No, what I mean here isn’t some sort of competitive event for polytheists, where you’d see Ásatrú teams competing against CR teams, Kemetic teams, Hellenismos teams, and so forth in events like the 4 x 100 m Processional, the Lore Toss, Synchronized Libations, and the Triathlon (also known as “triple-trad syncretism”)…although that would be very amusing indeed, in certain cases!
Instead, what I mean to point out is something that is obvious to just about every polytheist there is, but which isn’t obvious to the larger populace, both in the U.S. and around the world–or, it isn’t to the extent that it ought to be–namely, that the Olympic Games are not “just” an “athletic event” that was put on in ancient Greece for the love of athleticism, it was a specifically and explicitly religious event that involved–you guessed it–doing athletic games in honor of the gods and heroes, and at Olympia in Elis, it was specifically Pelops who was the figure honored with those quadrennial funeral games. Not unlike the notion that many of the statues, paintings, illustrated manuscripts, and other objects that have survived from the ancient world were “art” rather than “religious objects,” or that the poetry that survives from ancient Greece was “literature” rather than “religious texts,” as if art and literature are things that exist “on their own” and “for their own sake” in those ancient cultures (like they do in our own, for the most part) rather than being the specific productions of and outlets for theology, cultic practice, and religious expression, theory, and devotion, the Olympic Games have been separated from the original concerns that inspired them, and continued to do so for centuries.
The image above, from the 2004 Olympics Opening Ceremony in Athens, is one that I did not get to see on television, and about which I’m very upset (as the entire spectacle sounds like it was pretty cool!); I only got to see the closing ceremony, which was a bit more impressionistic, I think. However, the honoring of the actual and mythological heritage of the Olympics in Greece that year was something that put the realities of polytheism and of ancient Mediterranean (panhellenic) culture on full display for the world to see. The modern situation of a secularized Olympics that does not pay too much attention to these origins is what allows, for example, Muslim countries to participate at all in them; if they really thought about it, though, they’d be somewhat prevented from competing in many cases, I suspect, due to the polytheistic heritage of the event generally speaking, and in particular of some of the matters involved in the opening ceremonies, including lighting the torch.
This year’s opening ceremony is only a few hours away, and it looks to be…well, weird, from what I understand. The possibility of a giant Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter fighting a group of Mary Poppinses (!?!) sounds so strange as to be rather upsetting if it doesn’t actually come to pass…but, if it doesn’t, you can all just read the last installment of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, 2009, where you’ll see much the same thing in the end. (No joke!)
Something interesting, though, is that three of the four panhellenic athletic contests of the ancient world–the Olympian, Nemean, and Isthmian games–were celebrated in honor of slain baby or child heroes: respectively, for Pelops, Opheltes/Arkhemoros, and Melikertes/Palaimon. The first of these, of course, has a connection to Herodes Attikos and his wife Appia Annia Regilla, who built a beautiful nymphaeum with statues of themselves, the emperors, and their own children at Olympian Elis so that the athletes and spectators could have water. And, the latter two figures were celebrated on coin issues during the Hadrianic and through the Antonine periods on coin issue reverses. Thus, it seems likely, if not entirely certain, that the Megala Antinoeia athletic games founded in honor of Antinous after his death, and likewise for Polydeukion, were based directly on these ancient models of slain youths (often children) who were heroized after their deaths, and for whom their funeral games were extended and renewed on a regular basis.
Very interestingly, I saw a segment on television last night about U.S. Olympic gold medalist swimmer Cullen Jones, who is going to be competing again this year, and how in his youth at age 5 he nearly drowned in a swimming pool, and soon after started swimming lessons. (Drowning…Antinous…you do the math!) Since his Olympic successes in particular, Jones has been advocating for swimming and water safety education for African-American children, of whom more than 70% don’t know how to swim, and the drowning rates amongst black children and youths are over three times as great as for white children. You can read more about some of these matters here. While the segment talked a bit about this, I suspect a huge aspect that wasn’t actually addressed in it was the realities of Jim Crow laws in the U.S. have shaped the situation toward this bad end–black people were not allowed in swimming pools that white people used for decades, and because of that fact, I suspect that the social taboo translated into an internal one, which made many African-Americans afraid of the water (as was mentioned in the segment). So, well done to Jones for not only being as amazing as he is, but also for doing all he can to help his community and to address this very real threat to the lives of African-American children.
I shall be watching the swimming events quite closely myself over the coming days, not only because the U.S. is likely to do well in them, but because Nathan Adrian, one of the swimmers, is from Seattle, so he’s local!
But, I shall also be watching it as the latter-day echo of those games in the past, that honored the gods and also honored the children and youths who were aoroi, who died too soon–Pelops primarily, but also Palaimon, and Opheltes, and Polydeukion, and Antinous!