Thinking comparatively about Greek mythology XVIII, a post-Mycenaean view of Hēraklēs as founder of the Olympics

2019.11.27 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. For my brief essay here, TC XVIII in Classical Inquiries, I return to a point I made in an earlier essay, TC V §§4–10, where I highlighted a remarkable sequence of events narrated in the Library of “Apollodorus,” dated to the second century CE, in the course of an overall narrative about the life and times of the hero Hēraklēs. According to this narrative by “Apollodorus” (2.5.5; 2.7.2), the failure of Augeias, king of Elis, to compensate for the clearing of his stables by Hēraklēs results in a war waged by our hero against that king, and this war is brought to an end only after Augeias is defeated and killed by Hēraklēs, who then installs the king’s son Phyleus as the new ruler of Elis. Further, Hēraklēs then follows up by establishing the athletic festival of the Olympics at Olympia (“Apollodorus” 2.7.2, pp. 249 and 251 ed. Frazer 1921). It is this follow-up that I highlighted in TC V, arguing that such a sequence of events—where the hero (1) establishes a new kingdom and then, right after that, (2) establishes an athletic festival as the centerpiece of that kingdom—amounts to a myth that is meant to explain the origins of sovereignty. Here in TC XVIII, however, I add a further argument: such a myth explains the origins of a kind of sovereignty that took shape not in the glory days of the Mycenaean Empire but in an era that came thereafter. Relevant to this further argument of mine is a detail that we find in the overall story of Hēraklēs as retold by Diodorus of Sicily, dated to the first century BCE. According to the retelling by Diodorus (4.14.2), Hēraklēs not only established the athletic festival of the Olympics: he also competed and won in every athletic event. The illustration that I have selected to introduce my essay here is an ancient painting that shows Hēraklēs wearing on his head the olive garland that marks the sum total of his Olympic victories. And these athletic victories of Hēraklēs exemplify the emergence of new dynasties that are destined to dominate the Peloponnesus in a post-Mycenaean age.

Painting on a skyphos, Ashmolean Museum accession number AN1913.471, dated to the beginning of the fourth century BCE. The painting shows Herakles (his name is written next to his image) wearing on his head an olive garland symbolic of athletic victories to be won at the festival of the Olympics.

§1. The myth about the defeat of Augeias, king of Elis, by the hero Hēraklēs is also narrated in a victory ode of Pindar, Olympian 10, composed for the celebration of an athlete’s victory at the Olympics in 476 BCE. We learn from the wording of this ode a vitally important additional detail about the myth: it turns out that the royal wealth of Augeias, plundered by Hēraklēs in the course of his wartime victory over the king, became the funding, as it were, for the foundation of the Olympics (lines 55–59). This ode of Pindar, composed decades before the completion of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, already anticipates the reason for prioritizing one of the Twelve Labors of Hēraklēs, the hero’s clearing of the stables of Augeias, as the twelfth and culminating deed of the hero in the set of relief sculptures gracing the twelve metopes of the Temple. According to the logic built into the myth about the Twelve Labors of Hēraklēs as retold in the twelve metopes, it is this one Labor, the clearing of the stables, that required a compensation received in the form of the plundered wealth that funded, in terms of the myth, the founding of the Olympics. And, again in terms of the myth, the compensation for this Labor included not only the Olympics as an eternally lasting athletic festival but also the building of the Temple of Zeus, metopes and all, as the sacred centerpiece of that festival.

§2. By contrast with such a post-Mycenaean scenario for mythologizing the foundation of the Olympics, I see traces of an earlier Mycenaean scenario in another version of the myth—this time, as retold by Pausanias, who, like “Apollodorus,” is another source dating from the second century CE. According to the retelling by Pausanias (5.3.1), Augeias the king of Elis was never killed by Hēraklēs; and, although this king’s forces were defeated by forces led by the hero against him, Augeias was never even punished for defaulting on payment to Hēraklēs for the hero’s clearing of his royal stables. So, in this version, the founding of the Olympics is not the result of any plundering of royal Mycenaean wealth. Moreover, according to this version of the myth as retold by Pausanias (5.8.3), Hēraklēs was not even the founder of the Olympics: he only presided over the celebration of this festival, and even this presidency happened only after he had conquered Elis, the kingdom of Augeias; before the conquest, according to this version, it had been the king Augeias who had presided over the Olympics. Even before Augeias, as we also read in Pausanias (5.7.10–5.8.2), earlier heroes had likewise presided over the Olympics, and I list them here in chronological order, going backward in time:

—the twin brothers Pelias and Neleus, presiding together (Pausanias 5.8.1); as we read elsewhere (Pausanias 4.2.5), Pelias and Neleus were the sons of Kretheus son of Aiolos; or, alternatively, as Pausanias also reports (again 4.2.5), Pelias and Neleus were sons of Poseidon (this alternative version is affirmed elsewhere as well: Odyssey 11.254)
—Amythaon, another son of Kretheus son of Aiolos (Pausanias 5.8.2)
—Pelops (Pausanias 5.8.2)
—Endymion son of Aethlios son of Aiolos—or, alternatively, Aethlios was son of Zeus (Pausanias 5.8.2)
—Klymenos, who came from Crete and was descended from an earlier Hērakles, to whom he set up an altar at Olympia, so that this earlier Hērakles could thereafter be worshipped as as the parastatēs ‘the one who stands by’ (Pausanias 5.8.1).

§3. So, who on earth was this earlier Hēraklēs? In the myth as reported by Pausanias (5.7.6–7), this mythological figure was the very first hero ever to compete at the Olympics, and he competed in the form of improvised athleticism, emerging victorious by racing with his brothers in a primordial footrace. This earlier Hēraklēs, as Pausanias adds (5.7.7), also improvised as a prize for such an athletic victory the awarding of an olive garland.

§4. I summarize here other details of this myth as retold by Pausanias (again, 5.7.6–7):

–  Our earlier Hēraklēs and his brothers were five in number and were therefore called the Daktyloi or ‘Fingers’.

– Because Hēraklēs and his brother ‘Dactyls’ were five in number, the Olympics are celebrated on every fifth year (‘fifth’ by way of inclusive counting, since the Greek language had no zero).

– Hēraklēs and his fellow ‘Dactyls’ hailed from Mount Ida in Crete. So also the next known president of the Olympics, Klymenos, was a Cretan by origin, as we have already seen elsewhere in the reportage of Pausanias (5.8.1), who adds that Klymenos presided over the Olympics precisely because he claimed descent from the earlier Hēraklēs.

§5. So, I think of the earlier Hēraklēs as a Mycenaean or even Mycenaean-Minoan variation on the theme of Hēraklēs—by contrast with the later Hēraklēs who funds the Olympics by way of plundering the royal wealth of Augeias, king of Elis. In terms of such a contrast, this later Hēraklēs would be a post-Mycenaean variant. In the myth of this later Hēraklēs as retold by Pausanias (5.8.4), the hero competed in two athletic events on the occasion of his presiding at the Olympics, and he emerged victorious in both competitions, which were the events of (A) wrestling and (B) pankration, a less regulated form of combat sport. But this later Hēraklēs, as we have already seen, was not the founder of the Olympics—from the standpoint of the myth as retold by Pausanias. According to that myth, it is an earlier Hēraklēs who qualifies as the true founder of the Olympics.


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