Olympism, Culture, and Society: On Pindar’s poetic lessons about heroic Olympism in myths about Herakles

2021.03.12 | By Gregory Nagy[1]

§0. In our modern world—or, as some would think of it, in our postmodern world—we find it difficult to achieve any consensus about the meaning of the term “culture” as featured in the title of this essay. As for the term “society,” even experts in the social sciences cannot seem to agree on a unified definition. Nevertheless, most of us can at least sense, however vaguely, that these two elusive terms “culture” and “society” are “good to think with.” To my mind, an ideal way to go about such thinking is to follow the discovery procedures of anthropology.[2] There is, however, an obvious question that challenges us: where to start? In formulating my own answer to such a challenging question, the first term in the primary title of this essay, “Olympism,” can I think help us find a pathway—even if it may not be the ideal way. At least, I would argue, it is an idealistic way. And, to my way of thinking, terms like “culture” and “society” can come alive only in the context of contemplating such high ideals as represented by Olympism, which I will define, merely for the moment, as an idealistic way of thinking about the Olympics. In line with my own academic training in general, I seek to combine my attempt at achieving an anthropological perspective with an older perspective that I might as well describe simply as a historical approach, which will take me back to the roots of Olympism—back to ancient Olympia, site of the ancient Olympics that inspired the Olympism of today. And here is where I combine my historical approach with the text-based and language-based methods that I have learned within the framework of my academic specialty, conventionally described as “philology.” In my own career as a researcher and teacher who is mainly a philologist, I approach the Olympism of the Olympics primarily by considering the Olympian victory odes of the Greek poet Pindar, who lived in the fifth century before our era (BCE). To my mind, the poetic song-making of Pindar can be viewed as a primary source for educating our modern and post-modern world about the ancient ideals of Olympism—which are heroic ideals as perhaps best exemplified by the mythological figure of Herakles.

§1. In contemplating heroic Olympism by way of highlighting myths about Herakles, I focus here on what we can learn from Pindar’s odes or songs, with reference primarily to myths about Herakles, son of Zeus, as the hero who founded the athletic festival of the Olympics at Olympia in the region of Elis (Ἦλις / Ἤλιδα, Modern Greek Ηλεία), and who, according to these myths, actually funded this festival by way of donating, for the organization of the Olympics, the treasures that he had confiscated by defeating a primal king of Elis named Augeas (Αὐγέας / Αὐγείας). What I argue in my essay here is basically this: the myth that tells how Herakles founded—and funded—the Olympics at Olympia can be linked with a myth that tells how Herakles achieved, on top of Mount Olympus, the sublime experience of what is traditionally known as his immortalization or apotheosis. And the link between the hero’s apotheosis and his foundation of the Olympics is made visible in the names ‘Olympus’ and ‘Olympia’.  

Top: François Lemoyne (1688-1737), L’Apothéose d’Hercule. Ceiling fresco in the Salon d’Hercule, Versailles. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.
Bottom: View of Mount Olympus from the town of Litochoro, Greece. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

§2. These two names, as we will see, were localized by way of a combination of myth and ritual. While Olympus was envisaged as the heavenly locale of immortality for the gods—and of immortalization, after death, for the hero Herakles—this same heavenly locale was in turn mapped-on to an earthly locale with links to the heavenly locale. The earthly locale, known then as Olympia and known to this day by the same name, was the context of athletic competition, known to this day as the Olympics. Such athletic competition can be described anthropologically as ritual, by which I mean a sacralized activity that is linked with sacralized narrative or myth in the earliest sense of the Greek word mûthos (μῦθος).[3]

§3. My own “pathway” of inquiry leading to ancient Olympia starts with Ode 10 of the Olympian victory-odes of Pindar. The date for the Olympic victory celebrated by this ode or song, known to Classicists simply as Olympian 10, is 476 BCE. What is true of this ode is true also of all fourteen of the surviving Olympian odes of Pindar: all these songs celebrate victories of athletes competing in the various athletic events of the ancient Olympics. What makes Olympian 10 especially significant for my essay here is the fact that this particular victory-ode of Pindar retells a myth that connects the hero Herakles with the very existence of the athletic festival known to this day as the Olympics. That is to say, this ode declares that Herakles was actually the original founder of the Olympics.[4]

§4. This myth as retold in Pindar’s Olympian 10 about the founding of the Olympics by Herakles is connected with a complex set of multiple myths known as the Twelve Labors of Herakles. These myths are most fully attested in two surviving ancient narratives about Herakles: one is found in the “universal history” of Diodorus of Sicily, who is dated to the first century BCE, and the other, in a massive mythological treatise compiled by an author, otherwise unknown, who goes by the name of “Apollodorus” and who is dated to the second century CE. These two sources are the main texts supplementing what we learn from the victory odes of Pindar about the founding of the Olympics by Herakles—and about the hero’s Labors in general.

