The Pagan History of the Olympics

Rehearsal of Lighting and Handover Ceremonies of the Olympic Flame for PyeongChang 2018
High priestess passes the Olympic flame at the Temple of Hera during a rehearsal in 2017. Milos Bicanski / Getty Images

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 Total Pagan Entertainment Package

Turino 2006 Olympic Torch Lighting Ceremony
Theodora Siarkou, in the role of priestess, lights the Olympic flame. Milos Bicanski / Getty Images

The early Olympic Games have been referred to as 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 that included 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.

The first documented Games were held in 776 B.C.E., on the plains of Olympia, which is part of the Peleponnese. In addition to shrines and athletic facilities, Olympia was home to the massive temple of Zeus, with a large temple to Hera sited nearby.  According to some myths, the Games were founded by Idaios Herakles, one of the Daktyloi, to honor Zeus, who had helped him achieve victory in battle. Idaios Herakles eventually became identified with the hero Herakles, a son of Zeus, who superseded him in mythology as the founder of the Games.

"And writers tell us that one of them [the Daktyloi (Dactyls)] was named Herakles (Heracles), and excelling as he did in fame, he established the Olympic Games, and that the men of a later period thought, because the name was the same, that it was the son of Alkmene (Alcmena) [i.e. the Herakles of the Twelve Labours] who had founded the institution of the Olympic Games.”

Paying Tribute to Zeus

Vase, decoration depicting victory crowns an athlete with olive branch, detail
A victorious athlete is crowned with an olive branch on this ancient vase. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

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

One of the stadiums from the Olympics,Athens
One of the stadiums from the Olympics in Athens. WIN-Initiative / Getty Images

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. Any Greek male, regardless of social class, could participate. According to the Olympics website,

“Orsippos, a general from Megara; Polymnistor, a shepherd; Diagoras, a member of a royal family from Rhodes; Alexander I, son of Amyndas and King of Macedonia; and Democritus, a philosopher, were all participants in the Games.”

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 as a guest 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, the goddess of love.

The first woman to actually compete in the Games as an athlete was Kyniska, whose father was the king of Sparta. Kyniska won chariot races in 396 B.C.E. and 392 B.C.E. Despite the prohibition on women even being present, Kyniska was able to get away with this because, according to Olympic rules of the time, in equestrian events the owner of the horse, rather than the rider, was considered the winner. Since Kyniska didn’t actually own the horse pulling her chariot, she was able to compete and win the victory wreath. She was later allowed to place her statue in the temple of Zeus, with those of other winners, with the inscription, “I declare myself the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown." 

The End of the Ancient Olympics

Lighting of Olympic Flame
The Olympic flame is lit in an elaborate ritual. Mike Hewitt / Getty Images

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. Although Theodosius didn’t specifically say that the Games could no longer be staged, in his quest to make Christianity the primary religion of the Roman Empire, he banned all of the ancient Pagan practices associated with the Olympics.

“The establishment of the Christian Empire naturally brought about certain changes in the character of the games. From the point of view of Libanius and his fellow pagans, the festival course remained unaltered; but it could no longer be regarded officially as a festival in honor of Olympian Zeus. Moreover, the games must have lost the elements of the imperial cult which they would have previously had.”

Additional Resources

Wendy J. Raschke, The Archaeology of the Olymics - The Olympics and Other Festivals in AntiquityUniversity of Wisconsin Press, 2002.