 metres wide. This would have led to the main wooden gates.
Once past the gates, you walk along what was a corridor that led to the Great Gate which was flanked by a tall tower. The Great Gate was almost the size of the famous Lion Gate of Mycenae, and would have proved an imposing structure.
When I was walking along the ramp, looking up at the remains of the massive walls and the tower, I could imagine warriors in bronze, with boar’s tusk helmets, looking down on me, with spears or bows in hand.
Even though the citadel contained a luxurious palace and baths, this would not have been an easy fortress to storm.
Once you attain the top, you find yourself on a level area looking out over the site – the upper, middle and lower citadels.
There is not much left in the way of intact walls when it comes to the palace but you can see the outlines of the many rooms, especially the courtyards and the great megaron where the King of Tiryns held court and had his throne on a raised platform overlooking the central hearth.
Imagine Herakles approaching Eurystheus to ask him what his next labour was to be, in this room. This was the heart of the palace. Other rooms would have included residences, a second megaron and even a bath, the floor of which is made up of a huge monolith.
I was a bit dazed, standing there in the heat, looking on the remains of this site with awe. It’s so very old and the ruins only hint at what was a luxurious, but defensible, palace. And that was just the upper citadel.
The middle citadel, 2 m lower, provided access to the defences and may even have contained a pottery kiln. The lower citadel, which is also surrounded by walls, may have been used as a refuge for the people of Tiryns town on the west side, in times of need.
At one point, when I was looking about the gravelly surface of the court, I spotted tiny bits of pottery. Of course, I bent down to get a closer look and picked up a shard with three black lines painted across it. Before I could contemplate the age of this piece, a loud whistle blew and a site person seemingly emerged from the rocks like an asp hiding from the midday sun. “No touching!” I heard, in heavily accented English.
Good thing she didn’t have a spear or bow.
After leaving the upper citadel, we walked down some steps to what is my favourite part of the site – the east galaria.
This beautiful arched tunnel is still intact, and with the sun shining from above, it was suffused with soft light. I immediately imagined a Mycenaean queen strolling between the light and shadow of this place, or a determined king on his way to a war council, his cloak flapping behind him, bronze-clad guards in his wake.
Such is the power of a site like this to fire the imagination.
Back to the present.
It’s funny, but whenever I find myself fed up with cold winter days where I live, I think back to that scorched but brilliant day at Tiryns, and smile. I feel warmth again. I enjoy the glint of the sun radiating off of the stone, and its sparkle far out in the Gulf of Argos.
This ancient citadel is a welcoming place where history and myth are entwined, comfortable allies. I certainly hope my path leads me there again one day soon.
Thank you for reading.