§5. The Greek word that is conventionally translated as ‘Labor’, which we find in ancient sources dealing with the Labors of Herakles, is âthlos (ἆθλος). It is a most relevant fact, I must add in the same breath, that another ancient Greek word, āthlētḗs (ἀθλητής), is a form derived from this more basic form âthlos (ἆθλος). And here is a related fact that we must also keep in mind: the word āthlētḗs had meant ‘athlete’ already in the era of Pindar—and is still used today with the meaning of ‘athlete’ in the Modern Greek language. An obvious question, then, is this: how are the Labors of Herakles relevant not only to the myth about this hero’s primal act of founding the athletic festival of the ancient Olympics but also to the very idea of athletics?

§6. Here I turn to an official version of the myth about the founding of the Olympics by Herakles—as promoted by the state of Elis, which had won control, in the mid-fifth century BCE, of the management of the Olympics—of this all-important pan-Hellenic athletic festival that was celebrated every four years at Olympia, ever since the eighth century BCE, according to recorded memory. The control of the Olympics by the state of Elis, starting in the mid-fifth century BCE, can be correlated with a major historical event, dated likewise to the mid-fifth century: that event was the building of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, undertaken by the state of Elis, evidently after this state had already won control of the Olympics.

§7. The official version of the relevant myth promoted by the state of Elis is reflected, with some variations, in the two most extensive retellings of the Labors of Herakles that have survived to our times. These retellings, and I have mentioned them already, are to be found in the narratives of Diodorus and “Apollodorus”.

§8. Here is a brief summary of the myth, following the sequence that we read in “Apollodorus” (2.5.5; 2.7.2), supplemented by a further detail we find in Diodorus (4.14.2). The hero Herakles is angry at Augeas, king of Elis. The king has denied compensation for the hero after Herakles performs one of his Twelve Labors. This Labor of Herakles was the Clearing of the Stables of Augeas, which had been clogged by the accumulation of vast accretions of manure produced by the royal cattle. But Augeas, once the clearing of his stables is performed by Herakles, refuses to give compensation to the hero. Reacting angrily, Herakles wages war against Augeas. Ultimately, the hero defeats and kills this king, and then he gives away the royal treasures that he captured. He donates these treasures for the funding of the athletic festival of the Olympics. In terms of the myth, this funding is tied to the founding of that festival. In modern terms, the myth is saying that Herakles finances the Olympics by confiscating the royal treasury of Augeas as compensation for one of his Twelve Labors. Moreover, this particular Labor leads to the first athletic competition ever held at the Olympics. According to the retelling by Diodorus (4.14.2), Herakles not only established the athletic festival of the Olympics: he also competed and won in every athletic event.

§9. This Labor is the twelfth of the series of twelve Labors of Herakles according to the official myth of the state of Elis. But how do we know that this particular Labor is specifically the twelfth? It is because we can see Herakles pictured in the act of performing this Labor in Metope 12 of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, where the sculptural ensemble of the twelve metopes, on display in our own era inside the modern Museum at Olympia, depicts in sequence the hero’s twelve Labors. As we see from the relatively well-preserved fragments of Metope 12, Herakles is engaged in shoveling the immeasurable accumulation of manure produced by the countless cattle housed in the Stables of Augeas, while the hero’s patroness, the goddess Athena, is helpfully supervising the Labor. I show here a line drawing:

Metope 12: Herakles clearing the Stables of Augeas, from the Temple of Zeus. Published in Curtius, Ernst, and Friedrich Adler, eds., Olympia: die Ergebnisse der von dem Deutschen Reich veranstalteten Ausgrabung. Tafelband 3: Die Bildwerke von Olympia in Stein und Thon (Berlin, 1894): plate 45.

