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Olympia Sanctuary

Paper type: Essay
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The sanctuary of Olympia lies in the alluvial valley formed by the confluence of the rivers Kladeos and Adelpheos, bounded to the north by the wooded hill of Kronos. The sanctuary of Zeus is located in the northwest part of the Peloponnese. Olympia can be identified as a non-urban sanctuary, and consequently, as a Panhellenic sanctuary. The use of the term Panhellenic, in present purposes, indicates a major shrine in a Greek territory that is not dominated by a major polis or ethos.

Zeus’ sanctuary was under the government of Elis, and, in the early period, Elis was considered a weak government. In the Greek world, all communities were religious, and, worshipping the gods, as well as taking part in religious festivals, were occasions for different groups to meet together. The location of the sanctuary of Olympia, makes it a good place for meeting and competitions between rival individuals and states. H.A Shapiro (2007) has stated that ‘a truly Panhellenic shrine was, in Pindar’s phrase a pandokos naos, an “all welcoming temple” (Pindar Pythian 8.

61-2): it was open, in theory at least, to everyone.’

From this sentence we can deduct that, the Panhellenic shrine is the literal antithesis of a polis: it is Greek, civilised, but it stands in the place where the polis is not. François de Polignac (1995) has argued that ‘the sanctuary, the place where two worlds meet, is accordingly seen as the stable point where a controlled passage from a world to the other is possible’ ; so, non-urban sanctuaries ‘manifest the integration of deities who from being potentially hostile, become beneficent for the communities that makes room for them within its religious life’. In ancient greek, the words used to define a sanctuary were: hieron (sacred), and temenos (from the verb temno which means ‘to cut off’ , in other words it suggested the idea of a place set aside). The greek words for defining a sanctuary underlined the idea of a sanctuary as a sacred area, a place away from the world of humans in which the gods were venerated.

3. Plan of the Sanctuary of Zeus, Olympia (http://shelton.berkeley.edu/175c/OlympiaPlan.JPG)

* The early years and the votive objects

During the eight century we assist to a gradual transformation of the sanctuary from a rural shrine, into a Panhellenic sanctuary. Catherine Morgan identifies this fundamental transformation in two main reasons. The first one was considering Olympia as a good location ‘for conspicuous consumption by aristocrats, via athletics and votive offerings’ . The second one, was that, shrines like this one, ’helped to resolve internal conflicts in the emergent states by means of their oracles’. However, the presence of votive deposits datable around 800 BC ca, suggests that Olympia was originally used as a meeting place for chiefs from Arcadia and Messenia, to make offers to the gods in order to have success in battle, to celebrate victories, and to give thanks for good fortune.

During the eight and the seventh century, we can see a consistent increase in the number of votive objects. According to François de Polignac (1995) the quantity and the quality of the offerings dating from the eight and the seventh century is an index of the popularity of religious acts in intra-urban sanctuaries. Among the most popular offers, we can identify: figures of animals and mythological beasts (such as: griffins, sphinxes, birds and bulls), figures of warriors (probably as a symbol of the victories of their donors), pieces of armours, and terra-cotta and metal figurines of horses and chariots.

The use of metal and terra-cotta, indicates the presence of wealthy citizens, because the sanctuary lies in a landscape dominated by cliffs and rocks. On the other hand, offers of sheep and cattle, indicate activities of the lower classes. There is also the presence of bronze tripod cauldrons (Fig. 4), that were probably made in the home communities of their donors. Tripod cauldrons, indicate the religious activities of population that were living far away from the place of the sanctuary, and, most likely, these objects were an index of their wealth. Morgan (1990) has argued that ‘in the eight century costly dedications at Olympia served a domestic political purpose by reinforcing the position of the elite within the emerging state’.

4. Reconstruction of a large tripod in bronze, with horse handle attachments. Original fragments from the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, later eight century BC. Olympia, Archeological Museum. Photo: A. Loxìas

During the eighth century, surprisingly there is no presence of pottery. This suggests that, probably, in the early years, the sanctuary was more related to individual purposes, than communal values. However, in the seventh century communal activities became important, in fact, plates, jugs and cups were used, whilst dedications of tripod cauldrons diminished.

The temple of Hera, or Heraion, (Fig.3 ) is located in the north of the Altis (the sacred precinct). The Heraion is the oldest peripteral temple in the sanctuary: it was built around 590 BC. The architecture of the temple falls in the category of the early Doric style. The temple is a rectangular chamber with a peripteros of six by sixteen columns. (Fig. 6) These columns were originally made of wood, but throughout the years, were replaced by columns made of stone. This temple is considered significant, because it marks the transition from the construction with mud brick and wood, to the use of the stone. To the east of this temple stood a row of eleven (possibly twelve) thesauroi, overlooking the Archaic stadium, and built mostly in the sixth century. (Fig.3) ‘A treasure house, or thesaurus’ is a ‘small temple like building, built by individual states to hold the offerings of their wealthy citizens’.

