The World of Heart of Fire – Part X – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics

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This is the final post in The World of Heart of Fire blog series.

I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it.

Writing Heart of Fire has been a tremendous journey into the world of Ancient Greece. Yes, I am an historian and I already knew much of the material, but I still learned a great deal.

The intense, and in-depth, research, some of which you have read about in this ten-part blog series, made me excited to get stuck in every day. A lot of people, after an intensive struggle to write a paper or book, are fed up with their subject afterward, but that is not the case for me.

In writing this story, and meeting the historical characters of Kyniska, Xenophon, Agesilaus, and Plato, in closely studying their world, I have fallen even more in love with the ancient world. I developed an even deeper appreciation of it than I had before.

Altis sunlight

In creating the character of Stefanos of Argos, and watching him develop of his own accord as the story progressed (yes, that does happen!), I felt that I was able to understand the nuances of Ancient Greece, and to feel a deeper connection to the past that goes beyond the cerebral or academic.

I’ve come to realized that in some ways we are very different from the ancient Greeks. However, it seems to me that there are more ways in which we have a lot in common.

Sport and the ancient Olympics are the perfect example of this.

We all toil at something, every day of our lives. Few of us achieve glory in our chosen pursuits, but those who do, those who dedicate themselves to a skill, who sacrifice everything else in order to reach such heights of glory, it is they who are set apart.

Athens 2004 runners 2

Hoplite runners

In writing, and finishing, Heart of Fire, I certainly feel that I have toiled as hard as I could in this endeavour. My ponos has indeed been great.

There is another Ancient Greek idea that applies here, that comes after the great effort that effects victory. It is called Mochthos.

Mochthos is the ancient word for ‘relief from exertion’.

Athens 2004 - Mochthos

Athens 2004 – Mochthos

My moment of mochthos will come when I return soon to ancient Olympia. I have been there many times before, but this time will be different, for I will see it in a new light – the stadium, the ruins of the palaestra and gymnasium, the Altis, and the temples of Zeus and Hera… all of it.

For me, Olympia has exploded with life.

When I next walk the sacred grounds of the Altis, I’ll be thinking about the Olympians who competed this summer and in the years to come.

They deserve our thoughts, for to reach the heights of prowess that they do to get to the Games, they have indeed sacrificed.

Athens 2004

Athens 2004

I always feel a thrill when I see modern Olympians on the podium, see them experience the fruit of their toils, their many sacrifices.

It is possible that they may have been shunned by loved ones or friends for their intense dedication and focus. It can be a supremely lonely experience to pursue your dreams.

Whatever their situation, Olympic competitors deserve our respect, and just as in Ancient Greece, their country of origin should matter little to us.

Yes, we count the medals for our respective countries, but what really matters is that each man and woman at the Games has likely been to hell and back to get there.

Athens 2004 proud winner

Athens 2004 proud winner

When I see the victors on the podium, when I witness the agony and the ecstasy of Olympic competition, I can honestly say that I have tears in my eyes.

Perhaps you do too? Perhaps the ancient Greeks did as well, for in each individual victor, they knew they were witnessing the Gods’ grace.

It’s been so for thousands of years, and it all started with a single footrace.

It is humbling and inspiring to think about.

Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics is out now, and I hope that I have done justice to the ancient Games and the athletes whose images graced the Altis in ages past.

Heart of Fire

A Mercenary… A Spartan Princess… And Olympic Glory…

When Stefanos, an Argive mercenary, returns home from the wars raging across the Greek world, his life’s path is changed by his dying father’s last wish – that he win in the Olympic Games.

As Stefanos sets out on a road to redemption to atone for the life of violence he has led, his life is turned upside down by Kyniska, a Spartan princess destined to make Olympic history.

In a world of prejudice and hate, can the two lovers from enemy city-states gain the Gods’ favour and claim Olympic immortality? Or are they destined for humiliation and defeat?

Remember… There can be no victory without sacrifice.

Krypte

Be sure to keep an eye out for some short videos I will be shooting at ancient Olympia in the places where Heart of Fire takes place. I’m excited to share this wonderful story with you!

Thank you for reading, and whatever your own noble toils, may the Gods smile on you!

 

 If you missed any of the posts on the ancient Olympic Games, CLICK HERE to read the full, ten-part blog series of The World of Heart of Fire!

 

If Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics sounds like a story you enjoy, you can download the e-book or get the paperback from Amazon, Kobo, Create Space and Apple iBooks/iTunes. Just CLICK HERE.

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The World of Heart of Fire – Part V – Honouring the Gods: Religion and the Olympic Games

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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.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

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.

A Greek warrior pouring a libation to the Gods

A Greek warrior pouring a libation to the Gods

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.

Model of Olympia's Altis

Model of Olympia’s Altis

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.

Votive figurines found at Olympia

Votive figurines found at Olympia

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.

Ruins of the Prytaneion of Olympia

Ruins of the Prytaneion of Olympia

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.

The Temple of Hera

The Temple of Hera

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.

Pelops on East Pediment of Temple of Zeus - Pelops is to Zeus' right, and Oinomaus to the left.

Pelops on East Pediment of Temple of Zeus – Pelops is to Zeus’ right, and Oinomaus to the left.

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.

Pelopion (digital model created by University of Melbourne)

Pelopion (digital model created by University of Melbourne)

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.

Relief of a sacrificial Hecatomb

Relief of a sacrificial Hecatomb

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.

Illustration showing temple and great altar of Zeus, the cone-shaped structure to the right.

Illustration showing temple and great altar of Zeus, the cone-shaped structure to the right.

