My Messinia

Ancient Olympia through the eyes of a child

In a beautiful park like area suspended in the valley of the Alpheios river, called Altis, lies the most celebrated sanctuary complex of ancient Greece. Dedicated to Zeus, the father of the gods, it sprawls over the southwest foot of Mount Kronios, at the confluence of the Alpheios and the Kladeos rivers, in a lush, green landscape adorned for thousands of years with wild olive trees. DSC_0389οτωIt is no ordinary place…the site of Ancient Olympia is the cradle for the Olympic Games which was the greatest national festival then and now the most important athletic event world-wide….with many myths and legends that went along…DSC_0550otv

The whole site is like a mysterious botanical garden shaded with huge trees  oaks, planes, pines, poplars and olive-trees…same as when the Altis, the sacred enclosure, was first formed during the tenth and ninth centuries BC and the cult of Zeus was established. 

The most important, among the sanctuaries in the Altis, is the temple of Zeus (ca. 468-456 BC) which remains impressive even though crumbled down by fires and earthquakes. DSC_0358otv

The statue of Zeus which dominated once the temple, was considered one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World sculpted by Pheidias and one of his most famous creations….

According to Pausanias : “The god sits on a throne, and he is made of gold and ivory. On his head lies a garland which is a copy of olive shoots. In his right hand he carries a Victory, which, like the statue, is of ivory and gold; she wears a ribbon and—on her head—a garland. In the left hand of the god is a scepter, ornamented with every kind of metal, and the bird sitting on the scepter is the eagle. The sandals also of the god are of gold, as is likewise his robe. On the robe are embroidered figures of animals and the flowers of the lily. The throne is adorned with gold and with jewels, to say nothing of ebony and ivory. Upon it are painted figures and wrought images. There are four Victories, represented as dancing women, one at each foot of the throne, and two others at the base of each foot….On the uppermost parts of the throne Pheidias has made, above the head of the image, three Graces on one side and three Seasons on the other…. I know that the height and breadth of the Olympic Zeus have been measured and recorded; but I shall not praise those who made the measurements, for even their records fall far short of the impression made by a sight of the image.” Description of Greece (V.11.1-2, 7, 9)

The temple was adorned with many other sculptures: the fragments of the metopes of the temple, which are hosted in the Museum, depict the myths of the Dodekathlos -Twelve Labors of Herakles which he performed for King Eurystheus of Argos during the years he spent in the king’s service, as the Delphic oracle had ordered…and depicted the Erymanthian boar, the horses of Diomedes, Geryon, Atlas bringing the apples of the Hesperides, (Cerberus, which should follow here, was inadvertently omitted) the Augean stables, the Amazon, the Keryneian hind, the Cretan bull, the Stymphalian birds, the Lernaean Hydra and the Nemean Lion. Each of them have a fascinating story to tell!

DSC_0008otvDSC_0231otvOn the other hand the East and West pediments of the temple depict respectively the chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops* and the fight between Centaurs and Lapiths who are engaged in a battle over the abduction of the Lapith** women with Apollo in the center flanked by the heroes Theseus and Peirithoos.

These expressive sculptures of the metopes and the pediments are displayed in the museum along with other amazing artwork and artifacts…

DSC_0243otvDSC_0220οτωDSC_0228otvDSC_0223otvThe Archaeological Museum of Olympia, one of the most important museums in Greece, presents the long history of the most celebrated sanctuary of antiquity. The museum’s permanent exhibition contains finds from the excavations in the sacred area of the Altis dating from prehistoric times to the Early Christian period.

The museum building comprises exhibition rooms, auxiliary spaces and storerooms. The vestibule and twelve exhibition rooms contain objects excavated exclusively in the Altis. The auxiliary spaces (lavatories) are located in the museum’s east wing; a separate building between the museum and the archaeological site houses a book and souvenir shop. The museum was built in 1974 and renovated in 2004 and has a large atrium encompassing centuries-old cypress trees and an impressive display of sculptures of the Roman period…..a nice passage before you enter the museum where the main exhibits can be admired. DSC_0121otv DSC_0601otv

DSC_0036οtvDSC_0083cotvDSC_0064cotvBesides the sculptures coming from temple of Zeus the museum is also famous for the bronze collection, the richest collection of its type in the world, and the large terracottas collection which are especially noteworthy. Other precious exhibits of the museum are: 