§10. But what about the testimony of Pindar, whose own wording in Olympian 10 tells us that Herakles founded the Olympics? Here I must highlight the historical fact, already noted, that Pindar’s Olympian 10 celebrated an athletic victory at the Olympics that took place in the Olympic year 476 BCE—decades before the time when the Temple of Zeus at Olympia was built by the state of Elis. So, Pindar’s version of the myth about the founding of the Olympics predates the official version promoted by the state of Elis and perpetuated by the prose narratives, put together centuries later, of Diodorus and “Apollodorus”. And yet, even in the earliest attestation of the myth as transmitted in Olympian 10 of Pindar, lines 55–59, the outlines of the version promoted in a later era by the state of Elis are already evident. That is to say, even in the version transmitted by Pindar, the athletic festival of the Olympics is founded by Herakles in Olympia after his victory over the former king of Elis, Augeas. 

§11. But the question remains: what does the founding of the Olympics specifically in Olympia have to do with the mountain called Olympus? This question has often occurred to even the most casual of visitors to the ancient site of Olympia. I have often heard newcomers to Olympia asking, innocently: but where is Mount Olympus?

§12. This question, however naive it may at first seem, is in fact quite valid, I think. And the answer, as we will see, is that the local population in the environs of Olympia really did have such a name—the equivalent of what we call Mount Olympus—that they gave to one of the prominent elevations situated near the ancient site where the Olympics were celebrated. This ancient site is still known, to this day, as Olympia. The referent, to say it philosophically, for the name ‘Olympia’ is still well known, but the corresponding referent for what had once been named ‘Mount Olympus’ has been long forgotten. The passage of time—it has by now been, I would estimate, well over two millennia—has erased the identity of whatever local elevation near ancient Olympia had once upon a time been named the Mount Olympus of the region.

§13. The fact is, as I showed in earlier work, that there had existed in the past many mountains named Olympus in many regions of the Greek-speaking world, and one of these local instantiations of ‘Mount Olympus’ was actually situated in the environs of Olympia.[5] As we know from the testimony of the geographer Strabo (8.3.31 C356), the ancient citadel of Pisa, once the capital of a state named Pisatis, was situated between two mountains named Olympus and Ossa. This piece of information, even if it cannot be verified today by archaeologists, is vitally important for my argument, since the city-state of Pisa had controlled Olympia and the Olympics before it was defeated and destroyed by the state of Elis, reportedly in the mid-fifth century BCE. I connect this information with the fact that Olympian 10 of Pindar, an ode that celebrates an athletic victory at Olympia that took place in 476 BCE, well before control of the Olympics reportedly shifted from Pisa to Elis, still names at lines 44-45 the city of Pisa as the site of the palace where Augeas was king and ruler of the overall region that was normally called Elis in later times. So, if we view the myth that tells about the destruction of Pisa as an ideological retrofitting, then Herakles himself could be viewed retrospectively as the heroic destroyer of Pisa by virtue of his having removed Augeas from kingship over the region of Elis, which in fact never had a centralized city even after the state of Elis, as it was known retrospectively, destroyed the city-state of Pisa, reportedly in the mid-fifth century BCE.

§14. In sources stemming from the fifth century BCE, it can be said in general, Olympia was still being linked with Pisa instead of Elis. In the Olympian odes of Pindar, for example, Zeus as lord of Olympia is linked not with Elis in general but with Pisa in particular (Olympian 13.24–29), which is a place described as belonging to Zeus (Olympian 2.3, 6.5). Also, the wording of Pindar links the idea that Pisa belongs to Zeus with the idea that Herakles, son of Zeus, was the founder of the festival of the Olympics (Olympian 2.3).

§15. I note here one more reference, also stemming from the fifth century BCE, to the connection of Pisa with Olympia, site of the Olympics. This reference shows that the city of Pisa, which as we have seen is linked with its own Mount Olympus, is also linked with the Olympian gods. As we read in Herodotus (2.7), this historian ostentatiously connects the Temple of Zeus in Olympia with the city of Pisa, not with the state of Elis, as he measures the distance extending from the Altar of the Twelve Gods in the center of Athens all the way to a landmark that he describes this way: ‘Pisa and the Temple of Zeus Olympios’ (ἔς τε Πῖσαν καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν νηὸν τοῦ Διὸς τοῦ Ὀλυμπίου); that distance, by the reckoning of Herodotus, was 1,500 Olympic stadium-lengths minus 150.