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.

Temple of Hera artist impression showing the acroterion at the top, shaped like peacock feathers, a symbol of Hera

Temple of Hera artist impression showing the acroterion at the top, shaped like peacock feathers, a symbol of Hera

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!

Temple of Zeus ruins

Temple of Zeus ruins

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.

Nike, Goddess of Victory, Crowning an Olympic Victor

Nike, Goddess of Victory, Crowning an Olympic Victor

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!

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The World of Heart of Fire – Part I – Ancient Origins: The Mythological Beginnings of the Olympic Games

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Greetings readers and history-lovers!

I’m pleased to welcome you to the very first post in this new blog series about the ancient Olympics and Eagles and Dragons Publishing’s newest book, Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics.

Over the next ten weeks or so, we will be looking at all aspects of the Olympic Games from their foundation and religious ceremonies, to ancient athletics, individual sports, and the actual site of ancient Olympia as it relates to the Olympiad of 396 B.C. when Heart of Fire takes place.

In this first post, we are looking at the mythological beginnings of the Olympic Games as given in three traditions.

Battle between the Gods and the Titans

Battle between the Gods and the Titans

There are three myths related to the foundation of the Olympic Games, and the first begins with the war between the Gods and the Titans.

Ancient Olympia is dominated by an ancient hill known as the Hill of Kronos. Now, Kronos, a Titan, as we know, was the father of Zeus who, along with his siblings, waged war on Kronos and the Titans.

One of the legends associated with Olympia is that it was where Zeus wrestled with, and defeated, his titanic father. Some believe the games were established to commemorate that victory, and that the site at the base of the Hill of Kronos was where Zeus himself wrestled and defeated Kronos.

Hill of Kronos overlooking sanctuary of Olympia

Hill of Kronos overlooking sanctuary of Olympia

Another tradition around the Olympic Games is that they were founded by Herakles in thanks to his father, Zeus, for granting him victory in war.

The great epinikion poet, Pindar, speaks of this in his Olympian Ode #10:

With the help of a god, one man can sharpen another who is born for excellence, and encourage him to tremendous achievement. Without toil only a few have attained joy, a light of life above all labors. The laws of Zeus urge me to sing of that extraordinary contest-place which Heracles founded by the ancient tomb of Pelops with its six altars, after he killed Cteatus, the flawless son of Poseidon and Eurytus too, with a will to exact from the unwilling Augeas, strong and violent, the wages for his menial labor…

…But the brave son of Zeus gathered the entire army and all the spoils together in Pisa and measured out a sacred precinct for his supreme father. He enclosed the Altis all around and marked it off in the open, and he made the encircling area a resting-place for feasting, honoring the stream of the Alpheus along with the twelve ruling gods. And he called it the Hill of Cronus; it had been nameless before, while Oenomaus was king, and it was covered with wet snow. But in this rite of first birth the Fates stood close by, and the one who alone puts genuine truth to the test, Time. Time moved forward and told the clear and precise story, how Heracles divided the gifts of war and sacrificed the finest of them, and how he established the four years’ festival with the first Olympic Games and its victories.

We will hear more about the Theban poet, Pindar, later throughout this blog series. For now, this small part of the ode mentions several things we should note. There is reference to Pelops whose tumulus was located in the middle of the Olympic sanctuary and whose story is big part of Heart of Fire.

Pindar also references one of Herakles’ labours which was to clean out the stables of King Augeas. More importantly, Pindar paints us a picture of the Olympic sanctuary and the Altis, which was marked out by Herakles as a place for rest and feasting at the base of the Hill of Kronos, and where every four years the Olympic festival was held.

At the first Olympics begun by Herakles, it is said that the gods themselves competed, with Apollo defeating Hermes in a foot race, and also defeating Ares, the God of War, in boxing.

The God Hermes running

The God Hermes running

But there is another tradition about Herakles…a different Herakles.

There were two Herakles?

Apparently so. The second was not the son of Zeus and Alcmene. He was known as Daktylos Herakles and it seems that the tradition around this second Herakles could be even older.

In the age of Kronos, when Zeus was a baby, Kronos was devouring his children (that’s a whole other story!). To keep the baby Zeus safe, his mother Rhea gave her son into the care of five Daktyloi, daimones whose duty it was to protect Zeus in a cave on Mt. Ida in Crete. To drown out the cries of the baby, the danced wildly and clashed their spears and shields together so that Kronos would not find Zeus.

Supposely, Daktylos Herakles was the leader of the five Daktyloi, who established the Olympic Games in the age of Kronos (Cronus). One of the oldest Olympic events, as we shall see in a later post, was the hoplite race in armour, and this aligns with the use of spears and shields by the five Daktyloi who were often pictured as armoured youths.

Baby Zeus and Idaean Daktyloi dancing and making noise to protect the infant Zeus

Baby Zeus and Idaean Daktyloi dancing and making noise to protect the infant Zeus

Pausanias, in his Description of Greece, touches on the Daktyloi here:

As for the Olympic Games, the most learned antiquarians of Elis say that Kronos was the first king of heaven, and that in his honour a temple was built in Olympia by the man of that age, who were named the Golden Race. When Zeus was born, Rhea entrusted the guardianship of her son to the Daktyloi of Ida, who are the same as those called Kouretes (Curetes). They came from Kretan (Cretan) Ida–Herakles (Heracles), Paionaios (Paeonaeus), Epimedes, Iasios and Idas. Herakles being the eldest, matched his brothers, as a game, in a running-race, and crowned the winner with a branch of wild olive, of which they had such a copious supply that they slept on heaps of its leaves while still green. It is said to have been introduced into Greece by Herakles from the land of the Hyperboreans, men living beyond the home of Boreas . . . Herakles of Ida, therefore, has the reputation of being the first to have held, on the occasion I mentioned, the games, and to have called them Oympiakos (the Olympics). So he established the custom of holding them every fifth year, because he and his brothers were five in number.

