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. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Ancient Olympic Anecdotes

Ancient Runners
The modern Games of the XXXth Olypmiad are nearly upon us and so, we shall continue with another Olympic-themed post. Whatever the age, ancient or modern, there are always Olympic heroes whose names will echo for all time because of the deeds they performed. Today we remember athletes such as Carl Lewis for his speed, Cuban boxer Teófilo Stevenson for his Olympic ideals, Nadia Comaneci for her gymnastic glory or Jesse Owens for his inspiring victories before Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Games. These are but a handful of examples. Feats of glory and courage are part and parcel with the Olympics themselves.

It is the same with the ancient Games.

A little research into the past will reveal that the ancient Olympics were not without heroes. The gods were indeed honoured by the feats performed at this ancient ritual at Olympia, beside the rivers Alfeios and Kladeos from 776 B.C. to A.D. 394 when they were banned by Emperor Theodosius I.

Ancient sources speak of several competitors who wore the olive crown repeatedly in their day. There is the southern Italian Greek, Milo of Kroton, who was victorious in wrestling no less than six times, once as a boy and then among the ranks of men. Milo’s defeat only came seven Olympiads later in 512 B.C. when a younger challenger wore him out by evading him, not overpowering him. Milo was a legend, a showman, and he performed feats of strength wherever he went, a second Herakles. He was also an excellent warrior and the story goes that when his town of Kroton was attacked, the Olympian joined the battle wearing his crowns and dressed like Herakles, club and all. He led his fellow citizens to victory. Another time, Milo saved a gathering of Pythagoreans whose meeting hall began to collapse. Milo held the central pillar to allow everyone to run to safety before he jumped out himself. That was a man who lived his title every day of his life.

Then there is Melankomas of Caria, a sort of pacifist boxer! He was the victor at the 207th Olympiad in A.D. 49. Melankomas was known for his perfect physique and good looks but with such attributes, he felt the need to prove his courage. And so, he chose athletics as the most honourable and strenuous path open to him. The training was more trying than that of a soldier! His boxing style was to defend himself from the blows of his opponents without striking them. Often, the opponents would get frustrated and lose composure in the face of Melankomas’ endurance; he could apparently fight all day in the summer heat without striking anyone. The others must have just collapsed! At any rate, Melankomas was undefeated throughout his career yet he never once hit an opponent, nor was he himself hit. Unique style, I’ll give him that.

One of my personal favourites is the story of Diagoras of Rhodes, boxer, and victor at the 79th Olympiad in 464 B.C. When the great poet Pindar praises him as a ‘straight-fighting, tremendous man who had himself crowned beside the Alpheus’ (Olympian 7), you know this is a special person. Diagoras was supposedly everything a noble, ancient athlete should be, his character perfectly virtuous. Not only did he win the Olympic crown, but he was also victorious four times at the Isthmian Games and twice at the Nemean Games and elsewhere. And it ran in the family! Diagoras of Rhodes lived to witness the Olympic victories of two of his sons, Damagetos and Akousilaos, in pankration and boxing respectively. After the sons’ victories they hoisted their father on their shoulders while the crowd sang the praises of the entire family. In addition to that shining moment, two of Diagoras’ daughters’ sons were also Olympic victors, making that three generations of the Diagoras family to be crowned at Olympia. No wonder there was talk of their divine ancestry!

Many know that the ancient Olympic Games were closed to women who were not allowed to participate or observe the games, not even to set foot in the sacred sanctuary during the games. However, one of my favourite Olympic anecdotes has to do with the Spartan princess, Cynisca. This young, vibrant and strong woman was the daughter of Archidamus II, King of Sparta and the later sister of King Agesilaus II. Cynisca was also the first woman in history to win in an event at the ancient Olympic Games.

