The myth behind the Olympics
Posted on Friday, 27 July, 2012 | 6 comments
Columnist: Victoria Grossack
The official ancient Olympics began in 776 BCE in Olympia, Greece, whose ruins you can visit today. However, the ancient Olympics were based on even earlier athletic exploits. Some say that the inspiration was Herakles (Hercules), others cite the funeral games in The Iliad, and others talk about the Nemean games conducted by those going to war against Thebes. But the founding myth that goes back the furthest belongs to a hero called Pelops.
According to legend, Pelops, a son of Tantalus, founded the games to celebrate an important chariot race that he won against King Oinomaios. (The names are challenging. If you want suggestions on pronunciation, go to www.tapestryofbronze.com/Pronounce.html where you can listen to my co-author saying these names and many others.) At some point in the late Bronze Age, Oinomaios was the King of Pisa. This is not the Pisa of leaning-tower fame in Italy, rather a lesser-known but older Pisa, located on the southern Greek peninsula. (Some claim that Italy’s Pisa was named after Greece’s Pisa.) King Oinomaios had a beautiful daughter, Hippodamia, and announced that he would award her in marriage, as well as his kingdom, to the man who beat him in a chariot race. However, any suitor who raced against him but lost would forfeit his life. Usually athletes competed for something small, such as a laurel wreath or a tripod; the main prize was in the glory associated with victory. However, in the race offered by Oinomaios, the actual stakes could not have been higher: a kingdom if you won, and death if you lost.
A number of men were desperate or ambitious enough to accept Oinomaios’ offer, but it was our hero Pelops who finally won the chariot race, the hand of the princess and the kingdom of Pisa. (If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t still be talking about him.) Later he held chariot races and other competitions to commemorate his victory, and these events became the inspiration for the Olympic games that would begin five or six centuries later.
The details of his Pelops’ festival games are not well known, but the myth gives more information about his race with King Oinomaios. In that story we can find three sets of traditions that would become part of athletic competitions for the next 3000 years.
Talent and Skill
The myths say little about the chariot-driving abilities of Oinomaios and Pelops, but both must have been excellent charioteers. Before Pelops’ challenge, Oinomaios had already won many races, so Oinomaios must have been a chariot driver who was both skilled and talented. Since Pelops ended up winning that race, he must have possessed talent and skill as well.
Natural talent and practiced skill were as necessary to dedicated athletes as they are today; they are the first leg in our metaphorical tripod of victory.
Today’s athletes do everything they can get the very best equipment, whether it be bikes, or tennis racquets, or even running shoes. (By the way, Nike’s running shoes are named for the Athenian goddess of victory, Nike.) Engineers and scientists work hard to find ways to give athletes advantages in their sports.
In chariot races, the most important part of the equipment were the horses. King Oinomaios’ horses were magnificent; so much so that their names have come down to us: “Fly” and “Snatcher.” He claimed that they were given to him by his father, who happened to be – a more outrageous claim – the war god Ares.
What do you do if your opponent’s horses were given to him by a god? The answer is to get your horses from another god, hopefully a more powerful god. Pelops – a handsome, dark-eyed youth – was taken as a lover by Poseidon, the god of the sea. In return Poseidon sponsored his mortal lover by giving Pelops a pair of horses for the race, and as Poseidon was the god who created horses in the first place, the horses he gave to Pelops were probably better. At the very least, Pelops’ steeds were a match for Fly and Snatcher.
So with the fabulous horses Pelops’ story gives us an example of the second leg of the tripod of what many athletes have sought: the best equipment available.
The myths tell us about unethical behavior on both sides of this famous race. Oinomaios put blades on his chariot wheels. Whatever he did with them was extremely effective because legends has it that he won at least thirteen races. Afterwards he killed the suitors and placed their heads on spikes as trophies for everyone to see.
With such grisly ends meeting his predecessors, it is not surprising that Pelops took extra steps to guarantee his own victory. He bribed Myrtilos, King Oinomaios’ charioteer, to sabotage Oinomaios’ chariot. The charioteer replaced at least one of the pins keeping the chariot’s wheels in place with a pin of wax. When the race started, the pin melted and the wheels came off Oinomaios’ chariot. Not only did Oinomaios lose the race, in the ensuing accident he lost his life.
