The festive Olympic Games were formally instituted in 776 bce and were held once every four years until ad 520.14 They inspired a 'Crown Games' super-league that included the regional Isthmian, Nemean, and Pythian Games, to which all local villages would have sent their champions. Largely owing to their urgent need for strong military muscle, the Greek upper classes vigorously supported popular competitive sports and gradually turned them into a central tenet of society—a sort of patriotic test of Greekness. A convincing case has been made that these Games may originally have had something to do with hunting skills and hunting rituals: the running training, the wrestling, the deodorizing, and other purificatory preparations made before the hunt. They also bonded and graded the young males and kept the warrior instincts alert.15 But the purity law forbidding the wearing of weapons at the Games fundamentally underlined their serious, peaceful, and civilized purpose:
We seek a certain greater good... a wreath that is not made of pine or olive or parsley, but contains in itself all human felicity—that is to say, freedom for each individual singly and for the state in general, wealth, glory, enjoyment of ancestral feast-days, safety for one's family, and in short all the blessings that one could pray to receive from the gods. All these things are interwoven in the wreath that I speak of and accrue from the contest to which these exercises and hardships lead.16
The Games themselves were structured around a long series of religious rituals. Well before the period of the peaceful truce, all the athletes had already been kept separated from the world for a month on a special purificatory and strengthening regime (diet, exercise, chaste sexual regimen) which had rendered them completely unpolluted, and worthy to compete in the sacred precincts. No women were allowed to enter or participate.17 The male sports ranged from the ephebates (12-18) the andres (19-30), to mature males (30-plus), and took five days. The Games started with a sacred procession winding its way from the city of Elis along the Sacred Way towards a great sacrifice to Zeus at Olympia, stopping to purify at the sacred fountain at Pieva. After four days of the music contests, charioteering, and junior sports came the finale: the 200-metre, 400-metre, and long-distance running races, the pentathlon, throwing and wrestling events, and military combat (armed fighting, archery, the race in armour). The day ended with the crowning of the victors in the temple of Zeus, followed by the banquet for the victors in the Prytaneum: a convivial evening of aphrodisia for the men, and a rousing confirmation of their physical strength.18
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