Four Horse Chariot
What’s that? you ask. You said women were not permitted to participate in the games! Yes, that is true, except when it came to the owning and training of horses in the equestrian events. And this is where Cynisca made her mark. According to Pausanias, the princess was an expert equestrian and had ambitions toward the Olympic Games. If anyone could have pulled this off, it was a Spartan. Though Spartan girls did not enter into the brutal Agoge as the boys did, to make them the fierce warriors that they were, Spartan girls were, nevertheless, trained in many sports including riding and hunting. The Spartan view was that strong women breed strong Spartan men. No other Greek women were permitted such a life, most being kept indoors. At any rate, Cynisca’s team went on to win the four-horse chariot race in both 396 B.C. and 392 B.C. She may not have seen her team win, but she was honoured with a bronze statue of a chariot team and one of herself in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. She even had her own hero shrine in Sparta. Both honours were a first for women.

To the Victor!
There were of course, several sacred games held in ancient Greece: the Olympic Games, the Isthmian Games, the Pythian Games and the Nemean Games. How many victor’s stories have been lost to history? Sadly, probably too many. But we should be happy to have some still available to us. The stories, like those of our modern Olympic heroes, are inspiring anecdotes that history has left us. When we walk the ground of ancient Olympia today, or read the histories in ancient texts, to my ears the roar of the crowd still rings true, despite the passage of time. I can hear the crash in the dust as Milo of Kroton throws an opponent, the adoration of the crowd for the Diagoras family, or Cynisca’s victorious yell outside the sanctuary walls as she made Olympic history.

If you are fortunate enough to be watching the XXXth Olympiad in London this summer, take note, take it in. You may be witnessing history in the making. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Top Tips from a Travelling Writer

Two of my favourite things are, of course, writing and travelling. I am totally addicted to both, I confess. Looking at the world through a writer’s eyes makes travelling even more interesting in my opinion, because your imagination is working overtime wherever you go, absorbing everything.

Everyone learns something different when they travel so I wanted to share a few of the dos and don’ts that I have discovered over the years of car, train, plane and camelback travel.

#1 Don’t forget your notebook and camera.
I never travel without either of these. There are just too many sights I will want to refer back to, too many sensations and ideas that arise. After you’ve captured things in your mind, snap some photos, sketch some images and write out some words. They’ll all come in handy down the road.

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus
#2 Leave Botticelli alone!
It may seem obvious to some but if you do appreciate art and other ancient things don’t snap pictures when you should not be doing so. In the Uffizi galleries in Florence rests Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. It is a beautiful work of art, loved by millions of people. In the gallery, it is surrounded by large pictures of crossed out cameras and signs in various languages telling people not to use flashes etc. But, when I was there, that didn’t stop thirty or so people from snap-flashing away. Totally bad form and destructive to the art!

#3 Bring Snacks!
This is not only true when you are travelling with kids. If you are in some remote spot and the hunger hits you hard, you’re going to want something to fill the gap. Also, if you are out on a desert highway and camel meat kebabs are not to your liking, then you’d better be prepared.

Cretan Donkey
#4 Keep you ears open.
Wherever you go, you will always be able to catch some wonderful local expressions that can add some colour to your narrative. For instance, if you are speaking with someone about marriage, you might hear them use ‘Better to tie your donkey, than to have to go looking for your donkey.’ Or, if perchance you happen upon a funeral on some remote Peloponnesian hillside, you might catch someone saying ‘Now that we’ve found a priest, let’s bury the living ones too.’ Okay, so perhaps something is lost in translation but at the least, these little gems will be great for dinner parties.

#5 Spell it out! R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Unless you want to end up in a scrap, some dingy jail or with a bad case of the evil eye, you should always show respect for the people and places you are visiting. I have seen far too many of my fellow travellers acting unkindly toward their hosts and it gives the rest of us a bad name. I can still hear one blustery person throwing the menu back at the owner of a traditional estiatorio in Athens and saying “Ain’t no goddam biscuits and gravy!” Or the time our small group was invited into a Saharan troglodyte dwelling and offered flat bread by the lady of the house and tea in her best and most valuable cups. Almost everyone of the people I was with ignored her completely as if she was a beggar. We were in HER home! That day I saw a dark side of tourism. If we want to be respected, we should also do the same courtesy to others. Buying a plane ticket does not give one the right to treat people like crap.

Travel Dictionaries
#6 Learn some words.
I’ve found that when I travel in other countries, it can be a little embarrassing to leave my comfort zone and try another language. However, the entire world does not speak English and for me, travelling is about experiencing other cultures. It is amazing how welcoming people in other countries have made me feel just from my trying to use a few words in their own language. Language is about communication and travelling, about other cultures. Even learning how to say hello and goodbye to someone in their own language will earn you a tremendous amount of good will.