Now, I can’t blame Pelops for cheating Oinomaios to win this particular race. Oinomaios did not play fair; Oinomaios had already killed a number of suitors and put their heads on spikes. There’s even a rumor that Oinomaios was molesting his daughter, Hippodamia. He appears to have been a thoroughly nasty character, and the only way to beat him was to kill him.
Yet Pelops’ treachery was not limited to the lynch pin of wax. In order to get the charioteer Myrtilos on his side, Pelops promised him a substantial bribe. He offered half the kingdom and a chance to sleep with Hippodamia.
Pelops did not keep his bargain with Myrtilos. After the successful race, the three conspirators – Pelops, Myrtilos and Hippodamia – went off together for a celebratory chariot ride. Myrtilos thought this was when he would collect one part of his prize, but instead of making sweet love to Hippodamia, Pelops pushed him off a cliff. As he fell to his death, Myrtilos retaliated the only way he could, by cursing all of Pelops’ descendants. As Myrtilos claimed to be the son of Hermes, another one of the gods, his dying curse had especial power.
So, Pelops in his famous chariot race against Oinomaios employed what would become the third great tradition used in many competitions: cheating.
Unfortunately we still have cheating in the Olympics. There are performance-enhancing drugs and questionable rulings by judges. Many recall the ice skating drama of 1994 when men associated with ice skater Tonya Harding attacked her rival Nancy Kerrigan with a couple of sharp blows to the leg.
Of course, there are many athletes who do not cheat, athletes who win without breaking the rules (or having the rules broken on their behalf by others). I suspect that there is another group of athletes – those who have been successful circumventing rules – athletes who cheat but who have not been caught. Finally there are those who cheat and who are caught. Even if we are angry with them, even if we punish them, we often remember them better than we remember those without scurrilous stories.
So in Pelops’ legendary chariot race against we have the three legs of the metaphorical tripod of victory: talent and skill; equipment; and cheating. All three have helped make athletic events great entertainment for the rest of us for millennia.
So, what came from this successful chariot race? For Pelops, it has been long-lasting glory. First, by winning the lovely Hippodamia and the kingship he was able to rule a kingdom and to develop influence in the region. His descendants spread throughout the area, and were likewise powerful, and include Trojan War greats such as Agamemnon and Menelaus – still suffering from Myrtilos’ curse – as well possibly as the greatest hero of them all, Herakles.
If you visit the ruins of Olympia, which can be found next to the village of Pisa in southern Greece, and if you look hard enough, you can find a section of ground dedicated to Pelops. (The spot is known as a “cenotaph” and means “empty tomb” – a tomb or a monument erected to someone whose actual remains are elsewhere.) During the ancient Olympics – which happened every four years from 776 BCE to 393 CE – they sacrificed to Pelops’ ghost at that site. That’s over a thousand years of more recognition!
But it doesn’t end with 393 CE, when the Christians finally put an end to the pagan Olympics. The southern peninsula of Greece is called the Peloponnesus – a word that can be translated as “Island of Pelops.” Despite more than 3000 years having passed, and despite its not being the easiest word to say or to spell, the region is still named for Pelops.
That’s a lot of glory from winning a chariot race!
As you enjoy this year’s Olympics, savor the fact that you’re watching games based on a myth that goes back thousands of years. Article Copyright© Victoria Grossack - reproduced with permission.
Victoria Grossack is the author, with Alice Underwood, of several novels based on Greek mythology, published in both English and Greek. Their books include: JOCASTA: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus; Niobe & Pelops: CHILDREN OF TANTALUS; Niobe & Amphion: THE ROAD TO THEBES; Niobe & Chloris: ARROWS OF ARTEMIS. To learn more about them, their writing and their research, please visit www.tapestryofbronze.com. Of course their books make wonderful gifts for those who love Greek mythology!. Celebrate Saturnalia (or any other festival) by enjoying some time in the Bronze Age.