14 January, 2018

Women athletics in ancient Greece

The common lore is that women were prohibited from attending the Olympics. And, of course, everybody has heard of Kallipateira who, disguised as a man, a trainer, did attend in order to follow her son's successful contest in boxing. When she rushed to congratulate her son her garment got tangled and she was found out. She defended herself saying that she of all women should be allowed to attend the games having had a father, three brothers, a son and a nephew who had among themselves won eight times. Her life was spared but in the aftermath the trainers had to attend the games in the nude. Speaking of women not attending the Games, the only exception was that of the priestess of Demeter, who traditionally attended the Games at a place of honour. Some authors claim that hetairai (prostitutes) were allowed to attend the Games but I think that they were only allowed to the city of Ellis and not to the stadium itself.

Kallipateia congratulating her son Peisírrhodos

Does the fact that women were excluded from the Games mean that they were not allowed to participate in sport events in Ancient Greece? What is true is that the structure of the ancient greek society did not allow much freedom to women. They were not recognised as citizens and it was considered that their place was the household. With the exception of Sparta, women were not really encouraged to participate in athletics. Still Plato (an excellent wrestler himself) was a fervent defender of sports for women. He writes "I will unhesitatingly affirm that neither riding nor gymnastics, which are proper for men, are improper for women". And in his Laws he stipulates that, "In the case of females, we shall ordain races of a furlong, a quarter-mile, a half-mile, and a three-quarters for girls under the age of puberty, who shall be stripped, and shall race on the course itself; and girls over thirteen shall continue to take part until married, up to the age of twenty at most, or at least eighteen; but these, when they come forward and compete in these races, must be clad in decent apparel”.

Still, women did have their own competitions. Most famous among the latter were the Heraean Games, a kind of Olympic Games for women. They were established  by the queen Hippodameia in the 6th century BC, a mere two centuries after the Olympics for men. Just like the Olympics for men that Heraean Games consisted of foot races (at least at the beginning). The women competed in the Olympic Stadium divided in three age groups, the youngest starting first. The distance was shorter than that for the men, around 160 metres. While men competed nude, the participants to the Heraean Games wore a light chiton that reached to a little above the knee, with the right shoulder bare as far as the breast. Was this (and the fact that they competed with their hair hanging down) a kind of gender verification? Like men, the winners of the women's races were crowned with an olive wreath and could inscribe their names on the stele of Hera's temple. Unfortunately these names are not saved and the only recorded victor is the mythical Chloris who was supposed to be Zeus' granddaughter.

An athlete (supposedly Atalanta) wearing the chiton

This article on ancient sportswomen cannot be complete without mentioning two famous women. The first is the mythical princess Atalanta. She had taken an oath of virginity to Artemis and thus, when pressed by her father to marry, she agreed to accept only a suitor who could outrun her in a footrace. The ones who lost payed with their life. Many young men died until Hippomenes asked the help of Aphrodite. She gave him three golden apples. (Aphrodite has a thing for golden apples. Remember the judgement of Paris which was at the origin of the Trojan war and, indirectly, to the creation of Rome. Well, this is an other story). So, whenever Atalanta got ahead of Hippomenes the latter would throw a golden apple at her feet and Atalanta would slow down in order to retrieve it. Long story short: Hippomenes won and did marry Atalanta. However they did not live happily ever after since they managed somehow to offend the gods who turned them into lions.

One of the many representations of the Atalanta and Hippomenes race

The other famous ancient sportswoman was Kynisca of Sparta. Women in Sparta enjoyed a special status and while they were not considered full citizens they could own property and, as young girls, they were encouraged to participate at the same physical activities as boys. Upon her father's, king Archidamus, death Kynisca inherited his wealth which included racing horses. She entered her horses at the tethrippon race in the 396 BC Olympics and won. The statutes of the Olympics stipulated that the winner of the race was the owner of the horses and not the racer (who, most of the time, was a lowly slave). 

A greek post-stamp of a charriot race

So Kynisca became the first woman to win an Olympic event. (In fact she did this twice since she won again four years later). While she was not crowned with the olive wreath in the olympic stadium like the male winners (was the ceremony carried out in Hera's temple, nobody knows), she could place her statue at the sanctuary of Zeus with an inscription claiming that among all greek women she was the only one to have won the olympic crown.
The Kynisca inscription

In case you are wondering why all of a sudden I interested myself in women sports in ancient Greece, the explanation is simple. While planning for my next Semenya article I decided to learn more about sex verification in athletics, and, as a warm-up, to give a brief account on how sex verification has evolved over the years. Then I asked myself what was happening in ancient Greece, since I knew about the Heraean Games, and this post was born.

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