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ANCIENT GREEK WOMEN | THE WOMEN IN ANCIENT GREECE

07 Jul 2014
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Exclusion from the Olympics of the Women in Ancient Greece

One of the most strange and unexplainable facts of the history of the ancient Olympic Games is the exclusion of women in ancient Greece not only from participating in the Olympic sports but also from watching the ancient Olympic games and even visiting ancient Olympia during the Games.

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Sport in ancient Greece was mainly a male occupation

Sport in ancient Greece was originally connected with the war, as each one of the sporting events had to do with the development of military and technical capabilities (for example the chariot racing, the wrestling, the javelin etc.).This explains in a way that usually there wasn’t any special involvement of ancient Greek women with the sports. The only ones that had a different opinion on that were the Spartans, who considered the workout important for the ancient Greek women, so that they would be in a good physical condition and would give birth to healthy children.

Prohibition for ancient Greek women to enter the ancient Olympia

Apart from this, there was a strict regulation according to which women in ancient Greece, particularly the married ones, were not allowed to attend the ancient Olympics nor enter the Sacred Altis in ancient Olympia while at the same time the slaves and even the barbarians could actually watch the contests. So, during the ancient Olympic Games the ancient Greek women stayed away from ancient Olympia. However, many of them, especially the relatives of the athletes as well as many residents of nearby areas, used to camp on the opposite bank of the holy river Alpheus, that was a natural boundary between ancient Olympia and the rest of the region.

The prohibitive regulation did not apply to the unmarried women in ancient Greece

The paradox, however, is that this prohibition didn’t apply to the unmarried ancient Greek women, who indeed could visit ancient Olympia and attend the games, as Pausanias, one of the major writers in ancient Greece, assures us ("Parthenous ouk eirgousi theasthai”= They don’t block virgins from attending).

The exception to the rule

The only one among the ancient Greek women that was allowed to access the ancient Olympia and watch the ancient Olympic Games was the priestess of Demeter Chamyne (a chthonic goddess in ancient Greece), an honorary title that Elis gave every four years to a woman before the Olympic Games were held. The priestess of Demeter Chamyne watched the games sitting in a place of honor, on a marble throne, to the altar of the goddess, opposite to the Hellanodikes’ seats.

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The penalties for the women who would break the law in ancient Greece

For all the other women, the law in ancient Greece remained really strict. In fact so strict that that if any woman dared to violate it, she would be thrown down from the cliffs of the mountain Typaios, close to ancient Olympia. As a result, no woman in ancient Greece was disobedient to the law. Noone... except for Kallipateira from Rhodes.

The case of Kallipateira

Daughter of the famous Rhodian ancient Olympic athlete Diagoras, and also sister, mother and aunt of important Olympic athletes in ancient Greece, Kallipateira after her husband’s death decided to undertake herself the preparation of her son, Peisirodos, an athlete in boxing, in order to help him participate in the ancient Olympics. So, Kallipateira dared to accompany him in ancient Olympia in 396 BC, at the 96th Olympiad, after she was disguised as a trainer. Luckily enough, Kallipateira managed to enter the stadium to watch her son’s struggle without being suspected. When she saw that her son won, Kallipateira jumped full of excitement over the barrier in the trainers’ area to get into the arena. Unfortunately, her cloth was caught somewhere revealing that she was actually a woman. Even though the Jurors were really surprised by the revelation, they didn’t want to punish Kallipateira. Thanks to the respect and the admiration for her and for her glorious family they chose to forgive her. However, since then they introduced another regulation in ancient Greece, according to which the trainers ought to enter the competitions naked, so that the Jurors could ensure their sex.

The participation of ancient Greek women in the chariot races

Despite the fact that the women in ancient Greece were excluded from the Olympic Games, it was possible for many of them who came from wealthy families to participate in equestrian events in ancient Olympia sending horses and chariots, as the winner was neither the charioteer nor the rider but the owner of the chariot and the horses. In this way even an ancient Greek woman could be declared winner in the ancient Olympic Games and win the olive wreath, unique prize of the games. There have actually been cases of women in ancient Greece who took the victory in ancient Olympia, including Kyniska, daughter of the Spartan king Archidamus and the first woman in ancient Greece who won the chariot race in the four-horse chariot, at 392 BC. Of course other ancient Greek women followed by then, mainly Spartans.

Heraea: the athletic games for women in ancient Greece

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In addition, every four years between the ancient Olympic Games, the Greeks held athletic contests especially for ancient Greek women. The contests, called Heraea in honor of the goddess Hera, had more religious than sporting character. The only sport was the running and the participants were just unmarried ancient Greek women. The ancient Greek women competing were divided into three categories depending on their age and they were dressed during the games. Men could watch those games. The prize for the winner was an olive wreath and a piece of meat from a cow sacrificed to the goddess.

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The participation of women in the modern Olympic Games

Things have certainly changed after the foundation of the modern Olympics. For the first time in Paris at 1900 and since then women started gradually participating in more and more sports -at the Olympic Games in London at 2012 there were women competing in each sport- and in the last Olympiads the number of countries that do not include women in the missions of their athletes is notably reduced.

 

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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