  • Hermes of Praxiteles
    One of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art. Hermes, as Pausanias informs us, is depicted carrying the infant Dionysos. Made from Parian marble it stands 2,10m in height. It is thought to be an original of the great sculptor and it is dated to ca. 330 B.C.
  • Nike of Paionios
    The statue depicts a winged woman. An inscription on the base states that the statue was dedicated by the Messenians and the Naupactians for their victory against the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), in the Archidamian (Peloponnesian) war prabably in 421 B.C. It is the work of the sculptor Paionios of Mende in Chalkidiki, who also made the acroteria of the Temple of Zeus.
    Nike, cut from Parian marble, has a height of 2,115m, but with the tips of her (now broken) wings would have reached 3m. In its completed form, the monument with its triangular base (8,81m high) would have stood at the height of 10,92m. giving the impression of Nike triumphantly descending from Olympos. It dates from 421 B.C.
  • Zeus and Ganymedes
    A terracotta statuette depicting Zeus carrying off young Ganymedes. Probably an acroterion of a temple, dated to 480-470 B.C.
  • Bronze breast-plate with incised decoration.
    On its lower part there is an engraved scene of Zeus and Apollo with his ‘kithara’, while other figures are also represented. Probably the work of an island bronze-smith around the dates of 650-625 B.C.
    Museum number M394.
  • The Helmet of Miltiades
    Dedication by Miltiades, as the inscription informs us “Miltiades dedicates to Zeus”. It is the same helmet worn by the Athenian general in the battle of Marathon, where he defeated the Persians, and thus offered it to Zeus as a sign of gratitude.
  • Bronze battering-ram
    The only surviving besieging instrument of its kind from Antiquity. On all sides of the battering-ram there are symbolic depictions of rams heads, from where indeed it got its name. 5th century B.C.
    Museum number B2360.
  • Bronze horse It is dated in the transition between the Geometric to the Archaic period. It is unique for its monumentality on comparison with the small scale of other artefacts from the Geometric period.
    Museum number B1741.
  • An oenochoe-a wine cup that belonged to Pheidias DSC_0263otvDSC_0268cotvExcavations began at Olympia in the 19th century and continue to this day.

The earliest finds in Olympia are located on the southern foot of Mount Kronios, where the first sanctuaries and prehistoric cults were established. A large number of pottery sherds of the Final Neolithic period (fourth millennium BC) were found on the north bank of the stadium. Traces of occupation of the three periods of the Bronze Age were identified in the greater area of the Altis and new museum. A great tumulus of the Early Helladic II period (2800-2300 BC) was discovered in the lower strata of the Pelopion, while several apsidal structures belong to the Early Helladic III period (2150-2000 BC). It is traditionally believed that in approximately 1200 BC the region of Olympia was settled by Aetolians under the leadership of Oxylos, who founded the state of Elis. The first planned sanctuary dedicated to local and Pan-Hellenic deities was probably established towards the end of the Mycenaean period. The Altis, the sacred enclosure was established during the tenth and ninth centuries BC, when the cult of Zeus was probably established. Olympia was subsequently devoted exclusively to worship and for many centuries had no other structures except for the Altis, a walled precinct containing sacrificial altars and the tumulus of the Pelopion. The numerous votive offerings, mostly figurines, bronze cauldrons and tripods were placed outdoors, on trees and altars. The first figurines representing Zeus, the master of the sanctuary, date to the Geometric period.