#7 If you want a picture, it’ll cost you!
I was quite taken aback the first time I went to the Coloseum in Rome and saw another group of tourists agree to take pictures with some friendly legionaries outside the ruin. Living history! I thought. Great! But once the tourists snapped their pictures (the girls in the group having been groped to boot), the legionaries began demanding money from them. There was a lot of yelling and a bit of a scuffle before the tourists ripped themselves away from their aggressors. The armour was cheap and crappy anyway, I told myself. Another example of photos for pay is when I was in Tunisia and there was a Berber man with a baby camel at one of the roadside stops. The thing was so fuzzy and cute, the others in our group promptly set about snapping away. They were completely baffled when the man thrust his palm into their faces demanding money for the pictures they had taken of his baby camel. Before you snap, make sure it is indeed free or that you are ready to pay.

Camels in North Africa
#8 Get your haggle on.
One of the oddest things for me when I started travelling was the whole idea of haggling. Why bother when here (in North America, say) the price on the tag is the price you pay most of the time. Not so in other countries. One example is when I was in the market in Tunis. I wanted to buy some silver bracelets as presents and went into one particular shop to look. Of course we were pounced on right away. Luckily, my French came in handy and a banter began between myself and the trader, a young guy wearing Pittsburgh Pirates hat and smelling strongly of garlic. His prices started out very high and so, I made to walk away before he came into the street to call me back. We repeated this French-language, ritual bargaining four times before we settled on a deal, the guy muttering to my friend how I was a thief. When I had my goods, he called down the street, telling me to come back another time. Now, in North America, the tone of our haggle might have been misconstrued as preliminary to fisticuffs. But there, it was all part of the experience.

#9 Be ready for anything.       
This might sound paranoid but, one can never be too careful. Sure, you are not walking the streets of ancient Rome after a midnight visit to the brothel or baths, but you are in a place that is strange to yourself. Awareness serves well so, before you dive into a packed market place, your bag dangling freely off your shoulder, remember that pick pocketing is an age-old profession. I might have mentioned this example before but I always think back to a person in one of my groups whose purse was sliced open with an exacto knife to get at the contents. Luckily, she was a bird watcher and her massive binoculars blocked the thief’s hand from getting in.

Temple of Apollo
Ancient Corinth
#10 Not everything is a souvenir.
Let’s just get one things straight. It is not ok to take a chunk of an archaeological artefact home with you. Defacing ancient monuments is a pet peeve of mine – call me picky. If you want souvenirs, go to the gift shop for a replica, of which there are usually many. The ruins have stood for hundreds and thousands of years so perhaps they have earned the right to stand a little longer. I don’t care if you (insert name) were there in 2004 – let it be!

And last but certainly not least…

Bottled Water is your Friend
#11 Don’t drink the water!
Clichéd but oh so true. If you are travelling far from where you live, there will be parasites in the water that you are not used to and these things can make you sick and ruin your trip. Sure, you could get some first hand experience and material to write about a character having a fever of some sort in an exotic location but really, do you want to have that experience? When in Tunisia, when the rest of our group was gorging themselves on goat and camel meat, my friend and I opted for the soup. They boil soup, don’t they? I thought. The answer is NO, they don’t boil the soup. In fact, they don’t even simmer it for very long. Well, I’ll spare you truly gory the details but let me just say that it is most difficult to write or take pictures or enjoy anything at all when you are fever-ridden, shaking and doubled over with cramps for two days. Luckily for me, that happened at the end of my trip and so, the first part was A-okay!

Friday, July 6, 2012

The World of Children of Apollo - Part VI - Cumae and the Sibyl

"…from her shrine the Sibyl of Cumae sang her fearful riddling prophecies, her voice booming in the cave as she wrapped the truth in darkness, while Apollo shook the reins upon her in her frenzy and dug the spurs into her flanks. The madness passed. The wild words died upon her lips…" (Aenied, Book VI)

In this series of posts on The World of Children of Apollo we have been through the sands and cities of Roman North Africa, trod the marble-clad streets of Imperial Rome and wandered the lush, ancient land of Etruria. We have met the imperial family and had a hint of the dangers that can come of an association with them.

