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PYTHIAN GAMES

Ancient Greeks considered Delphi the “navel” of Greece.  The Pythian games were claimed to have started strictly as a music competition, but they later incorporated athletic activities in an attempt to imitate the Olympic Games in Olympia, earning the Pythian Games second ranking among the Olympian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.

Before the Pythian Games were organized, Delphi held a festival every eight years. According to Valavanis, “this was an ancient festival that was originally celebrated…to commemorate the slaying of the Python by Apollo” (2004, 188). According to the same source, this festival not only included religious ceremonies, but also incorporated singing contests with the accompaniment of a kithara (lyre). Another source introduces research that states that “the festival may or may not have actually existed” (Weir 2004; p.11).  However, Weir later states that if the festival had really existed, “it was in any case nothing like the later Pythian Games…because it comprised no more than a single event, a kitharodic contest…” (2004, 13).

In the sixth century B.C., Delphi found itself tangled in a dispute.  “The fame of the sanctuary, the large number of pilgrims that converged on it from all over the world, the wealth of the dedications, and the influence exercised by the oracle naturally lead to strife and warfare aimed at winning control of it…”(2004, 184).  As a result of the desire to control Delphi, the Amphictyonic League, which was formed to protect and preserve the sanctuaries and to hold the festival, declared war on the Phokians in 600 BCE, which began the First Sacred War.  With the aid of all the great powers of the time, Delphic victory was accomplished after ten years.  “After the war, the Phokians were contained and two of their cities, Kirrah and Kisa, were destroyed and their land given to the sanctuary, with orders that is should remain uncultivated” (Valavanis 2004, 184).

With the victory in the First Sacred War came many changes for Delphi and its future.  One of the changes that was made was to Delphi’s festival that was held every eight years.  The new festival, renamed the Pythian Games, were planned to be held every four years and would incorporate athletics to imitate the Olympic Games.  Not only were sports events incorporated, but other musical events were added, and eventually, drama competitions were added as well.

Before the Pythian Games took place, much preparation went into the event, from recruiting athletes to building and repairing structures and facilities.  “The preparations began six months earlier, when nine citizens, the theoroi, left Delphi in different directions to proclaim the date of the commencement of the festival to all Greek cities.” (2004, 190).

While the theoroi were traveling, the Pythian heiromenia was observed.  This was a year-long truce that was developed among the cities to not invade the sanctuary that was guarded by Apollo, but to protect the theoroi who needed to travel with ease and safety.  Should a city take part in conflict or robbery during this time, the city was “excluded from the sanctuary and none of its citizens was allowed to take part in the contests or seek advice from the oracle” (2004, 190).

Since the Amphictyonic League was responsible for the protection of the sanctuary, the truce allowed them to focus more on the preparations for the festival. They were now in charge of “repairing and embellishing all structures, from temples and fountains to roads and public squares” (2004, 190). So much reconstruction went into the restoration of Delphi for the festival, that Miller notes in Sports From Ancient Sources that the expenses “totaled nearly $43,000…and must have been typical of the costs of preparing Delphi every four years for the Pythian Games (63).

The cities participating in the events had similar preparations. “They organized an official mission, the theoria, consisting of athletes, officials and elite citizens, who often supported the mission by personal donations” (Valavanis 2004, 190).  The main feature of the theoria was the offerings and dedications they made to the gods and the animals they sacrificed.

Although this group was primarily of religious quality, politics were also incorporated because every city strived to impress “not only the gods and priests, but also on the rest of the Greeks, thus creating a suitable ideological climate for favourable treatment in its international relations” (2004, 191).

The Pythian Games began in 586 BCE and lasted for five consecutive days, “the first two of which had religious character” (2004, 194).  On the first day, a series of animals was sacrificed to Apollo which was followed by a “re-enactment of the clash between Apollo and the Python” (2004, 194).  The second day was dedicated to feasting on the sacrificed animals.  This provided the athletes and other participants with the opportunity to socialize and “promote sentiments of harmony and community” (2004, 194).

The third day began with the music competitions which were divided into three different categories.  “The most venerated…was the kithara (lyre) singing, in which a musician sang while accompanying himself on the kithara” (Miller 2004, 83).  Another instrument used in the musical competition since the first Pythiad in 586 BCE was the aulos, or flute.  The performer would blow through reeds into a pipe with holes along the sides for their fingers; the instrument can be more closely associated with the modern-day oboe.  The other contest combined a singer with an aulos player, but that competition was abolished by the second Pythiad in 582 BCE. “The Amphictyons discontinued the Flute-song because they decided that it was not an auspicious form of music- that is, unsuitable for a ritual which was intended to invoke the favour of the Gods” (Loeb, Lyra Graeca III, 602). 

Dance competitions were established sometime during the fourth century BCE and painting during the fifth century BCE. Drama and prose were later incorporated into the games around the first century AD.  “Competitions in tragic acting were also a part of the Pythian Games, at least by the time poetry and prose joined the program but the details of this competition are unclear” (Miller 2004, 86). 

On the fourth day, the athletic contests were held.  Most of these events were derived from Olympia which included “four foot races (stadion, diaulos, dolichos, and the race in full armor), three heavy events (wrestling, boxing and the pankration [a combination of boxing and wrestling]), and the pentathlon” (Valavanis 2004, 195).  The stadion is literally a linear distance equal to 600 feet, so the foot race referred to as the stadion is 600 feet long.  The diaulos was a foot race equal to two lengths of the stadion and the dolichos was a distance race that varied from place to place that was generally twelve to 24 lengths of the stadion.  The pentathlon was a combination of five contests in discus, javelin, long jump, wrestling, and a foot race.

The fifth and final day of the Pythian Games was reserved for the horse races which “included a race for four-horse chariots…and later, races for the synoris (two- horse chariot) and the keles hippos (horse races) were introduced (195). 

According to Young, “There is a strong tradition that the Pythian Games originally offered valuable prizes, and were later restructured to award only the symbolic laurel wreath (113).  This came into effect in 582 BCE. The laurel wreath, which derives its name and meaning from a story about Apollo and Daphne, was sought and cut by the boy who played Apollo in the re-enactment ceremony of Apollo killing Python (Miller 2004, 96).

Overall, the Pythian Games had a large impact on the city of Delphi.  Athletes and other participants were gathered from surrounding areas to take part in this incredible event that served both religious and political principles. Not only was this event important to Delphi, but with the already popular interest of the Greeks toward Delphi, it reassured it certainty as the “navel” of Greece and the center of the world.


Christin Miesfeldt, Coastal Carolina University