Now some say that Zeus wrestled here with Kronos himself for the throne, while others say that he held the games in honour of his victory over Kronos. The record of victors include Apollon, who outran Hermes and beat Ares at boxing . . .

(Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 7. 6 – 10)

Over time, the association of Daktylos Herakles with the Games became merged with the more famous Herakles, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, whose Twelve Labours were illustrated on the frieze of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

Herakles

Herakles

So much for Daktylos Herakles.

There is a final myth associated with the foundation of the Olympic Games, and that is the legendary chariot race between Oinomaus, son of Ares, king of Pisa and father of Hippodameia, and the hero, Pelops, after whom the Peloponnese is named.

King Oinomaus was supposedly a cruel ‘wine-loving’ man and father who continuously slew all the suitors for his daughter Hippodameia’s hand in a chariot race from Olympia to Argos.

When Pelops, a prince from Lydia arrived to take up the challenge with the aid of some divine horses given him by Poseidon, Oinomaus’ reign of terror came to an end, and Pelops and Hippodameia were married.

Pelops and Hippodameia

Pelops and Hippodameia

Now I have really simplified the story here because we will look at it more closely in a later post. However, this particular foundation myth points to the Games as an event to commemorate Pelops’ victory.

In tandem with the Olympic Games, said to be established by Pelops in this instance, Hippodameia was said to have established the Games of Hera, the Heraia, in thanks to the goddess for granting the victory as well. You can read more about the Heraia HERE.

The chariot race was the marquee event at the Olympic Games, and central to the story of Heart of Fire, as is the tale of Pelops and Hippodameia.

There was much testament to this particular foundation myth around the Altis of Olympia as well. One of the pediments from the temple of Zeus shows Oinomaus and Pelops with their chariots, on either side of Zeus, getting ready to race.

East pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia showing Zeus between Oinomaus and Pelops, just before their race

East pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia showing Zeus between Oinomaus and Pelops, just before their race

Also, in the hippodrome, the chariot racing track of Olympia, a statue of Hippodameia overlooked the track, one of the turns called the Taraxippos, was said to be haunted by the angry ghost of Oinomaus, and one of the posts in the turns was said to be made from a beam from Oinomaus’ burnt house.

In the middle of the Altis there was also the Pelopion, the burial mound of Pelops which became a shrine to the hero who would become the father of Atreus, and grandfather of Agamemnon and Menelaus, those well-known kings of Mycenae and Sparta.

I know this is a lot of information to take in, but it just goes to show the complexity and richness of the traditions attached to Olympia and the mythological foundation of the Olympic Games.

As we explore this ancient event, we will be travelling through a world where myth, religion, history and sport are all melded together to give us one of the greatest legacies passed down to us from Ancient Greece.

I hope you will join me next week for Part II of The World of Heart of Fire.

Thank you for reading.

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Heraia – The Games of the Goddess Hera

Runners in Heraia

When history-lovers hear the name of Olympia, the first thing that comes to mind is the Olympic Games. As the birthplace of the Games, the sacred sanctuary near the confluence of the Alpheios and Kladeos rivers holds a special place in our hearts.

Olympia is a place of legend.

I’ve just finished another draft of my upcoming book, Heart of Fire: A Novel of the Ancient Olympics, and so, I’m currently immersed in the ancient Olympiad and the legends that surround its origins.

My mind is a maelstrom of chariot races, boxing, running, religious ceremony, and cries of victory and defeat – and I love it!

Recently, the Olympic flame was lit once more at ancient Olympia before the lovely ruins of the temple of Hera.

The 2016 torch-lighting ceremony at ancient Olympia

The 2016 torch-lighting ceremony at ancient Olympia

In the coming months, men and women who have struggled for years to perfect their abilities so that they peak at the right moment, will compete in this ancient tradition.

However, things were different in the original Olympiad. The ancient Olympics were closed to women as competitors and spectators, except when it came to the owning and training of horse teams.

Chariot racing in the ancient Olympics - the one sport in which women could participate as owners and trainers of horses

Chariot racing in the ancient Olympics – the one sport in which women could participate as owners and trainers of horses

During the Olympic Games women were not allowed to set foot within the sanctuary to watch their teams compete. An exception to this was the priestess of Demeter Chamayne, who had her own seat of honour at the Games.

However, there was a time when women were permitted within the sanctuary at Olympia, as competitors and spectators.

In the sanctuary of Olympia, not far from the Temple of Zeus, there stands the Temple of Hera, Queen of the Gods and also the goddess to whom another ancient competition was dedicated: The Heraean Games.

The ancient Heraean Games, or the Heraia, were the first official games for women’s athletic competition to be held in the stadium at Olympia. Here is Pausanias’ description of the Heraia, from his perspective in the second century A.D.:

Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen women, and the same also hold games called Heraea. The games consist of foot-races for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. They run in the following way:

 their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them. Those who administer to the Sixteen are, like the presidents of the games, married women.

 The games of the maidens too are traced back to ancient times; they say that, out of gratitude to Hera for her marriage with Pelops, Hippodameia assembled the Sixteen Women, and with them inaugurated the Heraea.

(Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.16 2-4)

The Heraia were certainly a religious ritual, and the foundation myth indicates that the event was originally a ritual of thanks to the goddess Hera.

The Temple of Hera at ancient Olympia

The Temple of Hera at ancient Olympia

This myth is central to Heart of Fire’s story, but I will post more about that in the coming weeks. The short of it is that Pelops (after whom the Peloponnese is named) was victorious in a legendary chariot race against Hippodameia’s cruel father, Oinomaus. In thanks to the goddess Hera, Hippodameia held the first Heraia, and the rest is history.

Girls in ancient Greece, with the exception of Spartans, were not encouraged to be athletic. It was frowned upon. But the Heraia continued to gain in popularity and some historians wonder if this was an indication of changing social views and a less restricted life for women. One theory is that this is partly due to the increasing influence of Rome.

In Rome, girls from well-to-do families could participate in men’s festivals. The Capitoline Games in Rome in the second half of the 1st century A.D. included women’s races.

Roman women exercising

Roman women exercising

So, this year as you enjoy the build-up to, and watch, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, be sure to remember ancient Olympia, the Heraean Games, and the unsung heroes whom Nike crowned with olive.

Remember the ancient female athletes who were the forerunners of modern female Olympians. They likely would have been awed by what they had begun.

Women's 1500 meter runners in Athens 2004

Women’s 1500 meter runners in Athens 2004 (Getty Images)

Heart of Fire will be coming in late June, if the Gods smile on it, but before the release, I’ll begin posting a ten-blog series on the ancient Olympics.

See you in the stadium!

Thank you for reading.

 

If you are interested, below is the full video of the 2016 Olympic torch lighting ceremony which took place last week at ancient Olympia, outside the temple of Hera.

 

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Writing an Ancient Boxing Scene

Hellenistic bronze boxer from Rome shows wounds and lascerations to the fighter's face

This week I thought I would share a little something about my research for, and writing of, my upcoming book Heart of Fire.

As mentioned in the last post, I’m getting close to the end of this book, and it’s going to be fantastic. I can feel it in my bones.

I wanted to touch on a particular scene that I wrote last week.

Without giving anything away, the scene in question is a climactic boxing match set during the Olympics of 396 B.C.

Now, I’ve written more fight scenes than I can count in my stories, some very realistic, others fantastical, some ugly, some inspiring. Most of the time they have been fought with weapons.

However, boxing is a more visceral sport, especially ancient Greek boxing.

I knew I needed to make this fight count, to put the reader ‘ringside’ so that she/he can taste the sweat and blood, and feel the impact of every hit.

I’m not a boxer, and though I’ve taken part in some martial arts, I had to admit that I had no idea how a man, or his body, would react during an ancient Greek boxing match.

You see, ancient boxing was not like modern boxing.

Himantes - from Hellenistic bronze of a boxer

Himantes – from Hellenistic bronze of a boxer

First of all, the ancient Greeks did not cover their fists with soft gloves. Instead, they used something called himantes. These were thick strips of leather, rawhide, or sometimes lead, that were fastened to a fighter’s fists with linen or leather straps. The fingers were not covered, but left free to grab, to poke and jab, as well as punch.

In modern boxing, there are basically four punches: the direct or straight punch, the upper cut, the jab, and the hook. Combinations of these are used variously.

ancient Greek boxers

In contrast, ancient boxing included many more types of hits, including slaps, hammer punches, backhands, chops, pokes, elbows, swipes and many more.

Truthfully, ancient boxing was more like Wing Chun Kung Fu arm techniques than modern boxing. It differed from the pankration mainly in that there were no holds or grappling, and perhaps fewer intentional bone-breaking moves.

Before writing, I had to dispel with my modern ideas of boxing and what it should look like. Also, there were no ‘rounds’ in ancient boxing. The two fighters went at each other until someone was knocked out, or until one of the fighters surrendered. If neither of those two things happened, and if no one died, a fight could go on all day.

When writing an ancient boxing scene, in addition to being accurate, each fight also has to propel the story forward. I started by looking at some famous movie fights, and what better boxing match to look at than the last bout in Rocky I. Click on the image below to watch the fight scene:

Rocky I - Rocky vs. Apollo Creed

Sure, this seems a bit dated now, but it’s one of the most famous modern boxing scenes in movie history. This showed me how the story can be told without speech, but rather the actors’ bodies, how the strain and struggle tell a story without words. It illustrates the all-important, ancient idea of ponos, the toil and passion of an athlete or warrior.

So, Rocky helped me visualize the storyline of my fight scene, and how it would move the characters forward. Next however, I needed to visualize how ancient boxing might look mechanically.

Of course, I can make some pretty good guesses and get creative – that’s the joy of writing after all – but I wanted to find at least a small demonstration to help it sink in. Luckily, I found a video from the Historical European Martial Arts Coalition (HEMAC) conference in Dijon France, demonstrating the art of ancient Greek boxing.

CLICK HERE to watch the HEMAC demonstration!

This is a short video but I found it very helpful. The men sparring are holding back a little, as it is a demonstration only, but you can easily imagine what it might be like with the rawhide, or lead pieces inserted in the himantes, and the fighters hitting one another full force.

It would be brutal, and oftentimes, quick.

If you’ve seen some of the top 20 boxing knock-out videos on YouTube, you’ll know that with one hit to the head, a massive, strong man can crumple like a rag doll. It’s not pretty.

Take off the modern padded gloves, and substitute them for ancient himantes, and you’ve got yourself a genuine ancient bloodsport.

If you want to learn a bit more about the sorts of injuries that might occur in an ancient boxing match, CLICK HERE to read a fascinating article.

