The ancient site of Olympia in the Peloponnese was the first home of the Olympic Games. Founded in the 8th century, there are many myths and stories connected with how the Olympic Games began. Here are some of them…
Even today, Olympia is in a relatively secluded place in the western Peloponnese. It often gets left out of people’s Greek travel itineraries because it is not a logical stop along a ‘tourist trail’. This is a real shame, because not only is it the birthplace of what we know today as the Olympic Games, but it is also one of the most interesting archaeological sites in Greece. Easily visited on a Greek Mythology Tour when you take one of our 5 day or 7 day tour packages, here’s a few facts and myths surrounding how the Olympic games started at Olympia.
Archaeological site of Olympia
We know that the site of Olympia has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and that in the 10th century BC it started to become a centre for Zeus worship. The first Olympic games were held here in the 8th century BC by the city state of Elis, although Olympia itself was regarded as a sanctuary. Sanctuaries dotted the Greek landscape, and were often associated with Gods, Oracles, or entrances to the underworld. (Another example of a famous Greek sanctuary is Delphi.).
Sanctuaries were also considered to be a form of neutral territory, where people could move around in safety. The original Olympic games took this a step further, as it is said that many city states held truces once every four years so that their athletes might travel and compete without danger of being attacked. This was very important, as even today, it is quite a distance to reach Olympia from Athens, Thebes or even further north!
Gods, Goddesses, and the stories connected with them played an important role in the life of ancient Greeks. Many daily rituals and ceremonies would have been carried out in their name, and significant buildings, landmarks and events might be ascribed to the Gods. Olympia was no exception, and a number of myths are connected with how the Olympic Games started there.
Idaios Daktylos Herakles
The oldest myth about how the Olympic Games began concerns Idaios Daktylos Herakles. The Daktylos (Dactyls) were a mythical race of beings who originated in Crete. They were associated with metal working, and were said to have taught maths and the alphabet to men. According to the myth, the leader of these Dactyls, Herakles, founded the Olympic Games in the age of Kronos. Note – This Herakles is considered to be different than the Herakles born to son of Alkmene and the son of Zeus.
There are several myths connecting Zeus with the founding of the Olympic Games. This is not surprising, as the site of Olympia was dedicated to him, and one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world (but sadly destroyed) Statue of Zeus was also here. Again, there is a connection with Crete, and also Kronos. The myth – After leaving his hiding place on Crete, Zeus fought against his father Kronos on this spot in the Peloponnese. After defeating him, he declared that there should be games in his honour held here every four years.
You might more commonly know him as Hercules now. Supposed to be half man and half God, he performed a series of Labours to atone for his sins which were brought on by a blind rage. One of those Labours, was to clean the stables of King Augeas. This might not sound a very difficult task, but the stables held thousands of animals, and had not been cleaned in many years! Herakles neatly solved the problem by diverting two rivers, which washed away all the muck, leaving the stables like new.
King Augeas however, was not pleased when he discovered that Herakles was performing the task as one of his Labours, and refused to pay the reward. Even when his own son came to testify before a judge that the King had promised to pay the reward, King Augeas refused, and banished both his son and Herakles from his kingdom. Herakles later returned, and with the help of Zeus overthrew the King. He then dedicated the Olympic Games in honour of Zeus who had helped him.
King Oenomaus and Hippodamia
King Oenomaus lived in fear of a prophecy which said that if his daughter Hippodamia would be married, he would then be killed by his son-in-law. To prevent this from happening, he demanded that all of Hippodamia’s suitors should challenge him to a chariot race. If they won, they could marry his daughter, but of they lost, they would be killed. Whilst many suitors tried their luck, what they didn’t realise was King Oenomaus had an ace up his sleeve – His horses were given to him by Ares, the God of War. He could easily win every time!
Later, King Pelops (who the Peloponnese are named after) came to try his luck. Hippodamia fell in love with him at first sight, and decided to help Pelops to win. They conspired to sabotage the King’s chariot by loosening one of the bolts that attached the wheels, and then the race began! Although it was close at first, eventually the King’s wheel fell off and he was killed in the accident. This meant that Pelops and Hippodamia could be married, fulfilling the prophecy. The Games were then held every four years in honour of his victory.
Greek Mythology Tours
If you are planning a trip to Greece and would like to discover more about Greek Mythology as well as visiting some of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world, contact us today. We specialise in family Greek mythology tours, with guides who are specifically trained to make the tours fun and interesting for kids. Are your kids fans of the Percy Jackson books? Then you’ll also love the fact that our tours draw on the stories from the books, comparing them to the real Greek myths, and leading you on to your own conclusions as to what the Greek Myths actually mean. Contact our team today, and start planning your trip to Greece!