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It begins with an austere mask shattering into pieces, revealing the true focus of this magical night—the human body. Minutes later, a centaur (half human, half horse) launches into the darkness a "javelin," a shaft of light arching through the air. Then the Greek god Eros descends over scantily clad lovers sensually clutching and releasing each other as they frolic in the water. Finally the procession of Greek history begins, with float after float parading the progress of Greek sport, science, mathematics, warfare, theatre, and—culminating in the persona of the goddess Athena and a replica of the Parthenon—religion. Over all this, Eros hovers, as though the god of love is guiding the course of human history.

Christianity was not entirely absent from this spectacular opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. When 96 percent of your country's population identifies itself as Greek Orthodox, you had better represent the church in your rehearsal of national history. But the Christian faith got only a cameo in the sacred story spanning millennia. In a spectacle celebrating the human body and what it can do, why fete the religious prudes responsible for outlawing the Games more than 1,600 years ago?

Read the papers, listen to the media networks, check out the history bits on the Olympic website, and usually all you'll find about this little-known episode of Christian censorship is a cryptic remark that in a.d. 393, Roman emperor Theodosius banned the Games, along with other festivals, for being "too pagan." Under the emperor's direction, fanatical Christians closed and later tore down ancient wonders of the world, most notably the Temple of Zeus built in Olympia and the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria. ...

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Revisiting the Pagan Olympic Games
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August 2004

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