16 women, this is the beginning of the story of organized women’s sports.
We don’t know anything about them: names, ages, professions, paths… But we already know that they were in charge of the organization of the Heraean Games, in ancient Greece, the first competition (at least with some proof) to be starred by female athletes.
Well, we need to remember that women were not totally forbidden to do exercises in the ancient world. For example, in Esparta, physical exercises to women were promoted, of course, as a means of improving health for conception.
However, they were not allowed to participate and it was prohibited to even attend the Olympic Games held at the time, with the possibility of receiving the death penalty for it.
In fact, it is stated that the male competitions were carried out with participants without any clothing to prevent any woman from “infiltrating” and, in turn, the women were vetoed because they could feel “unwanted emotions” when seeing the men naked.
For this reason, the Heraean Games can be listed as the first organized event of women’s sports.
How did this story begin?
So first things first!
We learned about this event thanks to the Spartan Pausanias who, in his Description of Greece around AD 175, mentions the Heraean Games.
“Adjoining the temple of Apollo Deiradiotes is a sanctuary of Athena Oxyderces (Sharp-sighted), dedicated by Diomedes, because once when he was fighting at Troy the goddess removed the mist from his eyes. Adjoining it is the race-course, in which they hold the games in honor of Nemean Zeus and the festival of Hera”.
But, about its origin, there are different versions:
The first is linked to mythology. According to Pausanias himself, the Heraean Games were created by Hippodameia in gratitude to the goddess Hera for her wedding with Pelops.
And this is where you have to pay attention not to lose yourself in the plot:
Pelops had been dismembered by her father Tantalus, and offered to the gods as food. Then the gods decided to bring him back to life, replacing the shoulder that Demeter had absentmindedly eaten with an ivory one.
Pélope managed to marry Hippodameia after defeating her father in a chariot race, full of traps and tricks, and after about 30 suitors died in the attempt. To thank Hera for her marriage, Hippodameia gathered 16 women, making them responsible for the Heraean Games.
And… The End!
It is also said that around the year 580 a. C, the tyrant of Pisa, Damophon, hurt and damaged a lot the inhabitants of Elis. Then, after his death, a group of 16 women was formed, one from each city, who started the Heraean Games.
Every four years, these women wove for Hera a peplo, which is a kind of clothing worn in ancient Greece, wide, loose and sleeveless, which fell from the shoulders to the waist. This tribute was a way to repair the bad caused by Damophon and to ease tensions between the cities.
Others have linked the Heraean Games to a pre-Hellenic matriarchal feast in honor of the Earth Mother Goddess, later identified with Hera, whose temple is older than Zeus’.
What else has been discovered about the Heraean Games?
- Competitions: foot races were held during the event, starring young single women, divided into age categories, with a shorter route than that route for men.
- Clothing: the athletes wore their hair down and had to wear a tunic called Chitn, which went above the knees and exposed the entire right shoulder to the chest.
- Frequency: these footraces would be held every four years in the same stadium in Olympia where the Ancient Olympic Games were organized, although it has not been confirmed if they were held in the same year or at the same time.
- Prizes: As in the men’s edition, the winners were awarded a olive wreath, plus a portion of a cow that had been slaughtered in honor of Hera. The victors could also receive statues in their honor.
Considering the legacy of the Heraean Games as a reference and as a pioneer in the participation of female athletes, it is that we began this series of stories of women who have marked the history of sport.