I’m not a big fan of the Olympic Games. I might watch a few events if I stumble across it while channel surfing but I don’t usually seek it out. No doubt, the loss is mine. Even though this post is on the pagan origins of the Olympic Games I want to be clear from the outset—I have no religious objection against the games. I don’t actually have any objection to them at all. This post is simply a page plucked from the annals of church history. My primary source for this post comes from a 2008 Christianity Today article by Steven Gertz who in turn was using a 2004 article from U.S. News and World Report by Betsy Carpenter.
The early Olympic Games were held in honor of the Olympic gods (Zeus and others). Unlike today they were professional athletes who in “trained and competed virtually full time. Top athletes shuttled around other prestigious sporting events, much as they do today. And victors profited royally from their wins, snatching front-row seats at the Games, huge cash prizes, pensions, and even slaves.” Some of the events were very bloody with casualties occurring both accidentally and intentionally.
“One infamous contestant earned the nickname ‘Mr. Digits’ as he specialized in breaking his opponents’ fingers. Spectators of boxing events witnessed comparable violence—historian Stephen Miller recounts the story of one Damoxenos who jabbed his opponent with his fingers sticking straight out, pierced the man’s rib cage, and yanked out his intestines!”
Gertz explains that not only were the games violent they were also thoroughly pagan.
“Before the Games began, competitors processed to the village of Piera on the outskirts of Olympia. There, priests sacrificed a fat pig to Zeus, and the athletes participated in a ceremony of purification. Once the contestants had been confirmed, the priests repeated the ceremony, this time sacrificing a pig and sheep before the colossal statue of Zeus in Olympia. The athletes then swore allegiance to the Greek gods and fidelity to Zeus.”
“Nor were the gods relegated to the opening ceremonies. Winners of events visited the Temple of Zeus to sacrifice to the gods, and half of every animal was delivered to the priests to be prepared for the Olympic feast. That feast, held on the third day of the Games, was marked by a procession—priests scooped up glowing embers from the fire of Hestia, goddess of the hearth, then carried those embers past spectators singing a hymn to Zeus. Arriving at the Temple of Zeus, the priests mounted the steps and lit the fire in the altar with the embers. There, the priests slaughtered and sacrificed 100 bulls—one at a time—after which the feasting began.”
Because of a mishap where a runner lost his loin cloth during the race and won other athletes followed suit hoping the new “freedom” would bring them the same fortune. Because the athletes competed in the nude married women were prohibited from the games but “unmarried women were allowed to watch; and hetaeras, or ‘high-class’ escort girls, would prostitute themselves during the banquets for Olympic victors. Some of these women likely came from the population of temple prostitutes dedicated to Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex.”
It’s a small wonder in this context why the Roman emperor Theodosius (A.D. 346-395) under the watchful eye of Bishop Ambrose of Milan would eventually ban the Olympic Games. Gertz explains:
“And so, on February 24, 391, the emperor began issuing a series of decrees that effectively outlawed Greco-Roman paganism and all the rituals that accompanied it. First, he prohibited pagan sacrifice, including—for the first time—the state ceremonies still practiced in Rome. Then came the closing of all shrines and temples: ‘No person shall approach the shrines, nor walk through the temples, nor revere the images formed of mortal hands.’ Next came a law forbidding apostasy from Christianity to paganism, and finally, on November 8, 392, Theodosius declared all sacrifice and divination punishable by death. That meant destroying private altars, domestic idols placed in hearth and kitchen, hanging garlands, etc.”
All of this is now ancient history. Residual elements of the ancient paganism seem to still exist as seen in the Olympian anthem: “Ancient Immortal Spirit, chaste Father of all that is Beauty, Grandeur and Truth Descending appear with Thy presence Illumine Thine Earth and the Heavens. Shine upon noble endeavors wrought at the Games on Track and in the Field … To Thine Temple, to Thy Worship, come all. Oh! Ancient Eternal Spirit!”
Very few today probably have any idea about these early associations and I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to boycott the games due to the pagan origins. Let the games continue and may their fans find rich enjoyment in the spirit of competition where, for many, the simple opportunity to be a part still has some value and meaning. As to its history . . . well, that’s just what it is—history.