Pausanias declares, that a person might see many things
wonderful to tell of, among the Greeks; but that the Olympic
Agon or Games, with the Eleusinian Mysteries, partook in an
especial manner of the deity. "The former grand exhibition was
conducted with prodigious solemnity. The order of the exercises and the ceremonial were controlled by the Praefects, who
were commonly ten or twelve in number, elected, one from
each tribe of the Eleans." (..) Let
the reader peruse the detail given by Pausanias, and imagine,
if he can, the entertainment, which Olympia must then have
afforded to the conoisseur, to the historian, and the antiquary.
Richard Chandler - An account of a tour made at the expense of the Society of dilettanti - 1775
(1805/1806) The same sort of scenery continued till within
a short distance of Andrutzena, which we saw
from a height, where an extensive view of the
vale of the Alpheus presented itself (according to Pausanias the River Alpheus resurfaced at Syracuse). (..) The lofty and snowy peaks of
Mount Olonos, which we had seen from Arcadia,
still towered in the distance above the tops of a
magnificent range only less striking by comparison. (..) As we had arrived about mid-day, we had so
much time to spare, that we were induced to
climb an eminence to the west of the village, in
order to obtain another glimpse of the inviting
country we had just discovered toward Olympia
and the vale of the Alpheus.
William Gell - Narrative of a journey in the Morea - 1823
Olympia is located in Elis, a region on the Ionian coast of Peloponnese facing the isle of Zante, which is named after the ancient town of Elis. This town was a member of the Peloponnesian League which was controlled by the Spartans, but in 420 BC Elis defected in favour of Athens; the Spartans invaded the region and in 397 BC they destroyed the town. Today the agricultural sector is the backbone of the economy of Elis; the coastal plain is intensively farmed with large use of greenhouses; reforestation plans implemented by the Greek government have given an almost Tuscan appearance to the hills surrounding Olympia.
Site of Olympia: to the left Mt. Kronos at the foot of which the games were held
Early in the morning we crossed a shallow brook, and
commenced our survey of the spot before us with a degree of
expectation from which our disappointment on finding it almost
naked received a considerable addition. (..) The site is by the road-side, in a green valley,
between two ranges of even summits pleasantly wooded. The
mountain once called Cronium is on the north, and on the
south the river Alpheus. Chandler
The treasures of Delphi, where the steepness of the ground has, in all probability, covered innumerable statues; and of Olympia, where the river has covered up the antiquities, like a second Pompeii, are probably inexhaustible; at either there is a certainty of finding inscriptions and treaties, of every age and every nation of Greece. Gell
We know not what barbarian hands or what revolutions overthrew Olympia; we cannot decide the degree of mutilation then practised upon the many wonderful objects of art which it contained; but, from an attentive examination of the spot, I can affirm without hesitation, that whatever remains of this first spoliation is still preserved. The perpetual overflowings of the Alpheus, which are extended sometimes to a great distance from its banks, have deposited vast quantities of sand and earth over the greater part of Olympia and the wood of Altis. The leaves themselves, and other spoils of vegetable substances, have equally contributed towards raising the soil; to which may be added the earth carried by the torrents down the sides of the mountains in times of heavy rain. And yet, notwithstanding such a combination of causes, the ground does not seem raised in general more than five or six feet. The village of Miraka, which stands at a trifling distance, is inhabited entirely by Greeks, and commanded by a Turkish aga. It would be no difficult matter to engage these honest people to search for relics, and they would probably undertake it at a trifling expense; nor can there be any doubt that many valuable objects might be recovered.
François Charles Hugues Laurent Pouqueville - Travels in the Morea, Albania, and other parts of the Ottoman empire - 1817 edition
The first discoveries of the monuments of Olympia were made in 1829; systematic excavation began in 1875 by German archaeologists who unearthed the Hermes of Praxiteles and the Nike (Victory) of Paionios.
Louvre Museum in Paris: metopes depicting scenes related to the labours of Heracles from the Temple of Zeus: (left) Sixth Labour: Heracles and the monster birds at the lake Stymphalos; (right) Seventh Labour: Heracles captures the Cretan Bull
In antiquity Elis was known for its cattle and horses and for the Fifth Labour of Heracles: the divine hero was asked whether he would be able to clean the stables of Augeias, King of Elis, in just one day; it was a very challenging task because the dung had not been cleared away for thirty years. Heracles undertook this labour with the promise of one tenth of the cattle as the reward; he then breached the walls of the yard and he diverted the Alpheus and Peneius Rivers so that their streams swept the yard clean.
According to the Greek poet Pindar (Vth century BC) the Olympic Games were founded by him following the completion of the labour and the slaying of King Augeias who refused to pay the promised reward.
