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A mythical Olympics for women shows the ancient roots of inequality at the games

AP Photo
Leveling the playing field.
By Neha Thirani Bagri
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Callipateira, a widow, is notorious in the myths of ancient Greece. According to the story, she disguised herself to look like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at the ancient Olympic Games. When her son won, she jumped out of the trainer’s enclosure and in doing so, relinquished her disguise, and chanced being sentenced to death.

Callipateira was taking a big risk. The ancient Olympic Games, which began in 776 BC and continued for nearly 12 centuries, were off limits to female athletes. Married women were barred from even attending the games, and would be killed if they were found.

The ancient Olympic Games were dedicated to the Greek god Zeus, in whose honor there is a majestic temple in Olympia, the site of the ancient games. Near the temple of Zeus is the temple of the Greek goddess Hera, Zeus’ wife, where even today, the Olympic torch is lit before it begins its journey to the host country.

But there may have been a separate set of games honoring Hera, where young, unmarried women competed. The Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias, who lived in the 2nd century AD, documents the Heraean games in his famous Description of Greece, for which he traveled the region and gathered firsthand observations. When these games began is unclear, as Pausanias says only that they originated in “ancient times.”

According to Pausanias’ account, the Greeks told two stories about the origin of the Heraean Games. In one version, Hippodameia, a Greek mythological figure, the daughter of the king of Pisa, selected 16 women and with them inaugurated the Heraean Games to thank the goddess Hera for her marriage to Pelops.

In the more interesting version, hostilities between the warring societies of Elis and Pisa were settled when 16 women were selected from each of the 16 cities inhabited by Elis. They were, according to Pausanias’ account, “the oldest, the most noble, and the most esteemed.” These women made peace between Pisa and Elis, and were later entrusted to weave a robe for the goddess Hera every four years and manage the Heraean games.

“This is an extraordinary story in ancient Greek history where men could not restore peace, so women had to do it,” said Thomas R. Martin, a historian who specializes in Greek and Roman history and teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “That is truly remarkable in a society where formally speaking, women are in a secondary position. They don’t have the right to vote, they don’t have the right to attend political assemblies and express their opinion directly.”

What were the Heraean Games?

The games were basically a track-and-field competition and consisted only of footraces for young, unmarried women. The competitors were of different ages and competed in three races, depending on how old they were, according to Pausanias’ account. Because women married young in Greek antiquity, it is likely that the women competing were teenagers, according to Martin.

The race, like the original race on which the Olympic games were founded, was held in the main track at the sanctuary in Olympia. The race was shortened for the women by about one-sixth of the length. From the size of the stadium, Martin guesses that the men’s race was about 200 yards long, while the women’s was about 160 yards long. In Pausanias’ account, he describes the women’s attire writing,  “their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast.”

Greek bronze figure of a running girl, which dates to about 500 BC, is dressed in the way that Pausanias describes girls competing at the Games of Hera. (The British Museum)

The winner of the race would get a crown of olive leaves, a mostly symbolic award, like those given to the men at the ancient Olympic Games. They were allowed to partake in the eating of the meat sacrificed to the goddess Hera. They also had the chance to put up images of themselves or inscribe their names on the pillars of the famous temple of Hera. “Archeologists have found in the surviving columns little niches that were probably for little statues or painted pictures of the victors,” Martin said.

Were they even real?

Whether these games were truly held or simply part of Greek myth is open for debate. While there are scattered references to the games elsewhere, historians differ on whether they refer to the same games. In Onward to the Olympics: Historical Perspectives on the Olympic Games, historians Gerald Schaus and Stephen Wenn cast doubt on their existence. “If numerous Spartan and other Greek girls won the Heraea over the several centuries, why do we not read about the Heraea until Pausanias?” they argue.

Whether or not the games really took place, the fact that their myth exists makes an important point about the status of women in ancient Greece and the role of women in the Olympics. “It doesn’t matter for significance whether it’s literally true. Pausanias visited and he is telling you what he learned when he was there. To the Greeks, myths are ancient history,” said Martin. “What matters is what people say about what happened in the past, that’s what affects the present. The story itself is a manifestation of the power of women.”

Long way to go. (AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz)

Athletic competitions for women were well-documented by the time of the Roman empire, but women were only allowed to participate in the modern Olympic Games in 1900. That year they represented 2.2% of the athletes taking part. This year, at the Rio Olympics, 45% of all the athletes are women, with more women competing than ever before. Still, with female athletes facing sexism and body shaming even at the most elite levels of sport, there’s a long way to go.

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