DSC_0296otvLeaving the museum you will recross the bridge over the Cladeus river. The riverbed remains dry for most of the year now but in ancient times it was one of Olympiads vital rivers. You will enter the sanctuary on the north side and proceed along the lenght of the Gymnasium which has not yet been uncovered in its entirety,  the athletic facilities Palaestra and visitors accommodations Leonidaion (guest houses baths etc), the temple of Hera, the Philippeion, the temple of Zeus, the Workshop of Pheidiasthe Council House-Bouleuterio  till you reach the world-wide celebrated Ancient Stadium of OlympiaDSC_0308otvDSC_0303otvDSC_0340otvDSC_0307otvThere is a myth about the origin of the Olympic Games as told by the poet Pindar in the Tenth Olympian Ode. He tells the story of how Herakles, on his fifth labor, had to clean the stables of King Augeas of Elis. Herakles approached Augeas and promised to clean the stables for the price of one-tenth of the king’s cattle. Augeas agreed, and Herakles rerouted the Kladeos and Alpheos rivers to flow through the stables. Augeas did not fulfill his promise, however, and after Herakles had finished his labors he returned to Elis and waged war on Augeas. Herakles sacked the city of Elis and instituted the Olympic Games in honor of his father, Zeus. It is said that Herakles taught men how to wrestle and measured out the stade, or the length of the footrace.Another myth said that Zeus himself had originated the festival to celebrate his victory against Cronus,  to celebrate his victory Zeus organized games in whichthe Olympia gods themeselves competed, with Apollo winning most of the events (Apollo was fabled to be the first victor of the first Olympic games, due to his blazing speed and his superior archery skills.) These games were believed to be the predecessors of the olympics games ( while a different version of the myth refers to the Olympic games as funeral games in the memory of Oinomaos).DSC_0427otvThe ancient Olympic Games probably began in the year 776 BC, when Koroibos, a cook from the nearby city of Elis, won the “stadion” race, a foot race 200 meters long. Some evidence, both literary and archaeological, suggests that the games may have existed at Olympia much earlier than this date, perhaps as early as the 10th or 9th century BC.  Also according to some literary traditions, the “stadion” race was the only athletic event of the games for the first 13 Olympic festivals or until 724 BC. From 776 BC, the Games were held in Olympia every four years for almost 12 centuries!!!

DSC_0429otvDSC_0468otvDSC_0440otvAncient Olympia is a place of many stories to tell and to relive…a place of reflection and action… a place where the biggest honorary prize was as simple and as meaningful as a wreath of olive branches.


*There are several Greek myths about how the games were started. The most common myth was the story of the hero Pelops, after whom the Peloponnese is named (“the isle of Pelops”).

The story of Pelops was displayed prominently on the east pedimental sculptures of the Temple of Zeus. Pelops’ father was Tantalus, king at Mount Sipylus in Anatolia. Wanting to make an offering to the Olympians, Tantalus cut Pelops into pieces and made his flesh into a stew, then served it to the gods. Demeter, deep in grief after the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, absentmindedly accepted the offering and ate the left shoulder. The other gods however sensed the plot and held off from eating of the boy’s body and brought Pelops back to life, his shoulder replaced with one made of ivory made for him by Hephaestus. After his resurrection, Pelops was more beautiful than before; Poseidon fell in love with him, took him up to Olympus and made the youth his lover, teaching him to drive the divine chariot. Later, Zeus threw Pelops out of Olympus, angry that his father, Tantalus, had stolen the food of the gods, given it to his subjects back on Earth and revealed the secrets of the gods.
Pelops, a man now, wanted to marry Hippodamia. King Oenamaus of Pisa or Olympia, her father, had killed thirteen suitors of Hippodamia after beating them in a chariot race. He did this because he loved her himself or, alternatively, because a prophecy claimed he would be killed by his son in law. Pelops came to ask for her hand, and got ready to race Oenomaus. Worried about losing, he went to the seaside and invoked Poseidon, his old lover. Reminding Poseidon of their love (“Aphrodite’sweet gifts”) he asked Poseidon for help. Smiling, Poseidon caused a chariot drawn by winged horses to appear. Still unsure of himself, Pelops (or alternatively, Hippodamia herself) convinced Oenomaus’ charioteer, Myrtilus, a son of Hermes, (by promising him half of Oenomaus’ kingdom and the first night in bed with Hippodamia), to help him win. The night before the race, while Myrtilus was putting the chariot together, he replaced the bronze linchpins attaching the wheels to the chariot axle with fake ones made of beeswax. The race started, and went on for a long time. But just as Oenomaus was catching up to Pelops and getting ready to kill him too, the wheels flew off and the chariot broke up. Myrtilus survived but Oenomaus was dragged to his death by his horses. Pelops then killed Myrtilus because he had attempted to rape Hippodamia. As Myrtilus died, he cursed Pelops for his betrayal. This was the source of the curse that destroyed his family (two of his sons, Atreus and Thyestes killed a third, Chrysippus, who was his favorite son and was meant to inherit the kingdom; Atreus and Thyestes were banished by him together with Hippodamia, their mother, who then hanged herself) and haunted Pelops’ children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren including Atreus, Thyestes, Agamemnon, Aegisthus, Menelaus and Orestes.
Pelops soon controlled the entire Peloponnesos (which means “Pelops’s island”) and then took Oenomaus’s kingdom in Pisa. During the Trojan War, Pelops’s bones were brought to Troy by the Greeks because an oracle claimed they would be able to win by doing so.

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