In this post, we set off on a slightly different path into the realm of mystery and legend, and visit the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, Apollo’s ancient oracle on the Italian peninsula. It is in this cave of the Sibyl that Lucius Metellus Anguis learns of a cryptic prophecy concerning his future.

Legend has it that Cumae was founded by ancient Greeks as early as 1050 B.C. and was, according to Strabo, the oldest of the Greek colonies on mainland Italy or Sicily. Cumae survived many years of war and attack until, under the Empire, it was seen as a quiet, country town in contrast to the very fashionable Baiae nearby. The acropolis of Cumae is a mass of rock rising two-hundred and sixty-nine feet above the seashore which lies one hundred yards away. The acropolis contains three levels of caves with many branches and it is within these caves that the Cumaean Sibyl had her seat.

Cumaean Acropolis and Cave
One can approach the rock from the south-east. It is steep on all sides with remnants of the original Greek fortifications. The acropolis is an ancient place, a place where myth and legend can, if you manage to block out modernity, come alive. Within the acropolis stood the Temple of Apollo, God of Prophecy. Tradition has it that Daedalus himself built the temple. This was restored by the Romans who had great reverence for that god and the Sibyl who had prophesied the future of Rome to the last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in the Sibylline Books.
The Sibyl
Andrea del Castagno
As the story goes, Tarquinius would not pay the Sibyl her extortionate price for all nine books. The Sibyl burned three and yet he refused to pay. She burned another three and the king relented, paying the original price for the remaining three books. A lesson there, to be sure! The Sibylline Books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill until c. 80 B.C. when it burned down. The books were so valuable, having been referred to in times of great crisis for Rome, that a re-collection of Sibylline prophecies was undertaken in all corners of the Empire. Augustus finally had the prophecies moved to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill where our main character, Lucius Metellus Anguis spends much time in Children of Apollo.

Entrance to the Cave
But who was the Sibyl? Her person is surrounded by the haze of legend. She was mortal, but she lived for a thousand years. In the Aeneid, it was the Sibyl who guided Aeneas to the underworld so that he could visit his dead father, Anchises, in Hades. Her story is a sad one too. When Apollo met her, the god offered her a wish in exchange for her virginity. The Sibyl then picked up a handful of sand and asked that she live as many years as the number of grains of sand she held in her palm. The old adage, ‘Careful what you wish for,’ certainly rings true in the Sibyl’s case. Tragically, she did not wish for eternal youth as well and as a result, over the centuries, her young, once-beautiful body withered until all that remained was her prophetic voice. In Children of Apollo, this is a voice that Lucius Metellus Anguis will not soon forget.

The Sibyl's Inner Chamber
The traditions of ancient Greece and Rome are of full of tales of tragedy, choices wrongly-made, beauty, love, hate and deception. The tales are heroic and terrifying, inspiring and thought-provoking. And oftentimes, there is a physical place associated with a particular tale, a place you can visit and hear the voices of the past. You can stand in a spot where once a Trojan hero stood, as well as emperors and caesars, or common soldiers. It may be a place or tale that shook the foundations of the world, of a people, or of a solitary individual trying to find his way.

For Lucius Metellus Anguis, the Sibyl’s cave is a place that will haunt him for a long time to come. 

View to the Light
from Inside

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ancient Festivals and Games

A Roman Festival

Days off are something that we all look forward to. Who doesn’t? In Canada, we’ve just celebrated Canada Day with a barrage of red-and-white maple leaf flag waving, walks in the park, lazy lattes and roasting meat. And on tomorrow’s 4th of July, I suspect many will be celebrating Independence with even greater pomp.

Festival days are few and far between in modern society but they still serve social cohesion and provide the populace with a sort of release, a chance breather from the everyday doldrums most of us experience.

It was the same in the ancient world, except there were far more festivals throughout the year, each usually tied to a particular deity or event such as the harvest. In fact, there were so many religious festivals in ancient Greece and Rome that it is near impossible to keep track of them all, of the practices and rituals that accompanied each. It went far beyond the guzzling of beer and the overhead burst of pyrotechnics.

