Ancient Olympics - Games, Ritual, and Warfare

The Ancient Olympic Games Began as a Celebration of Death

Pelops and Hippodamia racing

Haiduc/Wikimedia Commons 

It's a curious aspect of sports that even when they are part of a celebration of global peace, like the Olympics, they are nationalistic, competitive, violent, and potentially deadly. Substitute "panhellenic" (open to all Greeks) for "global" and the same could be said about the ancient Olympics. Sports, in general, could be described as ritualized warfare where one power competes with another, where each hero (star athlete) strives to defeat a worthy opponent within a setting where death is unlikely.

Rituals of Compensation for the Catastrophe of Death

Control and ritual seem to be the defining terms. In coming to grips with the eternally present fact of death (remember: antiquity was a time of high infant mortality, death by diseases we can now control, and almost incessant warfare), the ancients put on shows where death was under human control. Sometimes the outcome of these shows was purposeful submission to death (as in the gladiatorial games), at other times, it was ​a victory.

Origin of the Games in Funerals

"The[re] are a number of possible explanations of the custom of funeral games such as to honor a dead warrior by reenacting his military skills, or as a renewal and affirmation of life to compensate for the loss of a warrior or as an expression of the aggressive impulses that accompany rage over the death. Perhaps they are all true at the same time."
- Roger Dunkle's Recreation and Games *

In honor of his friend Patroclus, Achilles held funeral games (as described in Iliad 23). In honor of their father, Marcus and Decimus Brutus held the first gladiatorial games in Rome in 264 BCE. The Pythian Games celebrated Apollo's slaying of the Python. The Isthmian games were a funeral tribute to the hero Melicertes. The Nemean games celebrated either Hercules' killing of the Nemean lion or the funeral of Opheltes. All of these games celebrated death. But what about the Olympics?

The Olympic games also began as a celebration of death, but like the Nemean games, the mythological explanations for the Olympics are confused. Two central figures used to explain the origins are Pelops and Hercules who are genealogically linked insofar as Hercules' mortal father was Pelops' grandson.


Pelops wished to marry Hippodamia, the daughter of King Oenomaus of Pisa who had promised his daughter to the man who could win a chariot race against him. If the suitor lost the race, he would also lose his head. Through treachery, Oenomaus had kept his daughter unmarried and through treachery, Pelops won the race, killed the king, and married Hippodamia. Pelops celebrated his victory or King Oenomaus' funeral with Olympic games.

The site of the ancient Olympics was in Elis, which is in Pisa, in the Peloponnese.


After Hercules cleaned the Augean stables, the king of Elis (in Pisa) welshed on his deal, so, when Hercules had a chance -- after he finished his labors -- he returned to Elis to wage war. The conclusion was foregone. After Hercules sacked the city, he put on the Olympic games to honor his father Zeus. In another version, Hercules merely regularized the games Pelops had instituted.

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Gill, N.S. "Ancient Olympics - Games, Ritual, and Warfare." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Ancient Olympics - Games, Ritual, and Warfare. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Ancient Olympics - Games, Ritual, and Warfare." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).