Myths & Legends
There were many legends and myths about the Games and the feats of various victors,
but when it comes to the formation of the Olympic games, three characters are central:
Pelops, Hercules, and King Iphitos.
The exact circumstances surrounding the birth of the ancient Olympics are shrouded in mystery.
What little information we have has been pieced together from archeological and literary sources.
Although we may not have all the facts, we do have an abundance of quasi-"fiction."
Historical figures were often elevated to the status of demigods and legendary achievements
were posthumously imputed to them. The many myths and legends associated with the origins
of the ancient Olympic games are a reflection of the mythic-religious nature of the
ancient Greek civilization.
In ancient Greece, all athletic festivals were celebrated under the
patronage of a divinity. The Olympic festival was held in honor of Zeus, chief of the Greek pantheon of gods.
But how did the site of Olympia become a center for Zeus worship?
Legend has it that Zeus marked Olympia as his sacred precinct with
a thunderbolt hurled from his throne on Mount Olympus (located to the north of Olympia).
The great altar of Zeus at Olympia, just north of his stunning temple,
is said to mark that spot. Although many ceremonies were
offered to Zeus during the Games, none were more important,
or extravagant, than the great "hecatombe" (sacrifice to Zeus of one hundred oxen
donated by the Eleans) on the morning of the middle day of the Olympic festival.
Pelops was the local hero of Olympia and was considered the mythical founder of the Games.
The story of Pelops begins with Oinomaos, the king of Pisa
(a district not far from Elis), who had a beautiful daughter named Hippodameia.
According to an oracle, the king would be killed by her husband.
Therefore, he decreed that any young man who wanted to marry his
daughter was required to drive away with her in his chariot,
and Oinomaos would follow in another chariot and spear the suitor
if he caught up with them. Now, the king's chariot horses were
a present from the god Poseidon and were therefore supernaturally fast.
Oinomaos had twelve heads nailed above the palace gateway when Pelops
arrived from Phrygia (a province in Asia Minor).
Pelops was a very handsome young man and the king's daughter fell in love with him.
Before the race, she persuaded her father's charioteer to replace the bronze axle
pins of the king's chariot with wax ones. Naturally, during the race the wax
melted and the king fell from his chariot and was killed. At the same time
the king's palace was struck by lightning and reduced to ashes, save for
one wooden pillar that was revered in the Altis (sacred grove of Olympia)
for centuries, and stood near what was to be the site of the temple of Zeus.
Pelops was proclaimed the winner and married Hippodameia.
After his victory, Pelops organized chariot races as thanksgiving
to the gods and as funeral games in honor of King Oinomaos,
in order to be purified of his death. It was from this funeral
race held at Olympia that the beginnings of the Games were inspired.
Pelops became a great king, a local hero, and gave his name to the Peloponnese.
Eventually Pelops became part of the local mythology.
According to legend, Hercules founded the Games at the place where Pelop's
tomb was located at Olympia. A sanctuary was later erected in honor of
Pelops in the Altis. The sanctuary, called the Pelopion, was composed
of a monument surrounded by a pentagonal enclosure. As part of the
ancient Olympics, ceremonies were held in honor of Pelops in front of the Pelopion.
The greatest hero of Greece, Hercules, had to complete twelve labors to free
himself from slavery to King Eurystheos of Argos. One of those labors was to
clean the stables of King Augeus of Elis, who was said to have so much livestock
that most of the country could not be cultivated for dung. With the help of the
goddess Athena, who told him where to breach the banks of the river Alpheios
(which bounds the site of Olympia on the south), he diverted the river and thus cleansed the land.
In celebration of successfully completing this labor, Hercules made a clearing in the grove, laid out the boundaries of the Altis, and instituted the first games in honor of Zeus at site of Pelops's tomb.
He is said to have fixed the distance of the original race (and ultimately the stadium) by placing one foot in front of the other six hundred times. Hercules also planted the sacred olive tree that was later the source of crowns for the Olympic victors.
King Iphitos of Elis
Iphitos, who was a descendent of Hercules, is credited with revamping the Games
and imposing the institution of the Olympic truce. At the time of King Iphitos,
around the ninth century BC, mainland Greece was unsettled by civil wars and migrations.
Legend claims that King Iphitos went to the Oracle of Delphi and asked her how to
bring an end to the wars and pestilence that were gradually destroying the land of Greece.
She instructed him to reinstate the Games and declare a truce for their duration.
This plan succeeded and the Olympic truce became a major instrument in the unification of the Greek states and colonies.
According to tradition, it was Iphitos who first established the crown of leaves
from Hercules's olive tree as a prize, again on the advice of the Delphic Oracle,
who told him to go to Olympia and search for the tree "decked with gossamer webs."
At these first games, King Iphitos officiated as the sole judge.
Later, as the Games grew, judges from Elis (Hellanodikai )
became the Olympic officials.
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