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Olympic Prizes and Forgotten Games

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Gold, Silver, Bronze, all familiar prizes at the Olympic games and, indeed, other sporting events. Now, back in 2004 when Athens hosted the games, you may remember that, in addition to the medals, winners were presented with wreaths of wild olive leaves. This was a charming reference back to the ancient Olympics and the ‘victors’ crown’. To us now, this may seem rather dull compared to shiny medals. Back then, this was of great significance. The Olympic games were held in honour of Zeus, and the leaves of which the wreaths were made from the trees of Altis, the king of the gods’ sacred grove at Olympia within his precinct. So, by being crowned with olive leaves at Olympia, by association, you were blessed by Zeus. You might also get a statue dedicated to you back in your home town.

Wreaths were not only prizes at the Olympic games. There were three other major pan-Hellenic sporting contests, each with a very specific wreath connected to the god of the precinct in which they were held.

The Pythian Games: these games too place at Delphi, named after the great priestess, the Pythian. The place was sacred to Apollo, who had become master of Delphi after killing the Python which guarded the sanctuary and the power of the priestess. Mythology states that Apollo established the games following his victory. Once more the prize was a wreath, but this time of laurel wreaths. The laurel was sacred to Apollo, which, according to Greek myth, went back to his love for Daphne, who had been sentenced to reject love by the iron arrow of Eros. Wanting to escape her fate, she pleaded for release and was turned by the gods into a laurel tree. Apollo made a wreath of laurel leaves in her memory. Thus, it became the victor’s crown at the games and also, qua Apollo’s status as the god of music and art, came to be seen as a symbol for artists and musicians.

The Isthmian Games: These were held on the Isthmus of Corinth in the sanctuary of Poseidon (Oh, I SEA! Get it? Oh, never mind). In the sanctuary grew a group of pine trees, sacred to the god of the sea, which formed the wreath for the Isthmian victors. Wreaths of celery are also recorded at Isthmia. Pindar, the great poet who celebrated victors in the games, mentions the celery wreath four times, but nowhere does he mention pine. Some later writers dated the pine wreath to an earlier time. Another argues there were two games at Isthmia, the celery wreath awarded for one, the pine for the other. Whatever the truth, we see wreaths again as the crowning prize, a symbol of the winner’s glory and prowess.

The Nemean Games: Nemea was in the Peloponnese, south-west of Corinth and Isthmia and north-east of Olympia. These were also held in honour of Zeus, like the Olympic games. The name came from the killing of the Nemean Lion by Heracles, and one myth tells that he founded the games after his victory in honour of his father, Zeus. The wreath here came from the leaves of wild celery. Another myth links the foundation of the games to the arrival of the Seven Against Thebes. When they came to Nemea, Hypsipyle, once queen of Lemnos, now slave to the king of Nemea and nurse to his infant son Opheltes. She left him to show the Seven where to find water and the child was killed by a serpent. She is said to have laid him on a bed of wild celery leaves and his funeral games were the first Nemean contest.

Who knew that sticking celery on your head could confirm your status as a sporting superstar!

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