BMCR 2017.02.47

The Origins of the Olympic Games. Archaeolingua Series minor, 36

, The Origins of the Olympic Games. Archaeolingua Series minor, 36. Budapest: Archaeolingua, 2015. 156. ISBN 9789639911727. $30.00 (pb).

The Origins of the Olympic Games argues for the development of the crown games at Olympia from elite Iron Age hunting practices surrounding the hunt for wild cattle (aurochs) in the area. As an explanation that ties the origins of the games to early hunting rituals, Patay-Horváth’s book builds on Sansone’s Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport.1 A few of his arguments certainly hew closely to those of Sansone, but his focus on the origins of the games at Olympia specifically adds much that is new to the case. Starting with the archaeology of the site and then moving into the myths surrounding the games, Patay-Horváth’s slim volume deftly weaves together arguments drawn from material culture, literature, anthropology and mythology, using evidence from such disparate cultures as the prehistoric users of the caverns at Lascaux, the inhabitants of Catalhöyük, the Polish lords of the early modern period, and the Eskimo.

The first half of the book focuses on the archaeology of Olympia, while the second section turns to the mythological argument. There are also numerous appendices (ten in total) that present points of evidence critical to the overall argument. These appendices occasionally go into greater depth on matters that may be familiar to some readers (the Doric staphylodromia ritual, geometric bull figurines, the cult of Artemis at Olympia), but others engage with relevant sources from beyond the classical world: pre-modern hunting practices, the physiology of aurochs, the hunting myths of hunter-gatherer cultures, and the like. Several appendices of the latter type are composed almost entirely of quite lengthy excerpts from non-classical scholarship.

After surveying the state of the question on the origins of the Olympics and considering alternative explanations (in funeral ceremonies, as a sacred nature/harvest ritual, an initiation ceremony, a torch race), Patay-Horváth reasonably points out that none of these theories explain why Olympia specifically saw the development of interregional games from such an early period. Turning to the Iron Age remains at the site, he focuses his attention on the tripod cauldrons and the figurines of horses and bulls that compose the prevalent types of dedications at the early cult. Instead of connecting these offerings to very early games (the tripods) or to substitutes/memorials for sacrifices (animal figurines), Patay-Horváth argues that both reflect a long-standing practice of auroch hunting in the area around Olympia. Using literary and archaeological sources, and comparing the deposits at Olympia to similar sites in Crete, Patay-Horváth argues that a population of wild cattle existed in the area prior to their extinction in the late Iron Age. The animal figures thus are representative of the hunt—and the bulls figurines specifically portray wild rather than domesticated cattle—while the tripods would have been used to cook the meat. Patay-Horváth also compellingly shows how this early aristocratic hunting ritual can explain several singular features of the later Olympic games: the aristocratic nature of the wild bull hunt explains why the shrine became popular on an interregional scale so early in its history; the cyclic nature of the hunt, originally coinciding with the regenerative cycle of the herd, leads to the penteteric nature of the future games; and the association of the hunt with masculinity leads to the taboo against women at Olympia. As for the games themselves, Patay-Horváth argues that they grew from a ritual chase at the cult that would symbolically enact the hunt and engender its success. He sees a parallel in the staphylodromia ritual conducted at the Karneia.

The second section of the book turns to the origins of the Olympics as articulated in myth, and specifically the myth of Pelops. Patay-Horváth does not discuss the other origin-myths surrounding the games, presumably supposing them to be later accretions, though this assumption is never clearly articulated. In the myth of Pelops Patay-Horváth sees an early reflection of a ritual hunting chase—he argues strongly that the contest between Oinomaos and Pelops should be viewed as a chase rather than a race. He also contends that the story of Pelops’s being boiled in a pot should be seen as a continuation of the chase sequence, thus creating a narrative in which the chase of Pelops is followed by his ritual boiling and resurrection, reflecting the Iron Age hunters’ wish for the regeneration of the auroch population around Olympia. Patay-Horváth supports his claims with reference to the myths of other hunting cultures and by the etymology of Pelops’ name, which he traces to the character’s originally animal nature.

The Origins of the Olympic Games ends by revitalizing the idea that originally the main cult at Olympia was not that of Zeus (or Hera or Gaia), but that of Artemis as Potnia Theron. As the local auroch population slowly diminished and then disappeared, the rituals surrounding the hunt, especially the chase/race, grew in importance and finally superseded it entirely.

This reviewer found Patay-Horváth’s argument illuminating and, especially with respect to the archaeology of Olympia, persuasive. The mythological section was on the whole rather less convincing—the distinction between a chase and a race seemed somewhat strained, and the anthropomorphization of Pelops from an auroch figure must remain speculative. Perhaps, however, such uncertainties are only to be expected when dealing with myths that have come down to us in contexts so vastly different from those in which they would have originated. Patay-Horváth’s conclusions also raise questions for further inquiry: notably, the development of the foundation myths of Heracles and Iphitos and how these came to supersede the myth of Pelops in the constellation of myths concerning the origins of the Olympics, as well as the existence of a cult of Artemis at the site and its eventual diminishment in favour of the cult of Zeus. Nevertheless, Patay-Horváth presents an innovative and compelling solution to the question of the origins of the Olympics and his wide-ranging and meticulous approach to the question is without a doubt inspiring. Anyone interested in early Olympia and the Olympics be well served in reading this book.

A few editorial matters: there were some references missing from the bibliography (these were particularly concentrated in a short early section entitled ‘A Ritual Parallel’; the rest of the book did not suffer from this issue). There were also some infelicities in the English, more evident near the beginning of the book than the end. Numerous images throughout the book helpfully illustrate the arguments concerning the existence of aurochs at Olympia and early hunting practices.


1. Sansone, David, Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.