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Olympia

by Ron Leadbetter
The sanctuary of Olympia, the most ancient and is probably the most famous sanctuary in Greece, and home of the Olympic Games. It is situated in the valley of the Alpheios in the western region of the Peloponnese (the legendary king Pelops was the first ruler of the area and it was he who gave the whole peninsula its name "Peloponnesos", which means "Island of Pelops"). The sanctuary lies on the south west foot of a wooded hill known as Kronion (in honor of Cronus). The river which flows through the site is the Alpheios, which is known in the mythology of Heracles, also the river-god Alpheus, who was the son of Oceanus and Tethys.

The mythology attached to Olympia is older than the games themselves, but the myth of how the Olympic Games were contrived comes from the contest to win the hand of the beautiful maiden HippodamiaHippodamia, she was the daughter of king Oinomaos. The king dit not want his daughter to marry (legend has it that he loved her himself, and others that he would be killed by the son of his daughter). For which ever reason, king Oinomaos set a contest for Hippodamia's suitors, of which there were many. The king was an excellent equestrian, excelling in chariot racing, knowing he would most certainly win each race, he set the contest as the winner would get Hippodamia, but the loser would die. Oinomaos was challenged for many years, in that time he defeated and killed 13 suitors. His daughter Hippodamia was sure she would be a spinster for the rest of her life, but the next suitor was the hero Pelops. A chariot race seemed an easy challenge to a man who had overcome greater dangers: when Pelops was only a child his father Tantalus cooked him in a stew, then served him to the Olympian gods, for he was trying to trick the immortals into eating human flesh unknowingly. However, Demeter did take a bite from Pelops shoulder, but she recognized her mistake immediately. The gods saved Pelops and gave him an ivory shoulder, as a replacement for the part Demeter had inadvertently eaten.

Pelops knew of the 13 suitors Oinomaos had already killed. Pelops, being a wise if not honorable hero, bribed the kings charioteer Myrtilus. He persuaded Myrtilus to loosen the linch-pins which held the wheels of his masters chariot to the axle. On the day of the race Myrtilus carried out Pelops wishes. King Oinomaos confident he would win, raced off at great speed, but at the first turn the linch-pins sprang free, letting both wheels fall from the axle. King Oinomaos was thrown from his chariot and killed. Being the victor Pelops married Hippodameia, but to keep his manner of victory secret, Pelops killed the disloyal Myrtilus. Pelops disposed of his body by throwing it into the Aegean, and there after that particular part became known as the Myrtoan Sea.

There are other legends of how the games originated, some believe it was Heracles who founded them, after completing his sixth labor, of which he accomplished in the Peloponnese (the other six were in different regions of the known world). This labor was to cleanse the "Augean Stables" a task that involved clearing all the foul dirt which had built up over the years. The owner, king Augeas, had many herds of cattle and had neglected to clear the manure and filth. Heracles had one day to remove and cleanse them. He did this by diverting two rivers one being the Alpheios (which flows through Olympia) and the Kladeos (in some versions it was the Peneus). When the torrent of water flowed through the stables it carried away all the muck and filth. To celebrate this accomplished task Heracles founded the games. Some legends believe that the sanctuary of Olympia had been built where the palace and stables originally stood. The Labors of Heracles were commemorated on the "Temple of Zeus", and with its gold and ivory statue created by Pheidias, became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The great Temple of Zeus was constructed between 470 BCE and completed in 456 BCE. The architect was Libon and his design was a Doric peripteral temple (entirely surrounded with columns), the largest in the Peloponnese. Both pediments depict scenes from mythology, which where wonderfully carved in marble. The sculpture on the east pediment depicts the chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops, with Zeus in the center. On the western pediment it shows the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, which occurred during the wedding of Peirithous and Deidameia, with Apollo in the center (these and many other wonderful sculptures are housed in the near-by museum). Also above the entrance to the "pronaos" (porch to the front of the cella), there are six metopes depicting scenes from the "Twelve Labors of Heracles), and the other six are above the "Opisthodomos"(the enclosed space at the rear of the cella, the cella is the sacred cult room within the temple). The "acroterion"(acroteria are pedestals for statutes and ornaments (acroterion) placed on the apex or lower angles of pediments) which stood at the center of the east pediment (the very top of the triangular pediment) was a sculpted marble Nike (victory), which had been gilded, this was the work of Paionios.

There are many shrines temples and altars. Some shrines are from an early period, and are situated at the foot of Kronion (this is where most prehistoric finds have been located). They have been identified as the cults of Cronus, Rhea, Gaia, Eileithyia, Themis and Idaian Heracles. In the early Archaic period the Altis, (a sacred grove) would have been full of plain trees, wild olive, poplars, oak and pine, enclosed by a low hedge, with simple buildings and altars to the gods, and the heroa-tumuli of Pelops and Hippodameia. Pausanias said that a single column stood here, it was all that remained of the palace of Oinomaos. Legend says that it was eventually destroyed, by a single thunderbolt sent by Zeus. In this period the votive offerings would have been hung from the trees. Also in this era the sacred wild olive would have flourished here, a notable relic of an ancient tree cult. One legend says that Heracles introduced this species of tree to Olympia when he returned from the land of the Hyperboreans.

The Olympic Games were founded (according to tradition) in 776 BCE and held every four years in honor of Zeus. In the early years the games took place on just one day, as there were only two events, wrestling and the footrace. By 471 BCE there where more competitions also religious sacrifices, and feasting. The classical period saw all the famous events taking place such as boxing, pankration and the pentathlon. The games remained a prestigious festival, even in the Roman era, but were disbanded in 393 CE by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I as he prohibited all pagan festivals.


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