The Diagorids of Rhodes were boxing royalty in Ancient Greece ... as Degeorge, Diagoras porté en triomphe par ses fils, 1814

The Diagorids of Rhodes were boxing royalty in Ancient Greece – painting by Degeorge, Diagoras porté en triomphe par ses fils, 1814

The men who emerged victorious in boxing at the ancient Olympiad trained hard, as if for war, and if they walked off the skamma, the sand, as the victor, they were able to achieve the sort of immortality reserved for demi-gods and heroes.

As the year wears on, and I get closer to releasing Heart of Fire, I’ll share more of the story, including some excerpts.

For now, I’ll press on toward the novel’s finish line, bringing this exciting event of the ancient world to life.

Thank you for reading.

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The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Seven Wonders as background for Maerten van Heemskerck's Abduction of Helen by Paris

Seven Wonders as background for Maerten van Heemskerck’s Abduction of Helen by Paris

We’re drawing close to the end of 2015 and, like many people do, I’ve starting thinking back over some of the things we’ve seen in the media over the past twelve months.

The world is mad, there’s no doubt about it, and prayers for world peace and goodness are more needed than ever.

Chaos seems to rule much of the world, and this past year, even history and archaeology did not escape unscathed. With the blatant destruction of sites such as Hatra and Nineveh, Palmyra and now possibly sites in Libya, we are seeing things that have stood for thousands of years turn to dust.

It’s been a sad year for the past, and this makes our future look bleaker in some respects. Needless to say, the human suffering is on a whole other level…

But I don’t want to cast a shadow on the time of the Solstice, the time of the Sun’s rebirth.

Instead, I want to take a look at some of the shining lights of creation and human achievement in the past. Just because something is gone, does not mean it doomed to be forgotten.

There are certain ancient sites that have captivated humans since their creation, and inspired artistic and architectural traditions for centuries. They are beacons, they are supreme examples of will and imagination, and they are pure magnificence.

They are The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Maerten van Heemskerck

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Maerten van Heemskerck

The mere mentioned of the Seven Wonders stirs a longing in me for some vague but powerful reason. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of bygone ages of which I have often daydreamed?

The truth is, I’m not alone in this feeling, this fascination with a list of monuments created so long ago. The Seven Wonders have captured the imagination of people since the Hellenistic age. Sure, the list might have changed a little, but its celebration of artistic and architectural inspiration and achievement most certainly has not.

Where did the list come from?

Consensus points to two figures of the ancient world who may have compiled the most popular list: Philo of Byzantium and Antipater of Sidon.

Philo of Byzantium was a 3rd century B.C. resident of Alexandria who wrote a compendium of mechanics, and Antipater of Sidon was a Greek poet of the 2nd century B.C.

It is no coincidence that the two men were Greek. After the campaigns of Alexander, and the fall of the Persian Empire, the East opened up and Hellenic people and ideas spread far from the homeland. Greeks had been living in Egypt and Persia for a long time already by then, but now they could move about more freely and that meant one thing: tourism!

Map of the Seven Wonders (Wikimedia Commons)

Map of the Seven Wonders (Wikimedia Commons)

To that point in time, Herodotus was the Lonely Planet guide of the day, but people didn’t necessarily want to travel. War with Persia made that a risky undertaking. But when the last embers of the Wars of Succession finally died and the world was safe again, there was mass movement of people and ideas. The list of the Seven Wonders could have been a wonderful itinerary, or at least a list of popular hotspots around the eastern Mediterranean.

It is no surprise that Philo was a mathematician inclined to mechanics and that Antipater was a poet. The Seven Wonders would have appealed to both men as monuments of inspiration that many could not even guess at how they were constructed.

Let’s have a brief look at this wonderful list of monuments.

I – The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza

It’s ironic, but the Pyramids of Giza which were built around 2,600 B.C. are the oldest monuments on the list, and yet they are the only ones that survive to this day. I had a chance once to go to Egypt on a dig but that was the year just after 9/11 and all hell had broken loose. The dig was cancelled. No matter how many times I see the pyramids on television, I can never get over their simple magnificence. And I’m sure they are even more striking in real life. As the last remaining wonder on the list, I hope I don’t miss out.

II – The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Then Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Then Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The hanging gardens of Babylon are interesting and their existence is still widely contested, the date of their possible building unknown. From what is said, the Hanging Gardens were created by Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 605-562 B.C.) for his Median wife, Amytis who was homesick in that dry land. So, he is said to have built a sort of stepped pyramid with terraces that were covered with lush gardens of flowers and fruit trees. It is said there was a complex irrigation system for the entire gardens from top to bottom and that exotic animals roamed its heights. I don’t know if this is truth or fable, but I do know that this was supposed to be one of the most ancient civilizations on the planet. Here is what Quintus Curtius Rufus says about the Hanging Gardens:

“On its summit [of the Babylonian citadel] are the hanging gardens, a wonder celebrated by the fables of the Greeks. They are as high as the top of the walls and owe their charm to the shade of many tall trees. The columns supporting the whole edifice are built of rock, and on top of them is a flat surface of squared stones strong enough to bear the deep layer of earth placed upon it and the water used for irrigating it. So stout are the trees the structure supports that their trunks are eight cubits thick and their height as much as fifty feet; they bear fruit as abundantly as if they were growing in their natural environment… It has a substructure of walls twenty feet thick at eleven foot intervals, so that from a distance one has the impression of woods overhanging their native mountains.” (Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander)

The rest of the monuments on the list from now on are Greek. No surprise since the compilers of the list were Greek. Nonetheless, these monuments are indeed deserving of ancient accolades.

III – Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The Temple of Artemis

The Temple of Artemis

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, built in the sixth-century B.C. in what is now modern Turkey, was one of the largest, most beautiful temples of the ancient world. Its construction was paid for by the wealthy Lydian King, Croesus. It took ten years to build and brought pilgrims to Ephesus for centuries. The temple was said to be about 137 meters long, 69 meters wide and 18 meters high with more than 127 columns. Sadly, the temple was destroyed by raiding Goths in the third century A.D. However, the memory of the beauty of this temple to the Goddess of the Hunt would live on.

For Antipater of Sidon, it was the most beautiful of all the wonders:

“…when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand”.” (Antipater, Greek Anthology

IV – The Statue of Zeus, Olympia

The Statue of Olympian Zeus, Olympia

The Statue of Olympian Zeus, Olympia

Ancient Olympia is one of the few sites on this list that I have been fortunate enough to visit. I’ve been spending a lot of time there lately as I work my way through Heart of Fire. Ancient Olympia is one of my favourite sites in Greece, this peaceful, green sanctuary nestled between the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos in the eastern Peloponnese. Sadly, the twelve-meter, ivory and gold statue of Olympian Zeus was looted from the sanctuary long ago to fall victim to fire in another land.

However the fifth-century B.C. remains of the Temple of Zeus, which contained this wonder, still exist. So too does the workshop where the artist Pheidias laboured to shape the ivory that would create a giant, life-like representation of the king of the gods. The column drums of the temple now lie in domino lengths, grass-covered victims of earthquakes, and the workshop is bare and open to the sky. However, if you can make it there someday try standing on the paving slabs of the temple floor. Imagine the thick, Doric columns running the length of the interior to flank the giant statue of Zeus seated upon his throne. Then imagine how small a person must have felt in that space, the awe and the silence that resulted from being in the god’s presence.

V – The Mausuleum at Halicarnassus

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

Back to Asia Minor now for the fifth of the Seven Wonders. Now we find ourselves in the ancient city of Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum, in Turkey. This was the site of the tomb of King Mausolus of Caria. The tomb, built in the mid-fourth century B.C., was not just any tomb. King Mausolus wanted to outdo all previous memorials, and so he commissioned the tomb by which all others would henceforth be measured.

King Mausolus’ ‘mausoleum’ was approximately 48 meters high and adorned top to bottom with the most beautiful, columns, reliefs and statuary of the day. The most talented artists and craftsmen of the Greek world were hired to work on it. It had statues of gods and goddesses, centaurs and lapiths, men and women, lions and other beasts. It rose into the sky to tower above Halicarnassus and to top it off was a massive four-horse chariot driven by Mausolus, with his wife Artemisia at his side. Mausolus never lived to see his tomb completed and so the task fell to Artemisia. But she died two years later. It is a testament to the craftsmen that they stayed to finished the mausoleum even then, after their patrons had gone into the afterlife.

VI – The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes

The island of Rhodes in the south-east Aegean is one of the larger Greek islands and a place of great beauty. It was said to have been the domain of the sun god, Helios. To commemorate the victory of Rhodes over Antigonous I of Cyprus, the Rhodians erected the Colossus between 292 and 280 B.C. The bronze statue of Helios was said to straddle the entrance to the harbour of Rhodes to a height of 33.5 meters, making it one of the tallest statues in the world, visible from far out at sea.

Today, if you visit Rhodes, it is the medieval city that really stands out to the visitor. The Colossus stood for only fifty-six years before it fell victim to an earthquake. It must have been an awe-inspiring sight while it stood. Now, the points where the feet of the statue were planted are marked by two pedestals at the harbour entrance. Though it did not stand for long, the influence of the Colossus of Rhodes lasted for ages, inspiring the Emperor Nero to erect his own colossus in Rome. A more modern version that was inspired by the Colossus is the French-built Statue of Liberty in New York, another beacon to guide and welcome travellers.

VII – The Pharos of Alexandria

The Lighthouse, of 'Pharos', of Alexandria

The Lighthouse, of ‘Pharos’, of Alexandria

The last structure on the list of the Seven Wonders was located in the most famous city founded by Alexander the Great: Alexandria. The Lighthouse, or ‘Pharos’, of Alexandria was built between 280 and 247 B.C. Some sources say it rose to a height of as much as 140 meters and that its reflected fires could been seen from unimaginable distances out at sea. The lighthouse guided ships into the city that had become the great metropolis of the world. For centuries the Pharos was the tallest structure in the world and was actually the third, longest-standing of the Seven Wonders after the Mausoleum and pyramids at Giza.

The great Lighthouse of Alexandria was truly a beacon to draw the world to one of the most advanced, civilized cities in existence.

In addition to being inspired by a look at the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, I’m also a little saddened by it.

I think of what was, and what could have been, had they stood to this day (we’re fortunate indeed to have the Pyramids!).  What would the world be like if we could still look upon the statue of Zeus at Olympia, or tour the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Part of me thinks that it would be amazing to sail up to Rhodes beneath the gaze of the Colossus, or to walk the terraces of the Mausoleum gazing upon the statuary as upon an outdoor museum.

However, another part of me thinks that our modern world would ruin those things. I don’t want to imagine these once-brilliant monuments stained by exhaust and pollution, or surrounded by kiosks selling plastic souvenirs made in China. Would the names of countless tourists be scratched into the marble of the Temple of Artemis, or would the ankles of the Colossus be ringed with spray paint?

