Now that the Olympic Games in Rio are less than a month away, it is a good time for a history lesson. What many don’t know is that alongside the contests at Olympia, a separate festival in honor of Hera featured women athletes. These were called the Hererae. While they had to be unmarried to take part, they still vied for honor and an honorary “peplos.” Although it is not known how old the festival was, it may have been almost as old as the festival for boys and men.
Little is known about this festival other than what Pausanias, a 2nd century AD Greek traveler, tells us. He mentions it in his description of the Temple of Hera in the Sanctuary of Zeus, and says that it was organized and supervised by a committee of 16 women from the cities of Elis. The festival took place every four years, when a new peplos was woven and presented to Hera inside her temple.
Pausanias gives us a description of a girl’s attire for the Hera games of the 2nd century AD. The girls wore their hair free down their back and a tunic hanging almost as low as the knees covering only the left shoulder and breast. The costume that Pausanias describes may have been the traditional costume at Olympia and possibly elsewhere for centuries.
Unmarried girls (by unmarried it meant pre-pubescent girls so we are talking about elementary or early middle schoolers here) had a number of advantages at Olympia. They not only had their own athletic contests of the Hera festival in which to participate, but they were also allowed to watch the men’s and boys’ contests of the festival of Zeus. Married women, on the other hand, were not allowed to participate in the athletic contests of the Hera festival, and were barred on penalty of death from the Sanctuary of Zeus on the days of the athletic competition for boys and men. We don’t know whether or not the women allowed the men to watch the girls’ contests.
Women also did participate as horse breeders because in the horse races the breeder got the trophy and not the rider.
Perhaps the most famous Olympic story connected to a woman concerns a certain Kallipateira or “a Mrs. Good Father.” As married women were forbidden on pain of death from participating in the Olympic Games, the only way they could garner glory was to stand behind a man during the contests. It so happened that Pisodoros of Rhodes came from a long distinguished line of boxers. His maternal grandfather, his uncles and his brother had all won many prizes. But in the months before the Olympic Games, tragedy struck. His father, who had been coaching him, died unexpectedly. It was hard to find a personal instructor who knew his ways as his father had. Until, that is, a mysterious new coach stepped in. Pisodoros blossomed under his care. He entered the Olympics and progressed to the final bout. When he landed the winning blow and his opponent fell flailing to his knees, the crowd erupted in a welter of excitement. His coach (like everybody then, a stranger to underwear) leapt over the fence. But the robes were hitched so high that when the coach jolted over the divider, the naked truth was seen by all. The coach was a woman! None other than Pisodoros’ mother. It was an outrage! Ironically her name meant “Bringer of Victory” or “Pherenike.”
There was no going back on the law of the Olympics. The woman had to be given capital punishment. The historian Pausanias even describes the place of execution for those who broke the rule: “On the road to Olympia from Skillos, just before you cross the Alpheios, is a mountain with high sheer cliffs. Its name is Trypaion. The law of Elis is that from this cliff should be thrown any woman discovered at the Olympic Festival.”
The Hellanodikai, the Olympic tribunal, was outraged at her transgression. But because of her family’s clout and given the fact that she had coached and produced an Olympian champion, it let her go. However, they did impose a new rule on Olympic trainers. From that day on, they had to appear in the nude at the Games just like all the athletes, just to be sure no sneaky females got in.
Another instance of a woman winning at the Olympics involved the sister of Agesilaus (brother to the Spartan King Agis II), Kynisca. She was allowed to take part in the chariot race more to prove a point her brother was making to his Athenian rivals, that you didn’t need skill, but money to buy victory at the Games. Nevertheless, Kynisca became the first female victor at Olympia where a famous statue of her was erected. She went on to win the chariot race in the next Fesitval, too.
But I can bet that had women been allowed access into the Olympic Games, they would have provided men with some stiff competition, especially those Spartan ladies.