07/27/2012 03:37 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2012

The Olympic Tradition, Ritual and Poetry

The ancient origins of the Olympics are shrouded in myth. Some of the oldest legends involve Hercules. Others tell us that the tradition of the games did not extend too far before Homer (c. 700-600 b.C.E.).

Partly because the ancients conceived of history in a manner different from the way in which we do, it is difficult to ascertain the facts about how exactly the ancient Greeks came to hold athletic contests for males from all parts of the known world. The Greek games were accompanied by related religious festivals and happened in regular intervals. Although the Greek "Panhellenic" games took place in a number of cities on separate schedules, the most important and oldest Greek games took place at Olympia, where every four years Greek-speaking, free men gathered and competed for the distinction conveyed by no more than a crown of laurel leaves. While some traditions held that priestesses of Hera initiated local athletic traditions in Olympia in honor of the queen of the gods, by the time the games extended to the entire Greek-speaking world, women were barred from the games, in which only men competed in the nude, honoring their progenitor, Zeus.

Every four years, during the Olympic games, a truce would go into effect amongst the Greek city-states in order to protect the athletes who travelled to Olympia -- wealthy men usually, who could afford the best trainers and a voyage across the Mediterranean.

Although Homer did not describe the Olympic games per se (poets after him would), he did, at great length, describe funeral games in honor of Patroclus, Achilles' lover. In the Iliad, Homer placed great emphasis on athletic achievement and so did the Greek-speaking people of successive generations who inherited Homer's poetry and for whom the Olympics served as a vehicle to assert political authority (through the manifestation of physical superiority). If Sparta outperformed the Athenians, what would that say about the Athenians? What would victory say about those whom the gods favored? How did Hitler feel at the end of his Berlin Olympiad?

When Augustus established Rome's empire, officially replacing any political structure that resembled the Republic, he consciously invested in athletic competition as a public spectacle in order to cultivate the Roman masses. The spectacle was, however, limited to males; women were forbidden from participating and attending.

In the Aeneid, Vergil--Rome's most celebrated poet--involved athletics in a fascinating way, drawing from Greek tradition in Homer's Iliad while investing it with a distinctly Roman identity; the literary myth that arises in the Aeneid trumpets the greatest and noblest Roman virtue--pietas--a religious and patriarchal sense of duty to ancestors, progeny, and country. The ceremonies that took place in memory of Patroclus in Homer's Iliad provided a literary vehicle to intimate Roman athletic achievement in Vergil's poetry--poetry composed during Rome's transition to empire. The expression of athletic games in Vergil's Aeneid had everything to do with the poem's protagonist's duty to his father. In this, Vergil's games are entirely Roman in character, resembling the religious practices of his day, which included the celebration of funeral games in honor of distinguished Roman males. The Romans too could draw from the moral authority in Greek poetry in defining their own national identity.

Vergil's Aeneid is unquestionably nationalistic and, some argue, propagandist. If we give the poet the benefit of the doubt though, if we ask ourselves how it must have felt to live in a world in which it was possible to conceive of peace in Rome after the decades of civil war into which the country precipitated upon the collapse of the Republic, it becomes easier to understand that Vergil saw himself living during one of the most important and unstable times in human history--a time that could and would reshape the entire order of human existence.

The poetic vision that Vergil articulates of athletics and Rome in the Aeneid, continually expresses unbounded joy, celebrating human achievement. The adjective laetus--happy--is repeated in a marked manner all the while Vergil tell of the funeral games supposedly instated by Rome's mythical founder--Aeneas--in honor of Anchises, his father. Certainly, there was then and always will be something to celebrate religiously in human athletic achievement.

As the Olympics approach, I await the joy that athletic competition brings to the nations. In these, the first Olympics since the start of the Great Recession, I look forward to the quadri-ennial celebration of the human spirit and will that, while inevitably political, gives us peace for a moment as we are reminded of the beautiful, simple, and hopeful creatures into which the gods shaped us--all of us.