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Ancient Greek Olympic events and the opening ceremonies at ancient Olympia

02 Jun 2014
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A Great procession from Elis to ancient Olympia


Just two days before the official opening of the ancient Greek Olympics, a great procession started from Elis heading to ancient Olympia.

At the head of the formal procession were the Hellanodikes (Jurors), dressed in a purple robe, the porfyra , and crowned with laurel. The priests followed behind them, and also the rulers of Elis and everyone that had organizational and coordinating role during the ancient Greek Olympics. Then, the official delegations of the cities (theories), with the athletes, who held tributes in honor of the gods, and their sponsors- wealthy citizens who covered the costs of each delegation- to go ahead accompanied by relatives and friends, trainers and other fellow citizens. After all these came the slaves, who led the animals destined for sacrifice in ancient Olympia and many people who wished to watch the ancient Olympic events and they also brought with them hundreds of animals. This great procession to the ancient Olympia was supplemented and closed by the team responsible for maintaining the order: the alytes, the staff-bearers and the rod-bearers.

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Access from Elis to ancient Olympia 


In ancient Greece the access from Elis to ancient Olympia could be done in two ways.

The first one was shorter but mountainous and relatively inaccessible. The second one even though it was longer, 260 stadia or else 58 km, followed the Sacred Way, a smooth and wide road, one of the most beautiful in ancient Greece. Passing though a location filled with farmland of ears, vineyards and olives, before reaching the ancient Olympia, the people had also the opportunity to admire the majestic buildings built along the Sacred Way (villas, shrines, monuments and statues) and rest under the shade offered by the planes and poplars. The procession stayed overnight at Letrini (an area near the present city of Pyrgos) and continued its route towards ancient Olympia the following morning. They also made a stop for lunch and rest at the source 'Piera', where the Hellanodikes held a cleansing ceremony and sacrificed to the gods.

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The Great procession reaches ancient Olympia

After walking two days, the procession finally reached its destination, ancient Olympia, where a lot of people had gathered willing to watch the ancient Greek Olympics. At its entrance to the Sacred Altis in ancient Olympia, the procession was greeted with cheers and enthusiasm. Everyone waited to see by close the famous ancient Greek athletes and the delegations of the cities, the richest of which competed which would cause the greatest admiration. The citizen who donated the greatest amount of money would be actually appointed as architheoros.The official delegation of the Athenians was the one that usually stole the show thanks to its great grants and chariots.

Entering the Altis in ancient Olympia

Entering the Altis in ancient Olympia, the procession headed in Bouleuterion, in front of the statue of Horkios Zeus, where the ancient Greek Olympic events were about to take place. There the people were washed with holy water, to purify themselves and they sacrificed a wild boar. Then one of the priests raised his hands to the sky and prayed to Zeus to accept the offer and bless their contests in ancient Olympia.

Then, a hundred of white and trimmed beasts were led to the altar in order to be slaughtered. Both the Hellanodikes and the athletes gave oaths, the first ones that would not be bribed and that they would be fair judges of the ancient Greek Olympics and the second ones that they were sons of free parents, that they had never committed a crime or a sacrilege and that they exercised appropriately during the last ten months to be able to compete fairly. They also swore that they would not commit any "felony", meaning no violation of regulations.
After the sacrifices and the swearing were finished, the athletes, men and children, as well as those who would take part in the equestrian events in ancient Olympia went to Bouleuterion, for registration and for the draw of the couples for wrestling, boxing and pankration. The same afternoon the athletes’ names in each sport and the draw results were published in Leukoma, outside the Bouleuterion in ancient Olympia. Then, the athletes headed to the stadium and the hippodrome, where they received the last instructions about the games’ organization in ancient Olympia.

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At the same time another ancient Olympic event was taking place at the back of the Temple of Zeus, next to the Sacred Olive, which was said to have been planted in ancient Olympia by Hercules. Three Hellanodikes along with a twelve year boy approached the olive. The Hellanodikes gave to the boy a golden knife and he carefully cut from the olive thirteen blooming branches, the same number as the ancient Olympic events. With those branches they wove wreaths, which they deposited it in a gold and ivory table in the temple of Hera in ancient Olympia. The wreaths of the Sacred Olive, the Kotinoi, would be given to winners of the ancient Greek Olympics in ancient Olympia as their only yet the most honorable and glorious prize an ancient Greek athlete could ever get.


Since 396 BC during that same day the trumpeters and heralds’ contests were also held in ancient Olympia, in front of the altar at the entrance of the stadium. The winners, those whose voice or sound of the trumpet was heard farther than the others’, would have the honor to blow during the ancient Olympic events and declare the name of the winners, their father and their homeland.


With the contests of trumpeters and heralds the official part of the first day’s ancient Greek Olympic events had come to an end. However, the delegations of the cities continued the sacrifices and prayers to their gods wishing to gain their favor. The richest sacrifices were offered by the horse breeders, the ones whose horses competed at the hippodrome in ancient Olympia, firstly because they could afford to do so and secondly because the equestrian ancient Olympic events were very dangerous.


The others could rest or visit and admire the grand buildings of the Sacred Altis in ancient Olympia. Outside of the Sacred Altis a folk festival was taking place where vendors trumpeted their wares, jugglers, musicians, dancers, actors, poets and writers who recited their works, to entertain the people who had flocked to ancient Olympia.


At the close of this eventful day the people camped outside of the Sacred Altis, trying to be settled preferably under the trees and close enough to one of the nine wells that existed in ancient Olympia. One would say that the small amount of water in combination with the heat, the humidity, the mosquitoes and the flies could be obstacles for someone who would like to attend as a spectator the ancient Greek Olympics. And yet, all this had little significance and did not seem to deter the large crowd that considered as a great privilege the fact that they were able to visit ancient Olympia and live closely during the next few days the biggest sporting event of the ancient world, the ancient Greek Olympics.

 

Dimi NtouranidouWritten by Dimi Ntouranidou

 

Graduate teacher of Greek literature (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), Literary editor of publications, Responsible for writing articles about the ancient Olympic Games   

 

  
Images of the ancient Greek Olympic Games blog are taken from the Ancient Greek Olympic Games Comic. In the Ancient Olympic Games Comic you will find much more about the ancient Olympic Games while having fun reading a wonderful comic story. You can download a sample episode of the comic here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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