Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Heraia

When we think of ancient Olympia in Greece, the obvious thought that comes to mind is of the Olympic Games. Of course we would, it is the birthplace of the Games, the sacred sanctuary near the Alfeios river, the ground where history was made and legends born.

In previous posts I’ve noted that the ancient Olympics were closed to women as competitors and spectators, except when it came to the owning and training of horse teams. I’ve mentioned the Spartan princess, Cynisca already. There was also Bilistiche, a Hellenistic courtesan who was the mistress of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the son of Alexander’s general, Ptolemy I. Bilistiche won two equestrian victories in the Olympics of 264 B.C. and was deified by Ptolemy II. How many Olympians can claim deification?

Four Horse Chariot Team
But those were the Olympic Games, held on the sacred ground of Olympia. Cynisca and Bilistiche would not have been allowed to set foot within the sanctuary to watch their teams compete. However, there was a time when women were permitted within the sanctuary at Olympia, as competitors and spectators.

In the sanctuary of Olympia, not far from the Temple of Zeus, there stands the Temple of Hera, Queen of the Gods and also the goddess to whom another ancient competition was dedicated: The Heraean Games.

The ancient Heraean Games, or the Heraia, were the first official games for women’s athletic competition to be held in the stadium at Olympia. The earliest date comes from Pausanias who places its beginning in the 6th century B.C. The Heraia originally involved foot races only. Women ran in short tunics, the sort men wore for work. The champions received olive crowns, ox or cow meat from the animals sacrificed to the goddess, and the honour of dedicating statues with their names, or portraits of themselves, to be hung in the Temple of Hera.

Temple of Hera, Olympia
Girls in ancient Greece, with the exception of Spartans, were not encouraged to be athletic. It was frowned upon. But the Heraia continued to gain in popularity and some historians wonder if this was an indication of changing social views and an increasingly less restricted life for women. One theory is that this is partly due to the increasing influence of Rome.

In Rome, girls from well-to-do families could participate in men’s festivals. The Capitoline games in Rome in the later half of the 1st century A.D. included women’s races.

Goddess of Victory
So, next time you visit ancient Olympia, be sure to remember the Olympic Games but also, the Heraean Games and the unsung heroes whom Nike crowned with olive wreaths.

Ancient women athletes such as Cynisca and Belistishe, as forerunners of many a modern female Olympian, would perhaps have been awed by what they had begun. 
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