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The Spring Equinox and the Olympic Games

David Stuttard

David Stuttard

Today is the Spring (or Vernal) equinox, the day on which the earth is poised in perfect balance between light and darkness.  For the ancient Greeks it was a day of great significance – and nowhere more so than at Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games.

For, on this day (or so we hear from the 2nd Century ad traveller Pausanias), in the month known locally as the Month of the Deer, the so-called king-priests of Elis climbed the Kronion, the wooded Hill of Kronos which dominates the sanctuary at Olympia; and at its summit they made sacrifice.  It was a ritual which was possibly played out every year for well over a millennium, and had it not been for Pausanias we would know nothing of it.  Yet his description is tantalizing in the extreme.  Who were these king-priests?  What did they sacrifice?  Was the ritual carried out in daylight or at night-time?  What did they believe to be its purpose?  About all these it is silent.  Nonetheless, it does remind us how alien the word of antiquity was from our own.

It reminds us, too, of how important the solar and lunar calendars were for the ancient Greeks.  The date of the equinox is, of course, determined by the sun; but the moon played just as important a role at Olympia and in its Games.  The Month of the Deer, in which the ceremony on Mount Kronion took place, was sacred to the huntress-goddess Artemis, herself closely associated with the moon, and worshipped widely in the mountainous Peloponnese (the south of Greece).

Even more significantly, the Olympic Games were carefully timed so that their central day (which, like all Greek days began not at midnight but at sunset) coincided with the second (or sometimes third) full moon after the Summer solstice.  It was a day dominated by two religious ceremonies.

The first, performed after sunset involved the sacrifice of a ram to the ghost of the dead hero Pelops, one of the legendary founders of the Games.  Once the animal had been slaughtered, it was burned on a pyre made solely from white poplar wood.  Only the creature’s neck would be eaten – by the Priest of Zeus known as the Woodsman, whose responsibility it was ‘to provide timber for their sacrifices at a fixed price both to cities and to individuals’.

The second, and altogether grander, ceremony took place the next morning: the sacrifice to Zeus by the Olympic priests of a hundred oxen, whose legs were burned on a great ash altar and whose carcasses were then cooked to provide the basis for a magnificent banquet on the coming evening.  These were not the only oxen to be sacrificed.  For the remainder of the morning, smoke rose thick across the sanctuary as priests from all the Greek-speaking city states (spread across the Mediterranean and beyond) which were represented at the Games made their own sacrifices to Zeus.

In the afternoon, there were only three contests, all foot races, of which the ‘stade’ race over approx 175 metres was the most prestigious.  This had been the earliest of all the Olympic events.  Indeed, from 776 bc to 724 bc it had been the only event: for over 50 years the Olympic Games had been (singularly) the Olympic Game, and a game which was all over in under thirty seconds.

If the first Olympics were more of a religious festival than a sporting one, the balance gradually shifted with the introduction of more competitive events and the participation of more city states, until they became first the major communal festival of the Greek-speaking world and then the principal sporting fixture of the Roman Empire.  In their life span of over eleven hundred years they evolved and changed out of all recognition, but one ceremony seemed to stay constant: the sacrifice which preceded them by some five months, when the king-priests of Elis climbed the Hill of Kronos to make their offerings on the day of the Spring equinox.

David Stuttard is author of ‘Power Games: Ritual and Rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics, published by the British Museum Press price £9.99.  In September he will be leading a tour to Olympia and Greece for The Traveller)

Category: History

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