Pagan Origins of the Olympic Games

Olympics Priestess
The Olympic Games can trace their roots back thousands of years. Image by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images Sport

The Total Pagan Entertainment Package

The Olympic Games are one of the most highly anticipated events in the sports world today. The Games are a huge event, attracting athletes from nearly every country. Although it has turned into a marketing and merchandising behemoth, the original purpose of the Olympic Games was a far less secular one. During the early years of the Olympics, events were held not as a way to collect multimillion-dollar endorsements, but to honor the gods of ancient Greece.

The early Olympic Games have been called the "total pagan entertainment package" by author Tony Perrottet, author of The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. The Games featured art, poetry readings, writers, plays, painters and sculptors. There were street shows including fire eaters, jugglers, dancers, acrobats and palm readers.

Also important was the notion that war was put on hold during the Games. While the Greeks knew better than to try forming permanent truces with their enemies, it was understood that there was a moratorium on fighting during the Olympics. This allowed athletes, vendors, and fans to travel safely to and from the city for the Games, without having to worry about being attacked by marauding bands of mercenaries.

Honoring Zeus

For the citizens of Greece, the Olympics were a time of great religious celebration. Athletic events were mixed in with sacrifices, rituals, and prayer, as well as great feasting and revelry.

For over a thousand years, the Games were held every four years, which made them not only the longest-running athletic event in history, but also one of the longest-running regular religious observations.

The games were originally held in honor of Zeus, king of the Olympians. The very first Games consisted of only one athletic event - it was a footrace, which was won by a cook named Korobois.

Athletes made regular sacrifices to Zeus (typically pigs or sheep, but other animals would do as well), in hopes that he would recognize them and honor them for their skill and talents. During opening ceremonies, athletes lined up before a giant statue of Zeus holding a thunderbolt, and swore an oath to him in his Temple at Olympia.

All Roads Lead to the Olympics

Athletes participated in events in the nude. Although there's no clear reason as to why this is the case, historians attribute it to a rite of passage for young Greek men. Nudity was important to the Greeks and they weren't bothered by it. However, many other cultures of the time found it off-putting that the Greeks were oiling each other up and then rolling around on a wrestling floor. The Egyptians and Persians felt that there was something a bit degenerate about the whole thing.

While young women were allowed to attend the Games if they were brought in by their father or brother, married women never came to the festivities. Prostitutes were everywhere at the Olympics, and were often imported by merchants from far-off locations. A prostitute could make a significant amount of money during an event as big as the Olympic Games.

Sometimes, as many as 40,000 people showed up, so that was a lot of potential clients. Some of the prostitutes were hetaeras, or high-priced escorts, but many were priestesses from temples dedicated to Aphrodite, goddess of love.

The End of the Games

Around 400 c.e., the Roman emperor Theodosius decided the Olympic Games were too pagan in nature, and banned them completely. This was part of the Roman Empire's shift towards Christianity. During Theodosius' youth, he was tutored by the bishop Ambrose of Milan. Theodosius passed a number of laws that were designed to eliminate Greco-Roman paganism completely, as well as doing away with the rituals and ceremonies that celebrated the old pagan religions of Greece and Rome. To make Christianity the state religion, all vestiges of the old ways had to be eliminated, and that included the Olympic Games.

Be sure to read more on the Olympics from N.S. Gill at About Ancient History.