Even though our attention should have been on the Olympics at the moment we should remember that there were other festivals in ancient Greece. I’ve covered several of these festivals with sporting connection in some of my early articles.
In the first months of my blog I wrote about the Greater Panathenean Games. Just before the London
Olympics I wrote about the Hyakinthia festival. This was the second of the
three main festivals held in Sparta. The first was the Gymnopedia. The third
was held during the last month of the Spartan calendar, just around now, and
was called the Karneia. It is this festival about which I write today.
All three festivals were
held in honour of the patron god of Sparta, Apollo, whose part in a gay love
triangle formed the origin myth of the Hyakinthia. Even though all three
festivals eventually included some sport the main emphasis, as in the
Olympics, was on the cult of the patron god. To understand the
involvement of the main participants in the Karneia we will look at who was
excluded from the other two.
The responsibilities of Spartan
men was to fight for the state, and marry and father the next generation of
Spartan soldiers. There were several groups in the community who were
considered to be un-Spartan, inferior and were denied rights and respect. These
groups included men who dropped out of education (dominated by military
training) before completion, freed slaves and their children, non-Spartans
living in Sparta and their children, men who had shown cowardice in battle, and
unmarried men over the age of 30 with no children. This last group is known as
It seems there was a
change in attitude towards the agamoi over the centuries. The historian
Plutarch writing at the turn of the 1st century says that the Spartans wouldn’t
allow the agamoi to participate in or attend the Gymnopedia festival games. The
reason he gave was that the Spartans believed the sight of so many athletic
young men would be too much of a temptation for the agamoi. This seems at odds
with the acceptance of the boy-adult same-sex relationships (up to the age of about
30) common to Greek culture at the time. These agamoi may be the nearest we can
get in ancient Greece to men closest to our present definition of gay – same-sex
relationships that remained physical past the age of 30.
The agamoi were, however,
allowed to compete in their own games – in the middle of winter where even in
Sparta the temperature could go below zero. And they were expected to compete
naked just like the athletes in the summer games. In addition they had to
perform dances and songs that ridiculed their status. During other events the
agamoi were expected to give up their seats to anyone on demand (never by request).
Another task enforced upon the agamoi was the financing and organising of the
We know less about the
Karneia than we do about the Hyakinthia and Gymnopedia. It may have begun as a
harvest celebration, as it was held during the harvest season. There are several
origin myths, including being based on the foundation of Sparta, or the
commemoration of the assassination of a local seer. A fourth origin story
involves the worship of an ancient ram god called Karneios.
Whatever it’s origin the
Karneia festival became scared to Apollo who became known as Apollo Karneia. In
this incarnation he was depicted with ram’s horns, as shown in the ancient coin
Although Plutarch wrote
that the agamoi were ridiculed it seems that at other times they were respected
within the community. Some of the earliest agamoi appear to have been servants
to the priests in the temple of Apollo Karneios. Five agamoi from each of the
Spartans tribes were selected by lot to organise the Karneia festival, and they
held this post for four years.
Like other festivals,
there was of truce. This was not for a desire for peace but, as in the Olympic
truce, a chance for soldiers to participate in their sacred games without the
enemy attacking. Attack during the games and you are attacking the gods. This
is the reason the Spartans arrived late to the Battle of Marathon – they were
at the Karneia and would not fight.
The main element of the
Karneia was a race, more of a chase really. It had the long name of
staphylodromoi. Split the word into two and you get an indication of the
harvest aspect of the earliest Karneia – staphylo (grape), dromoi (runner). One
agamoi was chosen as “bait” and garlanded with a ribbon. Running naked through
the streets of Sparta he would pray to Apollo Karneia to bestow good fortune on
the city. Running a little behind him, also naked, were a group of other agamoi
(or, in some sources, unmarried younger men in their 20s) who had to catch the “bait”.
If they did, the prayers of the “bait” would be answered. As the name of the
race suggests, the original “bait” runners had bunches of grapes rather than a
ribbon that the others had to snatch.
One part common to most
festivals were song and dance contests. Not Fred Astaire-type songs and dances
but ritual lyric poems with or without musical accompaniment, and rhythmic
movement. Hellanikos of Lesbos, a writer from the 5th century BC, compiled a
list of winners of the song contest.
What appears to be a later
addition to the Karneia is a more military component. Nine military tents were
erected near the temple and nine agamoi, again selected by lot, were served a
meal in each of them.
The Karneia lasted for
nine days, though how those days were filled is uncertain. The staphylodromoi
was probably held on the first day. There could have been different types of
song and dance contests most of the other days. The military tents may have
been towards the end. Undoubtedly there would have been animal sacrifices made
by the priests and the king, and the non-agamoi Spartans would have feasted and
worshipped every day.
So, there seems to be two
different attitudes to unmarried men over the age of 30 in Sparta. Or perhaps
the agamoi were ridiculed and despised throughout the year, banned from the
Gymnopedia and forced to play sport naked in the middle of winter, but at the Karneia
they were tolerated and respected because they were providing a sacred service
to the community. I know which I would rather have taken part in.
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