After the conquest of Elis, Heracles (aka Hercules) established the famous four-yearly Olympic Festival and Games in honour of his father Zeus. Having measured a precinct for Zeus and fenced off the Sacred Grove, he stepped out the stadium, named a neighbouring hillock "the Hill of Cronus", and raised six altars to the Olympian gods: one for every pair of them. From Robert Graves - The Greek Myths.
In 1829 a French team initiated excavating the Temple of Zeus: the metopes on the exterior of the temple were plain, but those inside the front (pronaos) and rear (opisthodomos) porticoes were decorated with reliefs depicting the Labours of Heracles. The anonymous sculptor is referred to as the "Olympia Master" or the "Master of the Temple of Zeus".
The spectators assembled in
the Stadium, which was of earth, like that of Epidaurus, and
had seats for the Praefects, who entered with the candidates by
a private way. Opposite to them was an altar of white marble,
on which the priestess of Ceres sate; and before them on a
table were laid crowns of oleander or wild olive, made from a
tree growing near the back front of the temple of Jupiter. Chandler
Stadion is an ancient Greek unit of length equal to 600 feet and the same word designated a running race of such a length; the earliest record of the Olympic Games being held is dated 776 BC and the stadion was its only event; when other events were added the stadion remained the most important competition and the Games were named after the winner of this race.
Archaeologists have identified two racing grounds for the stadion which were utilized before the one shown above which was built in the Vth century BC when Olympia was enlarged; the audience sat on temporary timber structures which on their northern side exploited the natural slope of the hill; in the IIIrd century BC a vaulted passage was built for the athletes to make their entrance into the racing ground. Starting and finishing lines were also utilized as turning points in two other races which were added to the stadion: diaulos (twice the stadion) and dolichos (a long-race of maybe 18 stadion). The marathon is a long race which was introduced at the First Modern Olympic Games (1896) and which was unknown as a sporting event to the ancient Greeks.
Temple to Zeus: eastern/main front
The ruin, which we
had seen in the evening, we found to be the walls of the cell of
a very large temple, standing many feet high and well-built,
the stones all injured, and manifesting the labour of persons, who
have endeavoured by boring to get at the metal, with which
they weer cemented. From a massive capital remaining it was
collected that the edifice had been of the Doric order. Chandler
There are few visible remains of the once famous Olympia, and not a trace of stadium or theatre that I could make out. (..) We dug in the temple, but what we could do amounted to next to nothing. To do it completely would be a work for a king.
Travels in southern Europe and the Levant, 1810-1817. The journal of Charles Robert Cockerell
According to the mythological account Heracles dedicated a Sacred Grove to Zeus; it was a piece of land reserved for the worship of the god; the trees of the grove were most likely oaks, similar to what can be seen at Dodoni, one of the most ancient Greek oracles. Over time sacred groves were replaced by temples with columns representing the trees; at Olympia the cell containing the statue of Zeus was surrounded by 34 Doric columns (6 on the two fronts and 11 on the sides); the entrance was placed on the eastern side.
Temple to Zeus: south-eastern corner
The famous sanctuary of Olympia became the centre of worship of Zeus, the father of the twelve Olympian gods. For the Altis, the sacred grove and the centre of the sanctuary, some of the most remarkable works of art and technique have been created, constituting a milestone in the history of art. The influence of the monuments of Olympia has been considerable: the temple of Zeus, built in 470-457 BC, is a model of the great Doric temples constructed in the Peloponnese, as well as in southern Italy and in Sicily during the 5th century BC.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of Olympia which in 1989 was added to the World Heritage List.
The temple was built with local limestone coated with plaster to give it the appearance of marble; in 426 AD Emperor Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the temple, but this probably did not affect its structure which collapsed in the following century when two earthquakes struck the region; over time landslips and floods covered the ruins with a thick layer of mud.
Great artists, such as Pheidias, have put their personal stamp of inspiration and creativity, offering unique artistic creations to the world. UNESCO
The Temple to Zeus housed a chryselephantine (made up of gold and ivory parts) statue of the god by Phidias which was made in a workshop built for the purpose and which had the size of the cell. The statue consisted of a wooden structure covered by slabs of ivory and sheets of gold leaf; the ivory represented the flesh while gold was used for garments and hair (and precious stones for details such as the eyes); Phidias made also the chryselephantine statue of Athena in the Parthenon of Athens.
The precious materials of these statues caused their destruction; that of Zeus (which was included among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) was transferred to Constantinople when Theodosius II decreed the destruction of the temple; it was used to embellish the house of Lausus, his powerful chamberlain; it was eventually destroyed in a fire in 475.
The decoration of the two fronts occurred soon after the construction of the temple; the overall meaning of the two scenes is a celebration of justice and impartiality, perhaps an appeal to the athletes to compete fairly.
The statues on the eastern front are associated with another myth related to the foundation of the Olympic Games: they show Zeus acting as impartial arbiter in a chariot race between Oenomaus and Pelops.
