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Myths of the Olympics

If you're divine, do you still qualify to participate?


An Olympian priestess raises high the flame at a lighting ceremony.

An Olympian priestess raises high the flame at a lighting ceremony.

Milos Bicanski, Getty Images. Used by arrangement.
In the modern-day Olympic Games, the debate may rage over whether or not an athlete is competing illegally due to some drug or nutrient in their blood - but what if that blood itself is divine? Wouldn't that be grounds for disqualification? Apparently not.

Gods on the Roster
The earliest tales of the Olympics include deities as participants.

Pausanias, an early Greek guidebook writer writing in about 150 CE recounts how Zeus is said to have founded the Games to commemorate his victory over his father, Kronos. Supposedly he wrestled with him at Olympia itself.

Olympic Scandals Are Nothing New
While these days the Games get bad publicity if an athlete is found to have taken drugs or violated the rules, in the old days Olympia benefited. Statues called "Zanes", based on the ancient Cretan name of Zeus, Zan, were paid for by the fines collected from athletes who had broken the rules. Many of these statues were erected, indicating that times change, but the temptations for athletes do not.

The Sun Shines at the Games
Apollo did more than just shine on the Games; he also competed in a footrace with Hermes. And that wasn't the end of his Olympic trials. The god of war, Ares, was defeated by him in a boxing match.

The Two Hercules
The Idaean Herakles, one of the five Daktyloi who guarded Zeus after his birth, is also credited with founding the Games. His descendent is the semi-divine Hercules well-known to us for his heroic exploits. He also was said to have participated in the Games.

Hera Has Her Own
The beautiful Hera had her own Games, the Heraia, at Argos. This was a running contest in which 16 females participated in three races, divided by age.

There were also the Nemean Games, which have been recently revived and are open to participation by anyone.

The earliest "games" of all may have originated in Minoan Crete. Since there are few written records from that time, it's hard to document the exact origins of the Games, but we do know that it was a victory in such a game by the son of King Minos of Crete which ended in his murder and the "tribute" of seven maidens and seven youths sent from Athens to Knossos as compensation for the death of the young Minoan prince.

Poseidon Presiding
While the Olympic Games and Nemean Games both honored Zeus, the Isthmian Games honored Poseidon. In addition to being known as a god of the sea, Poseidon also ruled over earthquakes and horses. For the early Olympic Games, horse races made up a substantial part of the competitions.

Where Did the Priestesses Come From?
For these Olympic Games in Greece, one of the most intriguing images depicts beautiful costumed priestesses kindling the Olympic flame with a giant solar reflector. (Greek Orthodox religious authorities have sniffed, "They're not priestesses, they're actresses!" but don't tell that to Zeus).

How did the priestesses become involved when women were originally forbidden to attend the Games? After the original Games ceased to be held, the Pythian priestess at the oracle of Delphi told Iphitos that Greece could be healed of disease and disorder by reinstating the Games. He did so, bringing us the Games in the form that has endured, minus a 1400-year pause when they were halted for being too "pagan", to the present day.

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