Pythian Games

put on your track shoes and write the miles

History of the Pythian Games

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History of the Pythian Games

The word music itself is derived from the Muses, the legendary goddesses of Delphi. Greek mythology is rich in stories related to music. One of the most well known myths concerns Orpheus, the son of the Thracian King, Oeagrus and Calliope, one of the nine Muses. Mythology tells us that Apollo presented him with a lyre and the Muses taught him to use it so that he not only enchanted wild beast, but made trees and rocks move from their places to follow the sound of his music. At Zone in Thrace a number of ancient mountain oaks are still standing in the pattern of one of his dances, just as he left them.

After a visit to Egypt, Orpheus joined the Argonauts, with whom he sailed to Colchis, his music helping them to overcome many difficulties. There are many accounts of how he died. One says that Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt for divulging divine secrets. Whatever, the Muses tearfully gathered his remains and buried them at the foot of Mount Olympus where the nightingales now sing sweeter than any where else in the world.

The Muses delighted in feasts and the pleasure of song. At one such contest the daughters of Pierus defied the Muses in a contest of song and, having been defeated, were turned into magpies, greenfinches, ducks and other birds. Likewise, the Sirens, who were daughters of one of the Muses competed with them and lost. The Muses proceeded to pluck out their feathers and made crowns out of them for themselves.

The Muses discovered letters and the combination of these we call poetry. These letters were used to celebrate victory. Polymnia is so named because by her great praises she brings distinction to writer’s whose works have won for them immortal fame. Perhaps it was Polymnia who crowned the Poet Laureate at the Pythian Games which took place at Delphi every four years. The festival not only involved athletic contests but included musical competitions and drama. Unlike our society which had turned sports figures into icons, in ancient Greece there was no divorce between intellect and muscle. Each was viewed to be a necessary quality of the perfect man. Pindar, a Boeotian poet made it his professional business to celebrate the athletic contests in music and song. When a city was victorious it rejoiced in poem and song. Thus these games furnished poets, musicians and authors the best opportunities to present their productions to the public, and the fame of the victors was diffused far and wide.

Homer was clearly present at a number of games and his reports provide us with the most accurate account of what happened during this time. There was a contest in which the fight between the god and the monster was represented; the prize a garland of laurel, which was Apollo’s tree. The story goes that Apollo had fallen passionately in love with Daphne, the mountain nymph, a priestess of Mother Earth, the daughter of the river Peneius in Thessaly. He pursued her all over the countryside but just as he was about to overtake her Daphne cried out to Mother Earth who, in the nick of time spirited her away to Crete, where she became known as Pasiphae. Mother Earth left a laurel-tree in her place, and from its leaves Apollo made a wreath to console himself. It is this wreath that is placed on the heads of the victorious.

After defeating the Python Apollo took over from Themis the neighbouring oracle of Delphi, which was in historical times the most famous oracle in the Greek world. It was after this that Apollo instituted the Pythian games, which took place at Delphi and involved a reenactment of the slaying of the Python.

The Pythian games fire my imagination because they permit me to participate. As someone who has neither the coordination or the body to engage in physical exercises I have never been able to conceive of a time when I might be able to enter myself in any sporting events. I am prepared to move mountains to do whatever is required for me to enter the writing events.

The Greeks insisted that poetry was a form of craft, of practiced skill. To prepare for the Pythian games we need to practice our skill and become deft wordsmiths.

Let the training begin: Use the Pythian Games forum to participate and contribute your entry.

Written by Heather Blakey

March 9, 2008 at 10:16 am

One Response

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  1. Intriguing history, with lots of food for thought. Great to see these traditions honoured like this, Heather.


    March 9, 2008 at 2:13 pm

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