The Triumphs of Herakles

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.

Aerial view Tiryns

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.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

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.

Region of Nemea

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.

Heracles fighting the Hydra

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.

The Cyreneian Hind

IV – The Erymanthian Boar

Herakles delivers the Erymanthian Boar to Eurystheus

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

Athena aiding Herakles to clean the Augean Stables

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.

Lake Stymphalos

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.

The Cretan Bull

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.

The man-eating Mares of Diomedes

IX – The Girdle of Hippolyte

Herakles fighting the Amazons

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.

The River Thermodon

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.

Herakles driving off the Cattle of Geryon

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.

Temple of Hercules, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)

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 Golden Apples of Hesperides

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.

Herakles and Cerberus

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.

Gate to Hades at Taenarum

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.

Herakles resting after his Labours

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!

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The World of Heart of Fire – Part IX – Achieving Immortality: To be an Olympic Victor in the Ancient World

World of Heart of Fire - banner

If ever a man strives

With all his soul’s endeavour, sparing himself

Neither expense nor labour to attain

True excellence, then must we give to those

Who have achieved the goal, a proud tribute

Of lordly praise, and shun

All thoughts of envious jealousy.

To a poet’s mind the gift is slight, to speak

A kind word for unnumbered toils, and build

For all to share a monument of beauty.

(Pindar; Isthmian I, antistrophe 3)

Heart of Fire is not only a story of love in war, it is also a story about sacrifice for the ultimate triumph – Victory at the Olympic Games.

In the book, and in this series on The World of Heart of Fire, we hear a lot about the ancient Greek ideals of ponos (toil), Eris Agathos (good strife), philoneikia (love of competing), and philonikia (love of winning).

They were, as we have discussed before, central to the Greek psyche, and those who epitomized those ideals were praised and respected by all other Greeks.

And the respect and admiration that was given to an Olympic champion transcended war, politics, and the boundaries of one city-state. When the Gods, by their divine grace, sought to crown an athlete and warrior who has toiled long, and hard, and honestly, then few mortals dared gainsay them, especially when it came to the sacred Olympiad.

Athlete tying victory ribbon around his head

Athlete tying victory ribbon around his head

The praise of Olympic victors gave rise to a new form of art known as epinikion, which literally means ‘on victory’.

Epinikion art in ancient Greece took the form of poems, or ‘victory odes’, such as the one above, as well as marble or bronze sculpture.

First let us look at the epinikion poetry.

There were several poets who composed in the epinikion genre, but the most famous were Archilochus (680-645 B.C.), Simonides of Ceos (556-468 B.C.) who famously composed the epitaph to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, and of course, Pindar (522-443 B.C.).

Pindar

Pindar

Of all the epinikion poets of ancient Greece, Pindar is the most famous and well-known to us, partly because much of his work has been preserved. There are about thirty-eight of his victory odes which can still be read today. CLICK HERE to download a free copy of Pindar’s Extent Odes from Project Gutenberg.

There was a certain formula to epinikion poetry that began with a salute to the victor’s achievement, and then a mention of his pedigree, city, or relatives. There was emphasis on the effort and exertion, the all-important ponos demanded of athletic victory. Then the victory was incorporated into the values of the individual’s community.

Another ancient Greek ideal, that of philotimo, the love of honour, played an important role here as well. Loving honour meant bettering not only oneself, but also one’s community or city, the people around you, and the world in general.

When an Olympic victor was praised in epinikion poetry or sculpture, they were held up as an example, an inspiration if you will, to all other Greeks.

Now let Agesidamos, winner in the boxing at Olympia, so render thanks to Ilas as Patroklos of old to Achilles. If one be born with excellent gifts, then may another who sharpeneth his natural edge speed him, God helping, to an exceeding weight of glory. Without toil there have triumphed a very few. (Pindar Olympian Ode 11, for Agesidamos, winner in the boxing-match)

Boxers

It became quite fashionable, among those who could afford it, to have a poet such as Pindar compose an ode to someone’s victory, such as the quote above. And Pindar himself travelled around doing this for a living. However, this should not detract from the power of the words of this poet.

Pindar’s words were so powerful and moving that when Alexander the Great sacked the city of Thebes for rebelling against Macedon, he ordered the home of Pindar to remain untouched, and the poet’s descendants unmolested, out of reverence for Pindar and his work.

The great epinikion poets’ work – Archilochus and Pindar especially – became so representative of the ideals of Olympic victory, that they became a part of the ceremonies at Olympia.

