Revisiting the Pagan Olympic Games
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. Search a bit more, and you might discover Theodosius's successor, Theodosius II, ordered his Roman army in 426 to demolish the impressive stadium of Olympia, which could accommodate more than 40,000 spectators at its peak. The world would have to wait until the modern era before the marvels of the human body and the brilliance of the civilization that dreamed up the Olympics could once again go on display.
But is that really all there is to the story? Is it really fair to caricature Christians as anti-sport, anti-body? After all, didn't Christians have a part in birthing the Olympics we know today?
More than this, new historical research suggests Emperor Theodosius may have had some very good reasons for outlawing the Games—ancient Olympia sponsored a few events the International Olympic Committee might just look askance at today. Not to mention what went on outside the arena.
In the August 9, 2004 issue of U.S. News & World Report, journalist Betsy Carpenter offered some penetrating insights (via respected historians) into the ancient Olympics we thought we knew so well. She writes, "Almost every dewy-eyed notion about the ancient games is shriveling in the light of the revisionist scholarship." The idea that the Olympics gave amateurs a chance at glory is assuredly a romantic one. First of all, Carpenter notes, the original Olympians were professionals—in the sense that they trained and competed virtually full time. Top athletes shuttled around other prestigious sporting events, much as they do today. And victors profited royally from their wins, snatching front-row seats at the Games, huge cash prizes, pensions, and even slaves.
But at least the Greeks prized the noble virtues of "agility, speed, and coordination," right? Certainly some of the events—particularly the races—suggest this. But one of the most popular events at the ancient games was the four-horse chariot race, Carpenter writes, which often ended in gory pileups. The racetrack, which sent its athletes spinning around turn posts, made for multiple spills and accidents. Sophocles tells the story of one young driver flung out of his chariot head-over-heels. "When his companions caught the runaway team and freed the blood-stained corpse from his rig, he was disfigured and marred past the recognition of his best friend."
Nor was every death accidental. The Olympics also featured a "ferocious, no holds-barred brawl known as the pankration. . . [This] was a vicious mix of wrestling, boxing, and street fighting in which punches, kicks to the groin, shoulder and ankle dislocations, and chokeholds were allowed." One infamous contestant earned the nickname "Mr. Digits" as he specialized in breaking his opponents' fingers. Spectators of boxing events witnessed comparable violence—historian Stephen Miller recounts the story of one Damoxenos who jabbed his opponent with his fingers sticking straight out, pierced the man's rib cage, and yanked out his intestines!
It's not difficult to imagine what Christians thought of all this. Sport itself was not necessarily off-limits to Christians—consider St. Paul's reference to "running the good race" in his letter to the Galatians. But bishops and ministers would assuredly have discouraged Christians from competing in the Olympics' combat sports. In fact, the third century minister Hippolytus listed 24 vocations forbidden to Christians in his book, Apostolic Traditions; and eight of these involved brutality, including chariot driving. For that matter, church fathers from Justin Martyr to Origen to Tertullian counseled Christians to shun violence, even if they did it in self-defense.
Competing for the gods
Moreover, Christians could not have participated in the Games, because they were so thoroughly pagan. Before the Games began, competitors processed to the village of Piera on the outskirts of Olympia. There, priests sacrificed a fat pig to Zeus, and the athletes participated in a ceremony of purification. Once the contestants had been confirmed, the priests repeated the ceremony, this time sacrificing a pig and sheep before the colossal statue of Zeus in Olympia. The athletes then swore allegiance to the Greek gods and fidelity to Zeus.
Nor were the gods relegated to the opening ceremonies. Winners of events visited the Temple of Zeus to sacrifice to the gods, and half of every animal was delivered to the priests to be prepared for the Olympic feast. That feast, held on the third day of the Games, was marked by a procession—priests scooped up glowing embers from the fire of Hestia, goddess of the hearth, then carried those embers past spectators singing a hymn to Zeus. Arriving at the Temple of Zeus, the priests mounted the steps and lit the fire in the altar with the embers. There, the priests slaughtered and sacrificed 100 bulls—one at a time—after which the feasting began.
If this wasn't offensive enough to Christian sensibilities, Greek men competed in the nude—apparently, one runner early in the Games' history lost his loincloth en route and ended up winning the race, thereby encouraging everyone else to follow suit. Married women were not allowed in the stands; women who flouted this prohibition ran the risk of being pitched head first off of nearby cliffs. But unmarried women were allowed to watch; and hetaeras, or "high-class" escort girls, would prostitute themselves during the banquets for Olympic victors. Some of these women likely came from the population of temple prostitutes dedicated to Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex.
An Emperor Says "Enough"
We begin to understand more of why the Roman emperor Theodosius (A.D. 346-395), intent upon not only tolerating Christians—as Constantine had—but also making Christianity the state religion, would do away with the Olympics. To be sure, he at first seemed to put up with the pagan aristocracy, and the senator Symmachus even hoped that the emperor would reinstate the ceremony to the gods at the Altar of Victory in Rome. But Theodosius came under the tutelage of the bishop Ambrose of Milan during a series of military campaigns he was waging in Italy (by that time the capital had moved from Rome to Constantinople), and Ambrose fanned the flames of Theodosius's Christian faith and conscience.
And so, on February 24, 391, the emperor began issuing a series of decrees that effectively outlawed Greco-Roman paganism and all the rituals that accompanied it. First, he prohibited pagan sacrifice, including—for the first time—the state ceremonies still practiced in Rome. Then came the closing of all shrines and temples: "No person shall approach the shrines, nor walk through the temples, nor revere the images formed of mortal hands." Next came a law forbidding apostasy from Christianity to paganism, and finally, on November 8, 392, Theodosius declared all sacrifice and divination punishable by death. That meant destroying private altars, domestic idols placed in hearth and kitchen, hanging garlands, etc. Bishop Ambrose was ecstatic, praising "Theodosius who, after the example of Jacob, supplanted perfidious tyrants and banished the idols of the gentiles; who in his faith wiped out all worship of graven images, and trampled down their ceremonies."
And the Games Return
Of course, all this is ancient history now—we moderns have revived the Games without all this mythological nonsense. Or have we? Consider our present-day Olympian anthem:
"Ancient Immortal Spirit, chaste Father of all that is Beauty, Grandeur and Truth Descending appear with Thy presence Illumine Thine Earth and the Heavens. Shine upon noble endeavors wrought at the Games on Track and in the Field … To Thine Temple, to Thy Worship, come all. Oh! Ancient Eternal Spirit!"
Yes, athletes no longer sacrifice animals to Zeus. And yes, a number of Christian athletes are performing in these Games. But I wonder if, last Friday night when Eros descended to give his blessing on the ceremonies, Theodosius was frowning from beyond. And I wonder if we should have frowned as well.
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