Oenomaus was told in a prophecy that he would be killed by his son-in-law; he therefore decreed that Hippodamia would marry the man able to beat him in a chariot race; he took no risks because his mares were the best in Greece. Thirteen pretenders had already failed to win the race when Pelops sued for the hand of Hippodamia; he managed to bribe Oenomaus' charioteer who tampered with the axles; during the race Oenomaus' chariot broke apart and the king was killed; Pelops won the race, married Hippodamia, founded a large kingdom to which he gave his name (Peloponnese) and started the Olympic Games.
Museum of Olympia: Temple to Zeus: statues of the western front: at the centre a juvenile Apollo, to its left and right Lapiths and Centaurs fighting at a wedding feast which turned into a brawl after Eurytion, a drunken centaur, tried to rape the bride (the couple is to the right of Apollo)
According to tradition (and Homer: Phoebus, the long-haired god - Homeric Hymn to Demeter - 133) Apollo had long hair reaching his shoulders, but the god portrayed at Olympia has the neatly arranged snail curls of the athletes (see the icon and the image in the background of this page); similar to Zeus on the other front Apollo appears as being impartial in the fight; it is a very unusual portrait of the god whose iconography shows him in active roles from slaying Marsyas to playing the cither or chasing Daphne.
Museum of Olympia: Temple to Zeus: statues of the western front
The statues were executed in marble from Paros and were attributed to several different sculptors, but they are now thought to be the work of a local master. The statues were meant to be seen from below and at some distance; from this respect their current positioning in the Museum of Olympia is slightly misleading.
In the 1958 Introduction to The Greek Myths, Robert Graves wrote: An educated person is now no longer expected to know (for instance) who Deucalion, Pelops, Daedalus (..) may have been. (..) at first sight this does not seem to matter much, because for the last two thousand years it has been the fashion to dismiss the myths as bizarre and chimerical fancies, a charming legacy from the childhood of the Greek intelligence, which the Church naturally deprecates in order to emphasize the greater spiritual importance of the Bible. Yet it is difficult to overestimate their value in the study of early European history, religion, and sociology.
Hera (Juno) in the common knowledge is a sort of desperate housewife continuously upset by discovering that Zeus (Jupiter), her husband, is spending his time on seducing nymphs and boys. At Olympia however the temple dedicated to Hera was erected before that to Zeus, which indicates that the goddess was venerated at least as much as her husband; female deities as symbols of fertility prevailed in the ancient Greek society which was made up of herdsmen and farmers until the country was invaded by warrior tribes (chiefly the Dorians) who introduced male deities. The classic Greek pantheon indicates the compromise reached by the two cultures: six gods and six goddesses headed by Zeus and Hera.
While the worship of Hera dates from antiquity, that of Hermes developed at a later time; according to the myth he was the twelfth and last Olympian god; the unearthing of a statue of Hermes in the Heraion indicates that the building at one point was turned into a pantheon where several gods were worshipped. The statue is thought to be a Roman copy of an original traditionally attributed to Praxiteles; the god was portrayed in the act of holding infant Dionysus (see a relief showing why the god was entrusted with the care of Dionysus). A similar statue of Hermes was found in Rome in the XVIth century; it was highly praised by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and it influenced many of his works.
It was customary for important towns to build small temple-like treasuries in locations which were representative of the overall Greek world; buildings of this type housed votive offerings. While at Delphi, with the exception of Taras (today's Taranto in Southern Italy), the treasuries were built by towns in mainland Greece or on the Aegean islands, the treasuries at Olympia were built mainly by towns at the periphery of the Greek world such as Byzantion (Constantinople), Cyrene in Libya and Syracuse, Sybaris, Selinus, Metapontium and Gela in Sicily or Southern Italy.
The treasuries were built in a row to the north of the first racing ground.
The Nike by Paionios, sculptured circa 420 BC, so lastingly influenced iconographic allegories of victory that neoclassic art of the 19th century is still much indebted to it. UNESCO
Honorary columns were a particular type of votive offerings; the statue of Nike was a gift to Olympia made in 425 BC by the Messenians, the inhabitants of a town near today's Kalamata, and by those of Nafpaktos. The flying goddess was portrayed in the act of landing and in order to emphasize the dynamic impact of the statue it was placed on a triangular pedestal. It is the only work which can be attributed to Paionios of Mende and it marks a moment of the passage between Classic and Hellenistic sculpture; it probably influenced the design of the Nike found at Samothrace.
(left) National Archaeological Museum of Athens: IVth century BC bronze head of a boxer found at Olympia; (right) Museum of Olympia: (above) bronze relief portraying an attacking lion; (below) bronze protomes (decorative animal heads) of griffins on rims of large tripod cauldrons having an apotropaic (averting evil spirits) effect