I cannot wait for the pageantry and ritual of the Olympic opening ceremony tonight, thought there are a whole lot of traditions from ancient Greece I’m glad we have shed. The ancient Olympics, which began in 776 B.C., were open only to free men who spoke Greek. Not only were women barred from competing, married women were forbidden to attend under pain of death. (See The Perseus Digital Library). I assume maidens were permitted to attend so that they could be seen, appreciated and vetted for marriage by the aristocrats who funded the athletes.

By 560 B.C., there was a separate set of athletic games for women called the Heraia, dedicated to the goddess of marriage, Hera, and probably positioned as a prenuptial initiation rite.

Understanding the cultural history of the Olympics reminds me how important it is to ACT on the sexism  of Greek mythology when sharing these ancient stories with modern children.  On story in particular that had always fascinated and troubled me is the tale of great female athlete Atalanta, which goes something like this:

The cruel king who fathered Atalanta abandoned her in the woods because she was not the son he had hoped for. She was nursed and raised by a she-bear, the goddess Artemis in disguise. After she was caught in a snare by a huntsman who taught her to speak, she won fame all over Greece for her fleetness of foot.  She humiliated an army of ineffectual Greek warriors by slaying the monstrous Caledonian boar with one deftly placed arrow. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an oracle warns her “you must shun any marriage; if this advice will not be taken; though you stay alive, you will have lost yourself.” (Allen Mandelbaum’s translation)

Atalanta’s worthless father, the king, reclaims her as she wins more fame for her hunting, grace and fleetness of foot. She makes him promise that any suitor who wishes to marry must beat her in a footrace, or be put to death. She is gorgeous, almost supernatural, as she runs, as so many great athletes are.  Many suitors are beaten and put to the sword. Finally a young prince named Melanion (or Hippomenes in the Roman version) sacrifices to Aphrodite, who gives him three golden apples. As he races Atalanta for her hand, he throws down the apples on the path. Each time, she strays a little further from her course to retrieve the irresistible, gleaming apple. Just as she picks up the third fruit, he crosses the finish line and “wins her” as his wife. In their passion, the married couple forgets to sacrifice to Aphrodite. Miffed, she turns them into a pair of fierce, growling lions.

It has always bothered me that Melanion must conquer Atalanta and make her stray from the path of greatness in order to win her. This story begs for retelling, and this week I’ll give my kids a chance to do that. The perspective I’d like to change in the story is that of Melanion.  I’ll report back in part 2 of this blog post.