Ruins of Elefsina
Whether it was something as big and mysterious as the Elefsinian Mysteries in honour of Demeter and Persephone or something as seemingly small as celebrating a tiny shrine, these festivals and celebrations were essential acts in the life of ancient societies. Ancient Rome in particular had a never-ending agenda of sacred festivals. The imperial event planners must have been hard workers! What is fascinating for me is that even today, we have the rough dates of many festivals in ancient Rome due to the vast array of primary sources.

Statue of Apollo, Olympia
Traditionally, from about July 6-13, for instance, ran the ancient Roman festival of the Ludi Apollonares or, the Games of Apollo. The Games of Apollo, first held when Sulla was Praetor in 212 B.C., had been intended as a one-time event but became an annual celebration after the plague of 208 B.C. to honour Apollo who was also a god of healing. The games included equestrian competitions and stage performances which were followed by special markets and fairs. However, from a popular point of view, they were of somewhat less interest than other games because they only included one day of races in the Circus. Less popular meant less funding from a political point of view, but they were certainly no less important from a religious point of view.

The Pythia
Not only was Apollo the god of light and art, he was also the god of healing and of prophecy. It was his oracle, the Sibyl of Cumae, who uttered a series of prophecies on the future of Rome and its people in what is known as the Sibylline Books. These prophecies were sacred to Rome, stored in the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter and then in the Temple of Apollo, built by Augustus, on the Palatine Hill.

The celebration of festivals in the ancient world is extremely interesting to look at and, indeed, to write about. Festivals can provide a vivid backdrop to any novel or short story.

This weekend, on July 7 and 8, in honour of the god of art and prophecy, and to mark the Ludi Apollinares, there will be a special promotion of Children of Apollo, Book I of the Eagles and Dragons series. Stay tuned!

For those among you interested in prophecy and the Sibyl of Cumae, you won’t want to miss the next instalment of The World of Children of Apollo. Coming this weekend.

For now, here’s to health and light, creativity and all that might be. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Olympic History Lives On!

Well, the Summer Olympiad is almost upon us and for me, this is a time for getting into the spirit of Olympic competition. The greatest athletes in the world will push themselves to the limits of physical and mental strength and endurance in honour of their gods, their countries, their people, and themselves.

Sure, every athlete may not be making an offering to Olympian Zeus prior to competing – times have changed as the wheel of history and belief has turned over the centuries – but, aside from the wonderful array of cultures competing, there are some Olympic aspects, events, that have survived the passage of time.

A recent article by the BBC (click here to read the article) compares the ancient and modern Olympic games, looks at the aspects of the games that are different, and those that are the same. For one thing, in the ancient Olympics, women were not permitted to watch or compete in the games. One of the unfortunate realities of ancient Greece was, of course, the low position of women on the social scale. If there had been a Celtic Olympiad however, the women would have been right in there bloodying the men! Interestingly, one exception in which women were permitted to be involved was in the equestrian events as owners of horses. The article references the first mention of a victorious team being owned by a Spartan princess. Now that sounds like a fantastic story!

Artist Impression of
the Statue of Zeus
The original footrace was the 200M dash which, of course, carries on to this day. Having been a competitor in that event when I was in school, it might have been cool to know the history behind it. Gym teachers, take note! Other events that have stood the test of time are the javelin, the discus, standing long jump and wrestling. Pankration has gone the way of UFC rather than the Olympics and no longer do we see runners in hoplite gear running down the stadium lanes. The historian in me thinks that would be a great one to reinstate. If not that, how about bringing back chariot racing? Tell me the crowd wouldn't thrill to see teams of four-horse chariots thundering past!

Olympic history is one of the most fascinating topics of ancient Greek studies. Should you ever get the chance to visit ancient Olympia, do it. It is a site unlike any other, a truly ancient place that is blanketed in peace. When the games were on, wars stopped, and competition honoured the gods that watched over them all.

This month, when the Olympiad returns to us, when the athletes of the world come together in friendly competition, I doubt that the wars of the world will cease, at least of the space of the Games. It is however, a thing to hope for.