Pausanias on the Women’s "Olympics"

Vatican Museum Barberini Hera

Head of Hera with diadem. Marble, Roman copy from the Imperial Era after the “Barberini Hera” type, 5th century BC. Marie-Lan Nguyen (September 2009) See page for author [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org /licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Head of Hera with diadem. Marble, Roman copy from the Imperial Era after the “Barberini Hera” type, 5th century BC. Marie-Lan Nguyen (September 2009) See page for author [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org /licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Just as the mythological origin of the Olympic games is traced to Pelops, so is the origin of the Heraea, games for women held separately from the men-only Olympics. Pausanias says that Pelops’ wife Hippodamia inaugurated them as a thanksgiving to Hera, with 16 maidens participating in races divided into separate groups based on age. Pausanias describes the outfits the 16 competitors wore, a knee-length tunic with a shoulder bare. Like the Olympian victor, the winner of the Heraea received an olive wreath, as well as a portion of the cow offered to the cow-eyed goddess.

[5.16.2] Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen women, and the same also hold games called Heraea. The games consist of foot-races for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. They run in the following way:

[5.16.3] their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them. Those who administer to the Sixteen are, like the presidents of the games, married women.

[5.16.4] The games of the maidens too are traced back to ancient times; they say that, out of gratitude to Hera for her marriage with Pelops, Hippodameia assembled the Sixteen Women, and with them inaugurated the Heraea. They relate too that a victory was won by Chloris, the only surviving daughter of the house of Amphion, though with her they say survived one of her brothers. As to the children of Niobe, what I myself chanced to learn about them I have set forth in my account of Argos.40

[5.16.5] Besides the account already given they tell another story about the Sixteen Women as follows. Damophon, it is said, when tyrant of Pisa did much grievous harm to the Eleans. But when he died, since the people of Pisa refused to participate as a people in their tyrant’s sins, and the Eleans too became quite ready to lay aside their grievances, they chose a woman from each of the sixteen cities of Elis still inhabited at that time to settle their differences, this woman to be the oldest, the most noble, and the most esteemed of all the women.

[5.16.6] The cities from which they chose the women were Elis, . . . The women from these cities made peace between Pisa and Elis. Later on they were entrusted with the management of the Heraean games, and with the weaving of the robe for Hera. The Sixteen Women also arrange two choral dances, one called that of Physcoa and the other that of Hippodameia. This Physcoa they say came from Elis in the Hollow, and the name of the parish where she lived was Orthia.

[5.16.7] She mated they say with Dionysus, and bore him a son called Narcaeus. When he grew up he made war against the neighboring folk, and rose to great power, setting up moreover a sanctuary of Athena surnamed Narcaea. They say too that Narcaeus and Physcoa were the first to pay worship to Dionysus. So various honors are paid to Physcoa, especially that of the choral dance, named after her and managed by the Sixteen Women. The Eleans still adhere to the other ancient customs, even though some of the cities have been destroyed. For they are now divided into eight tribes, and they choose two women from each.

[5.16.8] Whatever ritual it is the duty of either the Sixteen Women or the Elean umpires to perform, they do not perform before they have purified themselves with a pig meet for purification and with water. Their purification takes place at the spring Piera. You reach this spring as you go along the flat road from Olympia to Elis

The source for this English translation of Pausanias is Pausanias. Description of Greece. Translated by Jones, W. H. S. and Omerod, H. A. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918.

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