I think those things would be infinitely more painful than looking upon the ruins of these wonders and imagining what once was. These artistic and architectural wonders were more than just tourist attractions. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were, and are, markers in the timeline of human history, intended to inspire and to raise man from the dust so that the gods might catch a glimpse of those achievements, those offerings, and smile back with pride.

So, it may be that we no longer have these ancient treasures, just as we no longer have Hatra, Nineveh, Palmyra and others.

But we can certainly take heart from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They may mostly be gone, but they will certainly never be forgotten.

Happy Holidays (whatever you are celebrating), and Happy Solstice to all of you.

Thank you for reading…

If you’re looking for something fascinating to watch over the holidays, be sure to check out this documentary by John Romer on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World!

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War without the Shooting – Sport and Strife in Ancient Athletic Competition

Wrestling

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.

       (George Orwell, “The Sporting Spirit”, Tribune, 14 December 1945)

I was reminded of the above Orwell quote in a book I’ve been reading lately, entitled The Ancient Olympics, by Nigel Spivey. No, we are not going to be talking about modern warfare or guns, those are not my thing. However, Spivey’s use of the quote is apt for his book, and for the purposes of our short discussion here.

What was the purpose of athletic competition in the ancient world, and what is the purpose of it today? How has it evolved, or has it?

I’m just finishing up the research phase for my novel set during the ancient Olympics. I can’t wait to start typing away at it, but there are a few things I need to decide on, one of them being how I will portray the ancient games.

I’m a romantic, and an idealist, and at first my inclination is to portray the ancient Olympics in an idealized and romantic light. It would make for a great story, but would that be accurate?

Ancient Olympia

Ancient Olympia

Today, when we think of the Olympic Games, we think of amateur sport, sportsmanship and fair play. We believe that just to be able to compete in the Olympics is an honour, a victory already achieved. In some ways, that’s true. The athletes who go to the Olympics today have trained and competed for years. They’ve racked up a list of hard-won victories in their part of the world in order to make it to the Olympiad.

I love the Olympics. In fact, it’s the only time that I really watch sports on TV. I love the Olympic ideals we hold so dear.

But are those the same ideals that were held dear in the ancient world? Perhaps some. But not all. Are the Olympics today the same games that they were in the ancient world? No. Not really.

So, in writing my story set during the ancient Olympics, I’ve got to achieve a major shift in mindset and go somewhere my modern sensibilities will not necessarily enjoy.

Artist re-creation of ancient wrestling

Artist re-creation of ancient wrestling

In the ancient world, men (yes, only men) went to the Olympics to win (women were only permitted to compete insofar as owning the horses in the equestrian events). It was not honourable to just participate. Oftentimes, losers would have to return to their polis by back streets, humiliated that they did not wear the olive crown of victory. Only the winners were hailed as demi-gods. The losers, though participants in the great games, were nothing.

It’s pretty harsh, but that was the nature of the Olympics and other games (including the Isthmian, Pythian, and Nemean games). They were violently competitive, brutal in nature, and though the Olympics were a time of official peace (the ‘Sacred Truce’), they were anything but peaceful.

When I think of the ancient Olympics, I don’t think about gymnastics or synchronized swimming, kayaks, or graceful dives from on high. I think of boxing and the discus, hoplite warrior sprints and the roar of a crowd at the marquee chariot races. When I think of the ancient Olympics, I think of the pankration, that most brutal of events where bones were broken, and faces were smashed with fists covered in lead or leather.

Boxing

Boxing

So, were ancient sports just about a sadistic pleasure in violence, about merely bettering your competitors, about hatred being given a release? Was sport really war on a small scale?

There isn’t really a straight and easy answer to the question, I’m afraid. I suppose the answer is yes, and no. Certainly, when you look at the array of events, the games were in one form, a training ground for war, “war without the shooting”.

The Hoplite Race - Training for War?

The Hoplite Race – Training for War?

As today, there were probably ‘good’ and ‘bad’ men who competed. There were those whose sole purpose was to utterly humiliate and destroy their opponents, to inflict pain and suffering, but there were also men who, in competing in the sacred Olympiad, sought to honour not only their polis and their family, but also to honour the gods themselves.

That said, they all wanted to win. I suspect that athletes today, no matter how much the media proclaims their virtue for simply being there, today’s athletes, once there, can see that victory within their grasp, and so, crave it more than we realize.

A Modern Pankration Bout

A Modern Pankration Bout

There is a duality here that leads us to the nature of Strife in the ancient world, which Spivey touches on in his book.

The ancient poet Hesiod (circa 700 B.C.) spoke of Strife in his Work and Days.

So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honour due. But the other is the elder daughter of dark Night, and the son of Cronos who sits above and dwells in the aether, set her in the roots of the earth: and she is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel. (Hesiod, Works and Days)

Here we see that ‘Strife’, who is named Eris, actually has two faces, or natures.

There is Strife as Eris agathos, the useful, productive aspect of Strife, that which lends itself to creative industry in all things, in people of all stations and trades.

Then there is the Strife known as kakochartos, or ‘exalting in bad things’. This aspect of Strife thrives on war and dissent, a lust for bloodshed and battle.

Both aspects of Strife were present in the ancient Olympics and other competitions, both were present in war.

Javelin Thrower

Javelin Thrower

In his Theogeny, Hesiod names three offspring of Strife. They are: Death, Destruction, and Toil (Ponos).

It is ‘Toil’ that the ancients ascribed goodness to, for in working to the extremes of ones capabilities, and beyond, one became stronger, and so achieved greatness. This sort of Strife, Eris agathos, was pleasing to the gods, it was something to aspire to.

