Finding the spirit in sweat: Rites of the ancient Games

Easter, the holiest celebration on the Orthodox calendar, celebrates resurrection and spiritual renewal. And its timing coincides with the coming of spring in the natural, physical sense. Like these twin seasonal miracles, the Olympic Games themselves have seen decline, death, burial (in the silt of the Olympia plain), and – after an interval of not just a few cold months but of 1,500 years – an improbable but inspiring rebirth all their own, in Athens in 1896. Yet the Games could not just be blindly resurrected, especially the religious rites and rituals of the ancient Greek world. They were effectively reinvented under Pierre de Coubertin’s ambitious agenda to serve modern man, reflecting the more secular values of the late 19th century. His early advice was that «in no case should any provision be made for a building devoted to performing religious rituals,» and in this absence came a set of neo-paganistic, open-air processions and ceremonies. If the ancient Games served God, or the gods, do the modern Games merely serve mammon? What’s left of the spiritual dimension? These are questions worth pondering as Athens continues to spread its asphalt, sell its Olympic souvenirs and put up its advertisements in the runup to 2004. It’s worth a look at how the ancient Games embodied a religious and cult as well as sporting festival – and how they both lived and died by organized religion. Ancient devotion The Games at Olympia were held in honor of Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans); the other Games of the ancient «circuit» also worshipped deities (at Nemea, also Zeus; at Delphi, Apollo, and at Corinth, Poseidon, or Neptune). The Greeks exalted athletic competition, which in turn honored their gods. Ancient Olympia, wrote de Coubertin, «was a city [sic] of athletics, art, and prayer.» From prehistoric times, the site itself was considered sacred. Its main landmark was not the stadium but the Temple of Zeus, with its gold-and-ivory statue of the sitting god inside; it was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, executed by Pheidias, who also created the statue of Athena in the Parthenon. The Temple of Hera was another Olympia landmark, while the earth goddess, Demeter, was another deity revered there. Rituals filled the Games ceremonies. Competitors and judges were sworn in at the altar of Zeus. Prayers and sacrifices were made in the ancient grove (altis). Oracles were consulted. On the middle day (the Games eventually extended to five) processions around the altis were followed by a blood sacrifice; that of 100 oxen given by the people of Elis (Ileia), who ran the show. And the final victors’ procession wound its way back to the Zeus temple. Later, the victors made more vows and sacrifices. Apart from all this, athletes who were caught cheating (and there were quite a few, even back then) paid their fine in the form of statuary to Zeus. For all, Olympia was a place of solemn pilgrimage, not just an athletic venue. Yet over time, the religious element of the Games declined in favor of the hero-worship of athletes. Human and natural disasters followed; barbarian invasion, floods, and earthquakes almost seemed like the revenge of the earth goddess herself. Tempting the gods was never a good idea, it seems. Remarkably, the Games kept going during 500 years of Roman rule. They survived disrespect from some Roman emperors, notably Sulla, who sacked the ancient site and even moved the Games to Rome once, and Caligula, who tried but failed to cart the statue of Zeus off to Rome. Yet other emperors, like Hadrian in the second century AD, and even Diocletian in the early fourth, continued to revere the Greek customs and even embellish the site. The Games’ religious component kept them vivid, but their pagan nature proved their undoing. This involved things like cults and sacrifice – not to mention naked athletes – that were no-go areas for the extremist piety of the early Christian Church. The common religious beliefs that tied the polytheistic Greek world together quickly began to unravel under the new challenge of Christianity. The Games began, as they had been originally, to be looked at mainly for their religious rather than their athletic content – but this time were denigrated rather than celebrated for it. Family (mis)deeds If the Games’ birth is shrouded in myth, their end came with a pair of hammer blows from Constantinople, the «New Rome.» Of the 88 total Byzantine emperors, the two that carried the name Theodosius will forever be associated with (and blamed for) the end of the Games. Theodosius I, the «Great» (emperor from AD 379-395) was a key figure in a crucial transitional period that came to a boil in that century. Constantine the Great founded Constantinople as the new capital in AD 330. A successor, Julian, subsequently tried to reclaim paganism, but he was swimming against a massive tide. Theodosius I is revered as a prominent early Christian emperor, even going through an unusual penitence after ordering a massacre of 7,000 in Thessaloniki. He may have been, as Gibbon said, «of firm and temperate character,» and personally tolerant of old pagan customs, but he was also caught up in civil wars and increasingly beholden to the fanatical Christians in his circles, who believed that the Holy Trinity ruled out even symbolic nods to paganism. He actually put to the Senate the question: «Whether the worship of Jupiter or that of Christ should be the religion of the Romans,» and applied pressure to make sure of the outcome. This thrust eventually prompted his famous decree, around AD 393, banning all pagan cults. This sweeping measure took in not just Olympia, but the Delphic oracle, the Athens Parthenon, and other temples and sites. Not that he paused much to contemplate what had been done in his name; within a year he was leading an army to Italy against the barbarians, and within two he was dead. He left a legacy of a Christianized but divided empire, with each of his two weak sons, Arcadius and Honorius, ruling East and West respectively. A second blow Even then, Olympia’s definitive end had not quite come. Ulrich Sinn, who has excavated Olympia, believes that the site was actually exempted from the decree and continued to host Games for several decades more. Even so, the emperor’s grandson, Theodosius II, dealt a decisive blow by decreeing the physical destruction of temples, and Olympia’s Temple of Zeus was burned down in AD 426 as a probable result. Theodosius II was a weaker character than his namesake, and was long overshadowed by his domineering elder sister (Pulcheria) – so pious that she took, and apparently upheld, a lifelong vow of chastity even while she was busy pulling the political levers. In a tantalizing footnote to all this, Judith Swaddling (a curator of antiquities at the British Museum) notes that the Zeus statue, which was whisked off to Constantinople before itself succumbing to fire in 475, was actually adopted by a local artist as an image for Christ Pantocrator. Thus did this famous image of a pagan god became a crucial link to early Christian symbolism. And at Olympia itself, Pheidias’ workshop, where he crafted the great statue, was converted to a Christian church around the same time. Olympia slipped quietly into the Christian era – minus the Games. Zeus unified the Greeks and their Games for a millennium, then lost out in a wider battle of hearts and minds. Yet in this strange way, he also created a link between antiquity and the Christian era. What goes around, comes around.