The Very First Olympics

So there’s this rooster near where we stayed in Stemnitsa, which is actually fine because there’s always a fucking rooster it seems and we’re kind of used to it now. But every time the rooster crowed it triggered a dog which started howling. So our nice, rural alarm clock that we’d become accustomed to suddenly became a chorus of canine laments from 5am which isn’t the best way to wake up but hey. At least we got to watch first light creep over the mountains through our bedroom window.


Anyway. We decided to get going straight after breakfast today so we’d have plenty of time to see Ancient Olympia this afternoon which was a good couple of hours drive away, probably more when you factor in my refusal to go faster than 40 kph on these winding mountain roads. Throw in a massive herd of goats blocking the road and that adds a few minutes onto your day.

Sheepocalypse. Ah, mountain life.

Once we’d cleared the goatocalypse it was an easy drive into Ancient Olympia where we figured we might as well see if we could get onto a campsite before heading off to put all that lovely history in our eyeholes. We could. And our campsite had a kitten. I repeat, our campsite had a kitten. This is not a drill. I feel like it was going to be one of these bitter sweet things where we want the kitten to love us but we also want it to keep its murder mittens the fuck away from our tent.

Look at its little face! He doesn’t have a name, the guy at the campsite said Greeks only name their dogs, not cats. I’ve got a feeling that no one in Greece goes out to get a cat either, I reckon cats just find people to take care of them and people just do. There’s an elderly lady here who adores this kitten though.

Anyway. There are two museums plus the archaeological site which are worth visiting. I like going to museums first as they have all the shit that’s been dug up there so when you go to the ruins you can visualise it a bit better. The first museum was just about the history of the games. Turns out they’re not entirely sure who founded the games. Could have been Pelops, the chap who gave his name to the Peloponnese, after he beat a bloke in a chariot race then married that bloke’s daughter. Could also have been Hercules after he cleaned out a guy’s stables then killed him and his sons after he refused to pay him which is a wonderfully ancient Greek overreaction.

There’s a lot of pottery depicting scenes from the Olympics on display. In the middle hanging up you’ll see a scrapey thing. That’s a strigil. The athletes covered themselves in oil and ended up covered in dirt and sand. This is what they used to scrape themselves clean.

It was held every four years from 776BC for 1169 years until the Roman emperor at the time shut it down. It used to be a one day affair, then it went to two, then eventually stretched to five days as more events were added. A Sacred Truce was held for the duration such was the importance of the games. Greece was pretty much permanently at war with itself and before the games commenced every four years, officials would visit cities to give them notice of the dates of the games and fighting would cease. Anyone and everyone could watch the games. Rich, poor, artists, philosophers, tradesmen, even barbarians and slaves. Not women though. They weren’t allowed anywhere near the games.

Chariot wheel.
Helmet and greaves, and a fragment of pottery showing an athlete taking part in the Race With Armour. Over the years they stopped using the helmet and greaves and just ran with a massive bronze shield.

They’ve got discus, an old chariot wheel, weights that long jumpers would hold to help them jump further, scraping tools that athletes would use to clean themselves, the armour used for the Race In Armour which was an actual fucking thing where they ran in a helmet and leg guards whilst brandishing a fuck off great big bronze shield. Of course there are all manner of statues depicting gods and athletes. Champions were pretty much treated as gods. When they returned home after winning they were greeted as heroes and didn’t have to pay tax any more. I’m undecided as to what I hate more out of running and taxes to be fair.

Weights that long jumpers would hold to help them jump further.

The second museum was more about the site itself and was utterly fascinating. The dominant feature was the Temple of Zeus which is totally fucked now. Earthquakes levelled that. The altar is completely gone but they know where it was and there were ashes spread out from sacrifices and there were so many votive offerings.

Hundreds of models found in ash around where they think the alter would have been.
Armour was also given as offerings.

Hundreds of little models of animals and people. They had this obsession with tripod mounted brass cauldrons, apparently they were worth a lot back then and were elaborately decorated. They found tiny miniatures of them but also big, full sized bastards covered in griffins. Also offered up to Zeus were weapons and shields resulting in the museum having the largest collection of ancient defensive and offensive weaponry in the world.

Bronze tripod legs and handles from the bronze cauldrons they were so fond of.
They loved a griffin or six and decorated the rim of the cauldrons with these.

The absolute highlight for me though were what remains of the pediments of the temple set out as it would have been when it was still attached to the temple. You remember I said Pelops kicked a bloke’s arse in a chariot race? That was depicted on the eastern pediment and yeah, I might have downplayed the importance. Oinomaos had heard a prophecy that his daughter’s husband would kill him so he figured if he challenged every suitor to a chariot race and killed the suitor of he lost then he’d be sorted. But his horses were a gift from Ares which is sorta kinda cheating really

The eastern pediment. Small child for scale.

By the time Pelops stepped up Oinomaos had murdered thirteen suitors. Turned out Pelop’s horses were a gift from Poseiden and he had a little help from others, including the daughter of Oinomaos, so he won and Oinomaos was killed. Lots of murder death kill in mythical ancient Greece. They do like their stabby stab.

The western pediment.

The west pediment depicted that time the Centaurs tried to kidnap a load of Lapith women which is also shown in metopes at the Parntheon in Athens. On this pediment it’s a particularly brutal fight scene complete with Centaurs assaulting women and being fended off by Lapith men. Aside from the pediments there are twelve metopes detailing the twelve labours of Hercules and some of them are in really good nick.

Part of the battle with the Centaurs.

Most of the information is in the museums. The site is, of course, fantastic and they’ve restored the odd thing here and there but between the deliberate destruction of the monuments in 426AD and a couple of earthquakes it’s more or less rubble. I’m a bit in love with the massive chunks of pillar strewn around what would have been the huge Temple of Zeus. How cool would it be to just go back in time, just for a minute, to see it in all its glory?

The remains of the Temple of Zeus. The pillar in the background, I think it’s a replica rather than a restoration.
The Philippeion, named for Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great.

Probably the coolest, albeit the least photogenic, part of the site is the ancient stadium. It didn’t have seating, people (read: men) would have just sat around the sides to watch the events. It could squeeze up to 45000 spectators in.

The ancient stadium.

I’m loving all these ancient sites but I’m not entirely sure they make for fascinating blog posts. I’d honestly bore you with fucking pages and pages of all the shit I’ve been learning about, I’ve not even scratched the surface with what I’m writing here. I’ve never seen so much cock and arse though in various media from marble to stone. Ancient Greeks, it seems, were particularly fond of being bollock naked and covered in oil.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

Ancient Olympia, Peloponnese, Greece / Αρχαία Ολυμπία, Πελοπόννησος, Ελλάδα

Stayed at: Camping Diana, Ancient Olympia

Camping Diana. Walking distance from the ancient site which is all you need really. There are covered places to hang out if it’s raining, and a swimming pool if it’s not. Hot showers, clean facilities, absolutely does the job. Like all the campsites we’ve been to though, you pitch your tent on dirt, not grass like in the UK. Usually the dirt has been so hard we’ve struggled to get pegs in but here it was so loose they wouldn’t stay in. I would suggest a freestanding tent for Greece.

Useful shit to know…

  • You can visit the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games, the Archaeological Museum, and the Archaeological Site all on one combo ticket for €12.

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