But the two aspects of Strife are not, in my opinion, mutually exclusive.

Spivey mentions the Iliad, and the part of that wondrous foundational text of western literature where Achilles embodies both aspects of Strife. Homer does not differentiate.

Therefore, perish strife both from among gods and men, and anger, wherein even a righteous man will harden his heart- which rises up in the soul of a man like smoke, and the taste thereof is sweeter than drops of honey. Even so has Agamemnon angered me. And yet- so be it, for it is over; I will force my soul into subjection as I needs must; I will go; I will pursue Hector who has slain him whom I loved so dearly, and will then abide my doom when it may please Jove and the other gods to send it. (Home, Iliad 18)

Achilles is by far the greatest hero of the Trojan War, the most skilled. He is godlike. He is what all men aspired to be. He is skilled at war, but can be unbelievably violent in the extreme, such as when he drags Hector’s body behind his chariot. He can, however, be moved to goodness such as when he sets aside his vendetta with Agamemnon to help his brothers again, and when he grants King Priam the return of his son’s body for the rites.

Achilles fighting Hector

Achilles fighting Hector

Greatness is not an easy thing to carry upon one’s shoulders, and we see in ancient literature that the heroes who achieve greatness also have a greater measure of grief. Herakles, Jason, Achilles and so many others all have tragedy in their lives, but Eris agathos was with them too, and this set them apart from the base war-mongers of the age, those who throve on kakochartos.

Olympians would have been weaned on tales of these heroes, and many would have aimed for such heights. One of the most famous of Olympians was Milo of Croton who won numerous wrestling victories at all of the Pan-Hellenic competitions for many years.

This same Olympic hero was also a great warrior who led troops of his native Croton in battle against their enemies of Sybaris.

One hundred thousand men of Croton were stationed with three hundred thousand Sybarite troops ranged against them. Milo the athlete led them and through his tremendous physical strength first turned the troops lined up against him. (Diodorus Siculus XII, 9)

It is said that Milo led the charge against the Sybarites wearing his Olympic crowns, a lion skin, and wielding a club similar to the hero Herakles. It seems that war and athletics were both at their finest in Milo, and I suspect that it was so in many an ancient Olympic champion.

Herakles wearing a victor's wreath - This is how Milo supposedly dressed for the battle with Croton's enemies

Herakles wearing a victor’s wreath – This is how Milo supposedly dressed for the battle with Croton’s enemies

Sport seemed to change with the Romans. The ancient Olympics survived until they were shut down by Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 394 when he banned all pagan festivals.

The Romans, however, were no strangers to blood-sports.

If deliberate killing was frowned upon at the ancient Olympics, it was accepted, and even encouraged, in the amphitheatres and hippodromes of the Roman world.

Olympic Chariot Race - The Most Popular Event of the Games

Olympic Chariot Race – The Most Popular Event of the Games

Chariot races were the main event in such places as the Circus Maximus and, just as at Olympia, both man and beast could suffer terrible fates on the sands.

Similarly, on the amphitheatre floors, gladiators often fought to the death. Whereas in ancient Greek competitions, the participants were hailed as heroes, their bodies trained and taken care of, gladiators in the Roman world were slaves who were bred to deal death and die. The rites that had once been a fight to the death at funeral games to honour the fallen had turned to entertainment.

Roman Gladiators

Roman Gladiators

Audiences had always relished the spilling of blood in competition, but during the Roman age the thirst for blood in sports seemed to have reached new heights. In A.D. 80, at the inaugural games of the Flavian Amphitheatre (The Colosseum), Emperor Titus put on one hundred days of games which included criminal executions, re-enactments of historic battles, and of course gladiatorial combat. This was slaughter on a massive scale and the crowds loved it. It is said that over 4000 animals were killed in a single day during those inaugural games!

Were the gods pleased with that? Are we so different today? I like to thinks so, but…

Various activities in the amphitheatre

Various activities in the amphitheatre

At a hockey game today, when two players start pommeling each other, most of the crowd jumps to its feet to watch. They cheer and jeer the two pugilists. What about UFC and the resurrection of a form of the pankration, a sport that was eventually banned from athletic competition in the 4th century A.D?

Have we made progress, or are we the same as our ancient counterparts? Are we simply denying our inherent thirst for blood? From what we see in the media, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Again, no easy answers.

I like to think we’ve made progress, in some ways, but I do wonder sometimes if the world had turned more to kakochartos, rather than Eris agathos.

Then again, perhaps in youth today can be found the answer, some hope?

I was at a track and field meet a couple weeks ago, and it was a joy to watch the young school-age boys and girls compete without prejudice or put-downs. Those kids who were on the track did not try to psyche their competitors out. They were focussed only on their lanes, their task, their race. Some sped toward the finish line like cheetahs chasing down deer, others were far behind the rest and still crossed that finish line.

Eris agathos, it seems like a song now to me, a song of beautiful strife.

Nike - The Goddess of Victory

Nike – The Goddess of Victory

I think the young are more pure, and that it is in them that the seeds of Eris agathos are sown. It is nurtured in few.

It’s no wonder that the modern call for the Olympic Games calls on “the youth of the world”.

So, tell me what you think?

Is modern sport so very different from sport in the ancient world?

Is sport and athletic competition today simply war without the shooting? Or is it something more than that?

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

For myself, I have yet to decide what direction to go in this next novel. Will the competition on the palaestra and in the stadium be fierce and fill a simple need for violence, or will it transcend that and please the gods?

I suppose I’ll see when I get there.

Thank you for reading!

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