Tuesday 23 August 2011

The Gayest Games in Ancient Greece - Day 7

Today’s the BIG day for Athens. If fact, there’s so much going on that I’m going to spread it over 2 days. It started at dusk at the end of Day 6 with thousands of people gathering in the streets along the route stretching from the city gate to the Acropolis that is still called the Panathenaean Way.

Being the main religious event in the Athenian calendar, the route needed to be ritually purified before the procession in the morning. This was done with fire. No, they didn’t  set fire to the streets. They turned the ritual into a contest which is the most iconic part of the modern Olympics, which would be fine except for one thing – it didn’t have anything to with the ancient Olympics. I’m talking about the torch relay.

From its beginnings in ancient times to well into the modern revival there was no Olympic torch relay until Hitler stole the idea from the Greater Panathenaean Games and hijacked the Olympics for political means.

Once again, each of the 10 demes (tribes or boroughs) of the Athenian city-state chose 4 athletes as their team. The winning team is the one who gets their flaming torch to the Acropolis without it going out or dropping it. Because the winning torch would be used to light the main sacrificial fire the pride of the demes was at stale.

Luckily, the importance of this race means that it is represented on lots of pottery, so we have a good idea of what it might have looked like.

The race begins at the entrance to the sacred olive grove of Academia outside the city wall. It was here that Charums, the lover of father and son Peisistratus and Hippias, built an altar dedicated to Eros (see Tuesday’s entry for their complex relationships). Eros was a patron god of love among male athletes, and as mentioned on Day 2 was important in training.

As soon as the sun had set, the first runners of each team lit their torches from the altar of Eros. The other runners were at their places along the route at half-mile intervals. As with all athletic events the runners were naked. The only way spectators would tell which team they represented was by a sort of crown or head-dress each runner wore. Presumably all 10 teams ran at the same time rather than heats, and pottery shows that the whole torch was passed on rather than the flame lighting the next one.

Through the streets crowds would cheer the runners as they saw the torches approaching, and the priestesses of Athena could follow the progress of the race from high on top of the Acropolis.

The climax of the race was at the top of the steps leading into the Acropolis. I imagine this would have been a popular spectator spot like all finishing lines. To cheers and jubilation all round the winning torch was taken into the sacred precincts ready to light the sacrificial altar later that day.

But if you think the Athenians could relax before dawn you’d be wrong. The big procession was to take place as the sun rose on Day 7, with hundreds gathering back at the city gate to prepare all the various offerings. It was another spectacular event, too big to mention today, so I’ll tell you about it tomorrow. It will be a memorable sight – the world’s biggest dress, a ship on wheels, an assassination, and the biggest barbecue for 4 years.

If you’d like to know more about the Greater Panathenaean Games – the Gayest Games in Ancient Greece – go to www.athens-greece.us/panathenaea.

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