It is said that Archilochus’ Hymn to Herakles, one of the mythological founders of the Games, was sung during the crowning ceremonies at Olympia in the temple of Olympian Zeus. The temple, as it happened, was decorated with metopes illustrating the Twelve Labours of Herakles, the hero’s victories as it were.

Temple of Zeus Metopes

Temple of Zeus Metopes

Epinikion sculpture also played a large part in the history and atmosphere of ancient Olympia, especially in the sacred heart of the sanctuary, the Altis.

It became the tradition that at Olympia, all victors were permitted to erect statues of themselves in the Altis. In a sense, this put them almost on equal footing with the Gods themselves. Some victors, including Kyniska of Sparta, had their victory bronzes in the temple of Zeus itself!

According to Pausanias:

The first athletes to have their statues dedicated at Olympia were Praxidamas of Aegina, victorious at boxing at the fifty-ninth Festival, and Rexibius the Opuntian, a successful pancratiast at the sixty-first Festival. These statues stand near the pillar of Oenomaus, and are made of wood, Rexibius of figwood and the Aeginetan of cypress, and his statue is less decayed than the other. (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.18.7)

If Pausanias is correct, then the first epinikion statues, not of bronze but of wood, would have been erected in the Altis around 544 B.C.

Epinikion poet, Archilochus

Epinikion poet, Archilochus

If that date is correct, then the tradition took hold quickly enough, and victors began to commission elaborate bronzes from some of the greatest sculptors of ancient Greece, artists such as Myron of Attika, Polykleitos of Argos, Kallikles of Megara, Naukydes of Argos and others.

Victory statues were erected by successive generations of families who had many Olympic victors in their ranks, the most famous being the Diagorids of Rhodes by Kallikles.

The bronze statues of Diagoras who won in boxing in 464 B.C., and also at all four crown games, stood six feet six inches in height.

…I too, sending to victorious men poured nectar, the gift of the Muses, the sweet fruit of my mind, I try to win the gods’ favor for those men who were victors at Olympia and at Pytho. That man is prosperous, who is encompassed by good reports. Grace, which causes life to flourish, looks with favor now on one man, now on another, with both the sweet-singing lyre and the full-voiced notes of flutes. And now, with the music of flute and lyre alike I have come to land with Diagoras, singing the sea-child of Aphrodite and bride of Helios, Rhodes, so that I may praise this straight-fighting, tremendous man who had himself crowned beside the Alpheus and near Castalia, as a recompense for his boxing… (Pindar, Olympian Ode 7; for Diagoras of Rhodes)

Modern bronze statue of Diagoras of Rhodes carried by his sons

Modern bronze statue of Diagoras of Rhodes carried by his sons

The Diagorids of Rhodes were something of Olympic royalty, for not only did Diagoras claim victory, but also his sons Damagetos, Akousilaos, and Dorieus, as well as his grandson, Eukles, whose epinikion statue was also sculpted by Kallikles.

There was also the famous statue of Kyniskos of Mantinea, by Polykleitos of Argos, and another of the legendary Milo of Croton standing high on a round base and holding a pomegranate.

Goddess Nike, Ephesus (Wikimedia Commons)

Goddess Nike, Ephesus (Wikimedia Commons)

Having one’s statues erected in the sacred Altis of ancient Olympia became something to be dreamed of by many, for in winning by the Gods’ grace, and being granted the right to erect a statues of oneself in the Altis, this was as close as one could get to immortality.

Someone who walked away from the Olympiad a victor was lauded across the Greek world, given free meals and drinks, sometimes exempt from taxation and more. The benefits of Olympic victory were indeed great, but none more so, I suspect, than knowing that the Gods had chosen you for victory.

It was a heady dream.

I tried to tap into this in Heart of Fire. The male protagonist, Stefanos of Argos, has a father who is a famous bronze smith of Argos, a centre of bronze artistry in ancient Greece. It is the dream of the father that an epinikion bronze be erected in the Altis of Olympia, and it is the son’s challenge to make that happen.

One supposes that many families of athletes had similar dreams of victory, of seeing the immortal likenesses of their fathers, sons, or grandsons erected in the forest of bronzes that stood all about the Altis, among the monuments of the gods and heroes of that place.

And every four years, when the Greek world would return to Olympia for the sacred games, the statues would remind men of those victors who had gone before, of the songs that were sung for them, and how the Gods had blessed them.

Statue of Nike, Goddess of Victory in the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Olympia

Statue of Nike, Goddess of Victory in the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Olympia

Thank you for reading, and stay tuned until next week for the final part in The World of Heart of Fire.

 

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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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