Rob Hardy on books


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Don't Forget to Take Your Guidebook



Rob Hardy


The world will go through Olympic fever soon, and visitors will be challenged to get transportation to the games, to find lodging and food, and to find seats from which to see their chosen events. It won't be easy juggling all that, and of course most of the world will sit back and leisurely watch on screens within their homes. However people may complain about any difficulties in London, they ought to be glad they are not attending the Olympic Games 2,400 years ago. In 388 BC, the games had gone on every four years for almost four centuries, and people knew that attending as spectators (to say nothing of competitors) would be a struggle. Still, in 388 BC, 100,000 people packed into Olympia. Neil Faulkner, an archeologist and historian, asks that you consider attending with them, and to help you along the way, he has written A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics (Yale University Press), a funny, fascinating way of learning about ancient Greece, its religious and social attitudes, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. It is jauntily written as a true guidebook, with hints on how to get the most out of your visit, so this is history written in an amusing and accessible form. 




Naturally, to start with, Faulkner lets us know about how to get there. "This may be the premier event in the Greek sporting calendar," he writes, "but it takes place in a remote rural backwater located a good distance from any major thoroughfare." He explains the means of walking to the games or going by sea, and he clears up a misunderstanding that many people have about the Panhellenic "Sacred Truce" that was extended over the games. The games were, among other things, "a holy rite of the utmost sanctity," and those who were going to attend them were thought of as making a pilgrimage. An assault on any such pilgrim was considered a serious violation of religious taboo, and pilgrims might count on passing safely even through war zones. The Sacred Truce was not a time for the Greeks to stop fighting; their city-states would not suspend their addiction to the warfare that gave their existence meaning, but such warfare was not to impede the pilgrims. 




You can count on buying fast food cooked by the vendors in the Olympic Village. Self-catering is difficult, but might be best done in a group. Expect to haggle over prices: "To give an idea, at the top of the range you might have to pay four obols for an octopus, five for a grey mullet, eight for a barracuda, and perhaps as much as eighteen (three drachmas) for a large eel." Naturally, Faulkner has given a guide to the money used in the weights and measures section of the book (and a little list of "handy Greek phrases" as well). The best bet is to try to get yourself invited to someone else's feast; as a stranger, you are under divine protection, and the Greeks are hospitable, and there are plenty of oxen sacrificed to Zeus but eaten by the crowd. 




Forget staying at an inn. Olympia has a big boom every four years, but otherwise almost no one is there, so there are no permanent rooms to let. Bring a tent; rich people will bring huge ones and hold banquets for their fellow rich people and politicos. Even they will have to share in the general discomfort. There is stagnant heat in the summer, there is not enough water to drink let alone bathe in, there are flies and malarial mosquitoes, there are no toilets. No one sleeps properly, because there are parties all night long, and drunks wandering around. The stadium is built for 40,000 spectators, but more than twice that will be trying to crowd in, and with everyone suffering from exhaustion, expect there to be quarrelling. "Why do the authorities do nothing to improve facilities? They do. They pray to Herakles and Zeus." 




Women do not compete at the games, nor do they attend; wives do not accompany their husbands, and if a woman is found trying to sneak a view of the competition, she is to be thrown off the cliffs of nearby Mount Typhaion. This is the stern ruling of the Elean Olympic Committee, or EOC (Elis is where the officials live, the village closest to Olympia). There are women around the Olympic village, ready to sell sex, from the concubine to the street prostitute (who may be a slave). Faulkner's guidebook will tell you how to ask the price of a quickie. For many visitors, the four days are a sexual blowout, but not all the sold sex is heterosexual. The section "Gay Scene" will inform you about the casual Greek enthusiasm for homosexual pursuits, especially toward young men. 




The most important young men, of course, are the athletes, and they are naked (save for gloves or other gear worn for their particular events). They are fine specimens, and are used to working out naked in their gymnasiums (you should look up the etymology of that word if you do not know it), and having older men as their mentors. There is an undeniable sexual charge in sports of this type. The wrestlers especially might get to rubbing an opponent the wrong way, and might get involuntary erections; many of the athletes tie ribbons on their foreskins to help keep this from happening. The admiration for these men is not all sexual, of course, but it is part of the larger Greek fetish for male youths; remember that Socrates was condemned to death mostly for suspicions that he was corrupting youth, a crime most vicious. 




It is important to realize that although there are no money prizes at Olympia (which is nonetheless the supreme contest in a sports-crazy Greece), the top-level athletes competing there were full-time professionals. They won money from prizes and from gifts from their grateful cities, but they hardly needed them. They were all from the aristocracy, because farmers and traders had to work for their livings rather than spend time in sports. Part of taking the oaths to participate in the games included the athlete's sacred promise that he had trained diligently for the past ten months, and the month before the games all athletes did their training in Olympia so the EOC could check on them. There were only a few contests. None of them involved balls being hit or passed around, and none were team sports, because the individual young man was the ideal of the Greek civilization. There were chariot races and the pentathlon (a combination of discus, long jump, javelin, short sprint, and wrestling). None of the events could be timed, of course, so no one broke previous records. More surprising is that no one measured distances jumped or how far the javelin went; it was all done for that particular contest, and the officials merely noted whose distance was longer than others'. In every event, there was one winner, a single champion, with no acknowledgement of runners-up. The events were interrupted for scheduled parades, devotions, and sacrifices; as much time was spent doing religious rites as athletic ones. The most popular events were held last, the brutal boxing and wrestling, and finally the top spectator sport in Greece, the pankration ("all-power event"), a bloody battle that was almost literally no-holds-barred. The fighters were not to bite or gouge eyes, but anything else was permitted, including making targets of the genitals.  




Faulkner the guide has helpfully included retellings of the legends of heroes that inspired the Olympic competitors. He has a section on the "Must-See Monuments" you will not want to miss while you are there. He describes the Pelops Heritage Trail ("If you have a day to spare, why not spend it paying tribute to one of the mythological forefathers of the Games?"). He is full of practical advice for those who may be new to the confusing blend of religion and sports. "The best advice, therefore, is always to do as other do. Matters can become very rowdy at times, but then a solemn calm can suddenly descend. Do not get caught out." You can take this guide with you when you travel back to Olympia 2,400 years ago, and it will be invaluable, but it is one of those few guidebooks that is worth reading page by page.  




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