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Sanctuary of Pelops, Olympia

Overview:

Pelops was king of Pisa in the Peloponnese (a large region of southern Greece) whose hero cult developed into the foundation myth of the Olympic Games. ‘Peloponnese’ translates as the island of Pelops. Situated within the sanctuary of Olympia, the precinct of Pelops was considered his official grave, although his bones were not buried there – his bones are preserved in a chest not far from the sanctuary of Artemis Kodax [1]

History of Olympia: The history of the sanctuary at Olympia seems to start in the Protogemetric era, and from then on the significance of the (Olympic) games in connection to the sanctuary increases. Pisa and Elis fought over possession of the famous site on the Peloponnese peninsula, until in the 6th century Pisa was destroyed and the pan-Hellenic organisation of the Hellanodikai was established, with Elis as its leader. [2] The city administration of Elis was intimately involved in the running of Olympia, and so also the ritual sacrifices that flanked the games were performed as part of the cults of Zeus and Pelops.

The myth of Pelops: After being served in a stew to the gods on Olympus by his father, Tantalus, Pelops was ritually re-assembled and brought back to life, his shoulder was replaced with an ivory attachment made by Hephaestus [3]. As detailed on the eastern pediments of the Parthenon and temple of Zeus, Pelops took part in a chariot race against Oenomaus, for the hand of his daughter, Hippodeamia. Pelops was cursed by the chariot driver who aided him in winning the race.

Pelops gave his name to the Peninsula of the Peloponnese and a hero cult was founded in his name, and the foundation of the Olympic Games – specifically the chariot races - are attributed to him.

The Pelopion

The precinct of Pelops sat within the sanctuary of Olympia. The sacred enclosure (Pelopion or tumulus [4]) sat apart from the entrance of the temple to Zeus, enclosed by a circle of stones and 'far enough removed from the temple for statues and other offerings to stand in the intervening space. [5] It sat surrounded by a stone fence, within which trees grow and statues were dedicated. The entrance to the precinct of Pelops was in the west, and the alter to Zeus was approached from the stadium (from the east)

Links to Zeus

The hero and the god were linked not only by familial heritage, but their cults were inextricably linked. Blood was poured into the sacrificial pit for Pelops (downwards) and the altar of Zeus (situated next to the temple of Zeus – see figs 3&4) grew high with dedications; Burkert links the two sacrificial recipients as ‘united in polar tension’ [6]. The closeness to the altar of Zeus suggests that during worship Pelops would have been ritualistically invited to dine with some of the annual officers of the Zeus.

The Olympic Games

Held every four years on the banks of the Alpheios, at the foot of the Hill of Kronos, in the scared grave of Zeus, the Olympic Games became an increasingly pan-Hellenic gathering by the 4th century. The Olympic Games ‘where there are contests for swiftness of foot, and the bold heights of toiling strength’ [7]. The socio-athletic event was not only political but religiously based in the precinct of Pelops and the altar of Zeus. The foundation myth of the chariot races became important for Olympia once the event became the focal point of the games. The altar of Zeus, the stadium, and the precinct of Pelops are the cultic centres of the sanctuary at Olympia, and the cultic activity consisted mainly of sacrifice.

Cult

Pelops was worshipped in archaic times in a form of heroic cult sacrifice, called Enagismata [8]. The Eleans considered Pelops as superior to other heroes (as Zeus was superior to the other gods) [9]. Pindar described his honorific tomb next to the alter as ‘busy and well-visited’ and ‘drenched in glorious blood-offerings’ [10]. Pindar writes that the fame of Pelops shines from afar in the races of the Olympic festivals. Pausanias also tells us that Pelops erected a monument in the city Harpina to the thirteen suitors that had come before him [11].

Ritual

At the sanctuary of Olympia chthonic night-time libations were offered to ‘dark-faced’ Pelops in his sacrificial pit before they were offered the following day to Zeus. Again Burkert compares the ‘dark-faced Pelops’ as the antithesis of the god of the sky [12]. The magistrates of the year sacrificed a black ram at the precinct of Pelops [13]. Pindar links the rites of Pelops to the rituals of the heroic dead of his own Boeotia – which included the slaughter of a black ox and prayer to Zeus or sometimes Hermes Cthonios. From Pausanias’ description it suggests that it was a black ram that was sacrificed, and that portions of the animal were separated between the cult personnel as part of a banquet. Pelops is allowed to join the festive table as by being given blood he can keep company with men in death as he did in life. It allows him to communicate with men.

Who received the sacrifice?

Slater detailed a theory that sacrifice to the gods were burned in part, so worshippers could share in the meal, and that sacrifices to heroes were burnt in entirety. However, this has since been dismissed this as over-schematic. and therefore it is likely that during scarifice to Pelops, the burnt offering was shared out among worshippers. [14]


Bibliography

Burkert Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (1983)
Diodorus Siculus Library
Pausanias Description of Greece
Pindar Olympian  
Slater Pelops at Olympia Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 30:4 (1989) p.485 - 501
Strabo Geography 8.5.5


Footnotes

1- Paus 6.22
2 - Paus 6.22.3-4
3 - Dio Sic 4.7
4- burial mound
5 - Paus 5.13.1
6- Burkert 97
7 - Pindar 1.100
8 - Annual sacrifice for the dead/heroes. Hero worship often included a combination of feasting and enagismata to be combined. Either a portion was set aside, or a separate victim could be sacrificed.
9 - Paus 5.13.1
10 - Pindar 1.90-93
11 - Paus 6.21.9-11
12 - Burkert 96
13 - Paus 5.13.2
14 - Burkert 93 - 98, the neck was ritualistically given to the woodsman (servants to Zeus who provided cities wood for sacrifice)
15 - Pindar 1.149a

Location

For the Vici site map: Pelopion of Olympia

For further links to Archaeological data bases: Sanctuary of Olympia


Site Plan

Figs 1 & 2. The alter to Pelops, or Pelopion, (No. 5) sits just in front of the temple to Zeus. Their proximity further associates the respective cults; before sacrificing to Zeus, one sacrificed to Pelops [15].

Archaeological representation of the Olympian Sanctuary Fig 2.

MapFigs 3 & 4. The alter of Zeus was set apart but situated near to the temple of Zeus.alter and zeus

Fig 4.

Alter to Zeus at Olympia