Ancient Olympia is an incredible site, with the remains of the most epic of Olympic villages spread over a large area that is still only partly excavated. This was a sanctuary sacred to Zeus, an appropriate holy honoree for the first, the biggest, the most prestigious and the most famous of all the games on the Greek festival circuit. For “festival”, read “competitions for honor and glory.” There were other major festivals every four years at Delphi (the Pythian Games, see previous post), Corinth, and other key places in the Ancient Greek world.
You might be surprised to learn (I certainly was!) that the Olympic Games took place every four years WITHOUT PAUSE for nearly TWELVE HUNDRED YEARS. Just think about that for a moment. From 776 BC to 393 AD we have recorded evidence that the games were held every four years. That is to say, every four years, no matter what else was happening in the world, a month-long peace was called so that people could travel safely to Olympia. Athletes would come first; they were required to present themselves a month early so that the team of judges could ascertain 1) whether they were truly free-born Greek sons of free-born Greeks (AKA Greek citizens), 2) whether they had the skill to be a real contender, and 3) whether they demonstrated the ethics and sportsmanship of fair play. The athletes would train together and size up their competition throughout that month. After the athletes arrived, politicians, artists, philosophers, pilgrims, and all those who wanted to see and be seen would trickle into Olympia, swelling the sanctuary and town with Greeks from every city-state and colony. These events were both building blocks for and testament to a Panhellenic identity – a cultural Greek-ness that spanned many disparate city states, colonies, etc.
The busy layout of ruins delineating practice spaces, baths, temples, and stadium give mute evidence to the hive of activity this place must have been in those years when the Games took place. With the shuffling steps and murmurs from the masses of tourists off the cruise ships, all I had to do was close my eyes and take a seat and imagine the whole of the Olympic Village sprung to life. Though it was worth opening my eyes to see what those tourists would do with the starting line at the stadium...
The entrance to the Olympic Stadium was through a covered passageway directly connected to the temple where the athletes would have been sworn in and made offerings before the competition. On the day I was there, many visitors were humming “Chariots of Fire” as they walked through that same cut in the hill to emerge in the stadium; all I could of was how faithful our modern American football stadiums are to this original model.
Putting the games aside for just a moment, a very important Temple of Zeus was located here, with its own oracle that specialized in military advice. The statue of Zeus in that temple was considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. It was a chryselephantine statue, which was something I’d never heard of before this trip. It’s a term specific to monumental statues fashioned in Ancient Greece that were covered in ivory and gold. This particular statue stood 40 feet tall – his head brushed the ceiling and his arms nearly touched the sides. He was covered in a “skin” made of plates of ivory that would have been soaked and then molded to a wooden core of the statue, and supposedly 500 pounds of gold adorned his clothes and throne. Can you imagine the awe pilgrims must have felt?? That statue is lost to time… earthquakes or Christians are the best guesses for its destruction, or perhaps it was carried off by the Byzantines and burned in fires that swept Constantinople… but it stood for 900 years, and many ancient travelers left descriptions of it behind. I can allllmost picture it, and like to think of the impact it would have had on anyone lucky enough to see it.
The artist who made that statue, Phedias, was also an architect, and he was the designer behind the buildings and monuments on the Acropolis in Athens as well. It blows my mind that we can talk about an Ancient Greek civilization spanning over a thousand years, and yet we can trace huge strides in architecture, art, theater, philosophy, and politics to just a handful of names in the 50 year span of the “Golden Age.” Excavation of Phedias’ workshop near the temple turned up a cup with his name still on it, and remnants of molds he and his craftsmen used, each with notations still on them. Talk about leaving your stamp on the world!
When archaeologists located the altar of the Temple of Zeus, they found a massively deep and wide pile of ashes from all the burnt offerings made to the god. From those ashes, they uncovered hundreds of small clay and metal offerings made by those not wealthy enough to sacrifice an actual bull or donate a cauldron of olive oil – Zeus’ preferred gifts, apparently. I think too of the local craftsmen who would have made these small votives, and that what they worked with their hands, we can sift out of the ashes today. Goose-bump worthy, right?
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