Women In Sports: The Heraean Games

Hera was the goddess of marriage, family, childbirth and the protectress of women. The Roman counterpart of Hera was Juno. For the Romans, Juno was the protector and special counselor of the State. The month of June is named after Hera’s Roman name.

Hera. Queen of the 12 Gods

Some of the best known temples dedicated to Hera were the Heraion of Samos (that was one of the largest and most famous Greek temples), The Temple of Hera at Agrigento (one of the best preserved in Sicily), The temple of Hera at Olympia (which was one of the oldest monumental temples in Greece), the Temple of Juno in Rome (which stood on the Capitoline Hill, overlooking the Roman Forum)

Perhaps my favorite fact about Hera is that she’s linked with the first official women’s athletic events in History: the Heraean Games.

The Heraean Games. By Prospero Piatti

Few know that the ancient Greeks organized sporting competitions not only for men, but for women too. Men and women competed in separately organized games, exactly as it happens today.

The most prestigious ones held for women were the Heraea (honoring Hera). These women-only athletic events probably took place around the same time as the Olympic Games.

Ancient Olympia

SOME FACTS ABOUT THE HERAEAN GAMES

  • The Heraea were held at Olympia, in the Peloponnese.
  • They were held every four years.
  • There were three different age categories for competitors, and young girls competed in a footrace.
  • All sporting, religious and cultural events of the Heraea at Olympia were presided over and organized by a group of sixteen women from Elis.
  • All athletes were unmarried women.
  • All 16 members of the presiding committee were notable women of Elis, representing all 16 cities of the region of Elis, at the Peloponnese.
A group of priestesses in front of the Temple of Hera at Olympia. They carry the Olympic Flame.

It is worth noting that the first recorded games for women, were held by the Ancient Greeks as early as the 6th century BC, and they were probably held in the Olympic year itself, prior to the men’s games. Since the collapse of the ancient world, women were not allowed to participate in events of major importance, such as the Marathon Race, only as late as 1972 (!) This is when the famous Boston Marathon incident, that involved Kathrine Switzer, took place. Since that day, most discriminatory policies were dropped, leading to the first women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Yes. Since the first official women’s athletic competition to be held in Ancient Greece, more than 26 centuries had passed! We could do better. But, still: better late than never.

Bronze figure of a running girl from Sparta (520 BCE-500 BCE) British Museum

Ultimate Girl Power

The trireme

The foundation of Athens’ power was her formidable navy. While most other Greek city-states could only afford a couple of dozen triremes, the Athenian Navy could deploy more than 200 triremes (!)

We’re lucky enough to have full catalogs of names of warships of the Navy of Ancient Athens. Check out some of my favorite trireme names.

Also… keep in mind  those were warships! Isn’t it a bit odd to give a cute name to an instrument of war? Think about it.

So: which one’s your favorite name?

  • KOUPHOTATE – Light as a feather
  • EPIONE – “Miss Gentle”
  • EUPHRAINOUSA – Joyful
  • PETOMENE – Flying
  • HEDEIA – Sweetie
  • KALLIXENE – Beautiful Stranger
  • TRYPHOUSA – “Miss Fussy”
  • AGLAIA – Splendid
  • PREPOUSA – “Miss Nice”
  • EUCHARIS – Charming
  • EUPLOIA – Plain sailing
  • PROTE – First
  • PHANERA – Clear, obvious
  • SOIZOUSA – Saving
  • PARRHESIA – Speaking freely
  • NIKOSA – Winning
  • KRATOUSA – Conquering
  • HIPPIA – Horsey

Trireme (1)

Sparta & women’s empowerment: Queen Gorgo

Throughout human history (sadly up until the 20th century) women have been denied fundamental rights. The right to gain property, the right to vote, reproductive rights, the right to speak, etc, etc.

There are very few exceptions. One of the most famous ones: the ancient city-state of Sparta.

Spartan women received education, they trained in sports, were free to share their opinion (even on military matters), were legally able to own property, and were raised from young girls to become strong women. This liberty and equality that women enjoyed in Sparta, was admired -even envied- by the rest of the Greeks.

According to Plutarch, once an Athenian woman asked the Spartan Queen, Gorgo ,

‘Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?’

Gorgo replied:

‘Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men!’

 

Gorgo was married to the legendary King Leonidas and she was the daughter of King Cleomenes I. She was allowed by her father to attend important meetings even when Gorgo was just a 9-year old girl.

Gorgo

Imaginary portrayal of Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

There’s a famous incident when one of the most powerful rulers of the Mediterranean, Aristagoras of Miletus, visited Sparta on a diplomatic mission. During this very important meeting, King Cleomenes allowed his daughter Gorgo to sit next to him. Aristagoras, shocked, requested Cleomenes to send Gorgo out of the room before he began talking to him; but Cleomenes told him to say on, and not mind the girl.

So Aristagoras began with a promise of a huge amount of money if the king would grant him his request and when Cleomenes shook his head, Aristagoras continued to raise his offer till it reached five times the original amount! Then Gorgo spoke:

‘Father,’ she said, ‘get up and go, or the stranger will certainly corrupt thee.’ Then Cleomenes, pleased at the warning of his child, withdrew and went into another room. Aristagoras after this, quit Sparta for good.

running girl 5

Found in Sparta: bronze figure of a running girl wearing a short tunic (British Museum)