§16. This Altar of the Twelve Gods, which was actually founded by the Peisistratidai, dynasts of Athens during most of the second half of the sixth century BCE, is linked with the corresponding idea of the Olympian gods, which was taking shape in Homeric poetry as we can see it evolving under the sponsorship of these same dynasts. The abode of these Olympian gods was Mount Olympus, and the god Zeus lives there, as we learn in the Iliad and Odyssey. Also living there, on and off, are other gods, and the canonical number for all these gods, Zeus included, is twelve. And the Altar of the Twelve Gods, as founded by the dynasts of Athens in the sixth century BCE, connects all these Olympians, not just Zeus, to the Olympia of the Olympics.

§17. It is possible, then, that the abode of Zeus in the second half of the sixth century BCE and maybe even later could still be envisaged as the Mount Olympus that loomed over the citadel of Pisa in the vicinity of ancient Olympia. After all, as I have already noted, there were in fact a number of different versions of myths locating the abode of the gods at different mountains named ‘Olympus’ in different parts of the Greek-speaking world.

§18. And I connect the multiplicity of mountains named ‘Olympus’ or the like with what seems to have been a multiplicity of heroes named ‘Herakles’ or the like. And such multiplicities, I think, go back to the Mycenaean era, in the second half of the second millennium BCE, when different locales could claim as unique their very own versions of Olympus and of Herakles. But then, in the post-Mycenaean era, there eventually evolved a pan-Hellenic Olympus, separating Thessaly and Macedonia, and a pan-Hellenic Herakles, whose sublime apotheosis was pictured as taking place at the pan-Hellenic Olympus, as we see in the narrative of Diodorus (4.39.2–3).

§19. There were still surviving traces, however, of multiple versions of Herakles. An earlier Herakles, for example, was linked to a more localized Mount Olympus in the locale of Olympia, and an even earlier Herakles was linked to Mount Ida in Crete—though even this prototypical hero was credited with the founding of the Olympics.[6]  Thus the link of Herakles with Olympia—and with Olympism—became an unbroken tradition, to be treasured as a humanistic legacy for all time.


Bibliography

Nagy, G. 1990. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Pindars_Homer.1990.

———. 2018.08.29. “Blade Runner: replicants are good to think with, while thinking of ancient Greek heroes.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/blade-runner-replicants-are-good-to-think-with-while-thinking-about-ancient-greek-heroes/.

———. 2019.07.06.  “Olympus as mountain and Olympia as venue for the Olympics: a question about the naming of these places.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/olympus-as-mountain-and-olympia-as-venue-for-the-olympics-a-question-about-the-naming-of-these-places/.

———. 2019.07.12. “The apotheosis of Herakles on Olympus and the mythological origins of the Olympics.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/the-apotheosis-of-herakles-on-olympus-and-the-mythological-origins-of-the-olympics/.

———. 2019.08.22. “Thinking comparatively about Greek mythology V, Reconstructing Herakles forward in time.” https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/thinking-comparatively-about-greek-mythology-v-reconstructing-herakles-forward-in-time/.

———. 2019.11.27. “Thinking comparatively about Greek mythology XVIII, a post-Mycenaean view of Herakles as founder of the Olympics.” https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/thinking-comparatively-about-greek-mythology-xviii-a-post-mycenaean-view-of-herakles-as-founder-of-the-olympics/.


Notes

[1] An earlier version of this essay was presented as an online talk on an occasion titled “International Scholars’ Symposium on Sports, Society, and Culture,” held on December 5–6, 2020, and organized by the International Olympic Academy in conjunction with Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies USA/Greece on the topic “Athletics, Education, and the Road to Olympia,” https://greece.chs.harvard.edu/conferences/sports-society-symposium.

[2] For an essay on the genealogy, as it were, of the term “think with” in an anthropological context, I cite an essay of mine that compares a work of modern science fiction with ancient myths about heroes: Nagy 2018.08.29 in the Bibliography.

[3] I have thought about this topic extensively, as in Chapter 4 of Nagy 1990, especially with reference to Pindar’s first Olympian Ode.

[4] For further background on Pindar’s Olympian 10, I cite two essays of mine in Classical Inquiries, Nagy 2019.08.22 and 2019.11.27.

[5] Nagy 2019.07.06.

[6] Details presented in Nagy 2019.11.27.



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