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Before the Ancient Olympics: The All-Girl Games Time Erased

Women competed in the Olympic Games well before 1900 and were winning as early as the 300s BCE.
by Caitlin Schiller | Jul 29 2016

The 1900 Olympic Games marked a new era of equality in athletics: women were allowed to compete in the all-male games for the very first time.

Or at least that’s what Google and the Olympics’ official website would have you think.

Although this fact has slipped from the pediments of modern cultural conscience, women were participating in—and winning—the Olympic Games way back in the days of empires and chariots. What makes this especially remarkable is that women were not technically allowed to take part in the Games at all, and only unwed virgins could watch. Grown and married women who dared have a peek at what went on in the stadium did so under the mythical-sounding penalty of being hurled from the cliffs of Mount Typaeum. Understandably, this punishment was enough to dissuade many of the fairer sex.

But not all of them—and definitely not one Spartan woman named
Cynisca.

Olympics Women Athletes

The First Female Champion

The daughter of a Spartan king, Cynisca was a special kind of contender. Spartan women were educated and openly athletic, the idea being that strong, intelligent women bred strong, intelligent sons. When her father died, Cynisca had at her disposal both a stable of horses and the means with which to train them. And train them she did—Cynisca’s horses raced to victory in the prestigious tethrippon chariot race of the 396 BCE games, making her the first-ever female champ. Rules forbade Cynisca from entering the stadium to claim her crown of olive leaves, but she was allowed to place her statue in Zeus’s sanctuary, a special right of tethrippon winners. She engraved her statue with: “I declare myself the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown.” She was the first, but certainly not the last, bad broad of antiquity to claim an Olympic win, clearing the way for future female champions like Bilistiche, Euryleonis, and Zeuxo, Encrateia, and Hermione—a mother-daughter charioteering squad.

It’s shocking that a tale as compelling as Cynisca’s has been so neatly elided from the received history of one of the West’s most prestigious all-male events. What’s even more unbelievable is that there was another important athletic event that took place every four years in Olympia, just like the Olympic Games. The difference is that this competition was thought to predate the Olympics—and it was women only.

Games for Girls

Unless you’re a classics scholar, the all-female Heraean Games is probably new to you. Organized by sixteen women from prominent families who also acted as judges, the most important event of the Heraeas was the foot races, but there were chariot races, too. According to ancient historical accounts, as the contenders ran and raced in honor of Hera, they dressed in chitons—traditional work clothes of men—leaving the right shoulder and breast free. At the Games’ end, the winner was crowned with olive branches and fed cow or ox meat, thought to imbue her with goddess-like strength.

Temple of Zeus, acropolis

If you’re wondering Why in the name of Zeus have I never heard of this before? that’s a good question, but it doesn’t come with a single, simple answer. One factor could be the church. When he rose to power in 393 AD, Christian emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals, including the Olympics and the Heraeas. Their shameless show of the human body, nudity, boozery, and general revelry—or the “total pagan entertainment package”— did not at all agree with the morality of the new ruler and his religion. The Olympics burst back into modern culture in 1896 thanks to the interest of Victorian scholars—a revival the Heraeas never enjoyed.

We might also attribute the remarkable silence surrounding the games to the simple fact that there isn’t a lot out there: ancient history was most often chronicled by men, who had limited access to the sanctuary of Hera and the Heraean Games. But whenever we look to antiquity for answers, it’s almost impossible to forget Aristotle. With the rise of Aristotelian thought of the early 300s BCE, women’s place in culture became increasingly more passive and less public. Creatures regarded as “deformed males” or beings meant to be acted upon rather than to act are, after all, unlikely to be running races, driving chariots, and whipping teams of horses into winning form. It may be that, as women faded to the background, detailed accounts of the Heraean Games did, too.

Breaking the Remarkable Silence

So, what do we do with the stories of Cynisca and the spirit of the Heraean Games? Apart from share them far and wide, we can seize this knowledge as an invitation to get curious about what else we’ve missed—and what other stories popular philosophy might be keeping us from chronicling today. Let’s hear the tales of these female competitors as a challenge to pay attention to the trials and triumphs of those who aren’t yet shaping the cultural canon, and as a call to make sure that more history doesn’t get lost. The act of helping more voices be heard and more stories shared may be the modern feminist equivalent of a bright, tough Spartan lady, racing, radiant, to victory.

Have you heard the stories below? Try this list of alternative-history-in-the-making reads to make sure that you can contribute to what future generations know about who we are today.

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