However, a thesaurus, cannot be considered just as a strongbox to hold gifts for the gods. The thesauroi were a way for the elite to bring a little bit of the polis into the Panhellenic shrine throughout costly dedications, and, also a way to show their economical power, and, at the same time, a religious interest. H.A Shapiro stated that ‘these buildings transform upper-class extravagance into civic pride’. The oldest treasury at Olympia, not surprisingly, was built in 640 BC. by a tyrant: Myron of Sicyon, probably in order to commemorate a chariot-victory.

This treasury contained two thalamoi mad of bronze, and in these chambers there were inscriptions that, according to Pausanias (6.19) ‘had been dedicated by Myron and the demos, or commons of Sicyon’. The bronze was probably brought from Tartessos in far-off Spain, and it probably represented a way for Myron, to boast the maritime power of his city. The lower classes and the tyrant were collaborating together in order to accomplish the dedicatory practices of the wealthy. The history of this thesaurus, furnishes evidences to display in our mind a picture of the workings of the archaic tyranny.

* Olympic games

The Olympic games are traditionally dated to 776 BC. , but we cannot identify it as a precise date. They were a festival held every four years at the same time of the year, to commemorate Zeus. The games were not just an athletic event, but, they were deeply related to religion, and open only to Greek males. The actual prize for Olympic games, was just a wreath to be worn around the head, dedicated to a favoured god. In case of victory, winners were allowed to erect statues representing a replica of themselves in the shrine. This tradition is datable around the 544 BC., but, most likely, it may go back much more earlier. The prestige obtained after and athletic victory was a great source of power for athletes, that , back in their hometown, were celebrated with poems, free meals, cash, choice seats at city functions.

This was happening because, with their victory, they were bringing glory to their hometown. However, some lyric poets, such as Xenophanes (fr. 2.1-22), believed that the society was giving excessive rewards to athletes, whilst the wisdom of poets was not really considered. Xenophanes claimed that, even wise poets, should receive recognitions from the society as well as athletes. In the end, we cannot deny that Olympic games, were an occasion to gather athletes, as well as citizens from all over the Greek world. The cycle of games, represented ‘a means by which the ideology of Panhellenism was spread’.

* Conclusions

An answer in why we investigate Greek sanctuaries, may be found in the fact that they constituted the main ‘physical manifestation of the belief system of the ancient Greeks.’ Religion during the Archaic period , as evidenced by the literary sources, was a consistent element in the everyday life of Greeks. ‘The “establishment of a state-framework for pilgrimage” was a political and ideological process’, and, ‘dedications, inscriptions, buildings, stones, statues, anecdotes, and poems are the material traces of this process’. Analysing religion, helps us to understand also social and economical aspects of the greek culture. Therefore, studying sanctuaries is a good way to clarify our understanding of how greek religion was practiced.


* S. E. Alcock and R. G. Osborne (eds.), Classical Archaeology, (Chichester, 2012) * John Pedley, Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World (Cambridge, 2005) * H.A. Shapiro (ed.), The Cambridge companion to Archaic Greece, (Cambridge University Press, 2007) * François de Polignac, Cults, territory, and the origins of the Greek cirty-state, (University of Chicago Press,1995) * M. L. West (tr.), Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford, 1999)

[ 1 ]. H.A Shapiro, The Cambridge companion to Archaic Greece Cambridge University Press, 2007, (p. 226) [ 2 ]. François de Polignac, Cults,
territory, and the origins of the Greek city-stat, University of Chicago press,1995 (p.36) [ 3 ]. H.A Shapiro, The Cambridge companion to Archaic Greece, Cambridge University Press, 2007 (p. 226) The author quotes Catherine Morgan. [ 4 ]. H.A Shapiro, The Cambridge companion to Archaic Greece, Cambridge University Press, 2007 (p. 228) Morgan 1990, 102 [ 5 ]. A Peripteros is a temple surrounded by a portico with columns. [ 6 ]. H.A Shapiro, The Cambridge companion to Archaic Greece, Cambridge University Press, 2007 (p.240) [ 7 ]. H.A Shapiro, The Cambridge companion to Archaic Greece, Cambridge University Press 2007 (p.241) [ 8 ]. H.A Shapiro, The Cambridge companion to Archaic Greece, Cambridge University Press 2007 (p.244) [ 9 ]. M. L. West (tr.), Greek Lyric Poetry, Oxford, 1999 (p.p.157-158) [ 10 ]. John Pedley, Sanctuaries and the sacred in the Ancient Greek world, Cambridge University Press, 2005 (p.134) [ 11 ]. John Pedley, Sanctuaries and the sacred in the Ancient Greek world, Cambridge University Press, 2005 (p.1) [ 12 ]. H.A Shapiro, The Cambridge companion to Archaic Greece, Cambridge University Press 2007 (p.251)

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Olympia Sanctuary. (2016, Dec 13). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/olympia-sanctuary-essay

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