Mythic Wisdom: A Greek Author’s Perspective

Connecting the past with the present has always been a powerful experience for me, maybe because I live in a land rich in history. In this blog I am going to explore a variety of topics, which I find deeply meaningful: women’s roles, gender and sexuality issues, activism, goddesses and gods, etc. By examining myths, symbols, and archetypal figures, I feel that we gain a fresh perspective on our lives and society. Ancient history, art, and literature can become amazing sources of inspiration. By learning from the wisdom of the past, we can transform ourselves and the world we live in.

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The Ancient Women’s Olympics

I've never really liked the modern Olympics. Their focus on competition and commercialization, as well as their nationalistic and sexist overtones, are very far away from our vision of a world based on equality and partnership. Violence against the poor and the proliferation of sex trafficking marred the Rio Olympics too, showing the dangers of such capitalist fiestas. Yet the origins of the Olympics couldn't be further away from modern practices. It's likely that the oldest Olympics were performed in honor of the Goddess and were part of her rituals. Now that the Rio Olympics are finally over, I'm delighted to share with you this article, which is based on my book The Women's Olympics and the Great Goddess.

The Ancient Women’s Olympics

Gaia, Hera and their Worship in Olympia

“The women’s Olympics?!” This question is often asked in amazement and disbelief whenever the subject comes up. The phrase itself seems like a contradiction in terms, since sports in classical Greece are usually presented as a strictly male affair. Prevalent stereotypes of ancient Graeco-Roman women being confined in a man’s house, oppressed and marginalized, are deeply ingrained.

And yet there is evidence that at one time respectable young women indeed enjoyed the freedom to exercise, to compete in a stadium, to expose their half-naked bodies in public and to be honored for their victories in an important sacred site. To explore this paradox I set out to unravel the mystery of Olympia, searching passionately for secrets of antiquity.

After visiting the temples in the sanctuary of Olympia and the nearby museum, I examined closely the writings of Pausanias the traveler in their original, ancient Greek language. He traveled extensively during the 2nd c. CE, offering a detailed account of local traditions and customs in his Description of Greece. Thus, he is the most significant source about Olympia—in fact, his work is used as a guidebook by present-day archaeologists.

My explorations took me beyond the ancient races, into the realm of myth and religion, of fierce wars and priestess peacemakers, and of erotic fertility symbols and rituals…

From Earth Mother to “Queen of All”

Archaeological research shows that Olympia, located in the northwestern Peloponnese, was inhabited since prehistoric times. The oldest finds, clay pottery and shards, date from the Neolithic Era (4000-3000 BCE). From the beginning of the second millennium we encounter the worship of Gaia (or Ge), the Earth Goddess, and her life-giving powers. As Greek texts reveal, she was regarded as the Mother of deities and of human beings, the nurturer of all living creatures.[1]

She was also credited with the power of divining the future. As Pausanias reports, “close to the so-called Gaion [shrine of the Earth Goddess] there is an altar dedicated to Gaia, built with ashes; in older times, they say, there was also an oracle of Gaia there.”[2] In antiquity,on the southwest foot of the nearby Cronium Hill there was a deep cleft among the rocks. People believed that from such openings emerged forces residing in the depths of the Earth, often in the form of intoxicating vapors; thus, as in Delphi, the place would have been appropriate for the creation of an oracle. Throughout the history of Olympia goddesses were always important. Archaeologist Dimitrios Lazaridis, in an essay included in the widely acknowledged History of the Greek Nation, offers the following:

The oldest deity of Olympia was Ge. Her cult (...) is connected to the figure of the chthonic Aegean goddess-mother. The cult of the Fertility Goddess during the Mycenaean times is connected to Hera, Demeter and Hippodameia and the companion god of the fertility mysteries can be identified with Zeus, with the Heracles of the Achaeans and with Pelops. The antiquity of the worship of Hera in Altis [the sacred valley of Olympia], the role of the priestess of Demeter Chamyne during the games of the historic era and the altar of the goddess in the stadium all show the old preponderance of female deities in Olympia.[3] 

The focus on the Female in prehistoric traditions is believed to reflect a kind of culture in which women were held in high esteem. When society changes, religion changes as well, though at least some elements of the past are typically preserved. In Olympia the transition from the Mother Goddess to the Father God, Zeus, was far from simple and painless. Fierce battles occurred for the control of the sacred site, which went on until the 4th century BCE.

The area of the sanctuary originally belonged to the Achaean city of Pisa, located to the east of Olympia. However, in the 12th century BCE, when the Eleans crossed to the north-western Peloponnese during the Doric invasion, they settled in that area. It thus became known as Elis or Elea and many of the previous inhabitants were forced to relocate to neighboring areas.[4] The sanctuary came into the invaders’ hands, leaving its original Pisatan founders to battle passionately in order to regain it.

Meantime, the Eleans endeavored to establish and expand their dominion in every possible way. They imposed their own god, Zeus, rededicating to him the old oracle of Gaia. In order to gain complete control of the sanctuary, they began advertising the male Olympics outside the borders of their country. However, within the next hundred years, the sacred site came again into the hands of the earlier Pisatan inhabitants. They re-established their original feminine cult by founding a major temple there, the Heraeum, and dedicating it to the goddess Hera. Dating from somewhere between the late 8th c. and the middle of the 7th c. BCE, it is considered one of the most ancient temples in Greece.

Today Hera is often regarded simply as the jealous and vindictive wife of Zeus. In reality, though, she was another aspect of the Great Mother. She was credited with the ability to conceive children without male help, alluding to a time before paternity had been established as an unequivocal requirement and people believed the Goddess could give life on her own. Hera’s fatherless offspring, according to some myths, were Hephaestus, the patron of metallurgy, Ares, the god of war, and the dragon Typhaon of Delphi.

In certain places Ηera was worshiped as goddess of moonlight and storms, as “Queen of Heaven.” The Orphic hymn 16 calls her “Queen of All, mother of rain, nurse of winds, creator of all.” Her name may be connected with the Ηellenic word era, meaning “earth,” as she was also associated with the fertility of the land.

Stories about Hera talk extensively about her quarrels with her divine husband. These myths may reflect the clashes between early patriarchal and pre-patriarchal religions, since her cult was much older than his. In Olympia he did not even have a temple until the 5th c. BCE, being honored in her own sacred space.

 b2ap3_thumbnail_Olympia-800x595.jpg

A view of the sanctuary and hill in ancient Olympia. Photo by H. Meenee.

 

Read the next part of to the article to find out more about the women’s games in ancient Olympia. Coming soon!

 

[1] Cf. Homeric Hymn 30, Orphic Hymn 26.

[2] Pausanias 5. 14, 10.

[3] Dimitrios Lazaridis, “Olympia,” History of the Greek Nation, vol. 2 (Athens: Ekdotiki Athinon, 1971), 477. Quotation translated by Harita Meenee.

[4] Cf. Pausanias 5. 1, 1.

 

 

 

 

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Harita Meenee is a Greek independent scholar of classical studies and women’s history. Her graduate studies were in the field of archetypal and women’s psychology. She works as a writer, translator and editor while also being a human rights activist. Harita has presented cultural TV programs and has lectured at universities in Greece and the US. She is the author of five books, as well as of numerous articles and essays published in Hellenic and international anthologies and magazines.

Comments

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 24 August 2016

    Ms. Meenee,

    Thank you for sharing this. As a Hellenic Platonist, this is all very relevant to my spiritual practice. I wasn't aware.

    Surely these struggles are related to the hymn in which Apollo slays Typhaon at Delphi, and must purify himself after the slaughter.

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