For centuries, the Olympic Games were considered the most important and prestigious celebration of all Panhellenic festivals. But how did Olympia become a sanctuary of such importance in the Greek world? When were the first games introduced to the site? How did they develop into an institution of such significance? The various myths associated with the first Olympic games create a difficult effort in identifying any historical evidence. Archaeology's role is crucial in clarifying these issues.
Combining the different mythological, historical and archaeological strings, it seems probable to assume that already by the 10th century BC Olympia was a cult place, known to the elites of the western Peloponnese, who dedicated a lot of offerings in honor of its cult(s). The original character of the earlier dedications (animal figurines) reveal agricultural and pastoral interests, whereas horse and chariot figurines reflect the pursuits of more wealthy people. Obviously, Olympia came to be a regional cult place for people of different interests and status. In a region divided into small-scale local territorial units, neutral religious centers functioned as meeting places of local elites.
A broadening of the cult activities held in Olympia came by late 8th century BC,
when participation was expanded to include a larger number of city-states. The region of
Elis, where Olympia lies,
was resettled again (ca.
Surely, definite answers cannot be given to the questions above,
as these are mantled with different traditions and myths of various sources
and contradictory character. What is certain is that Olympia developed gradually
to a major festival site that came to be respected and continued to attract visitors
from all places of Greece throughout antiquity.
Homeric Age |
Athletism & Polis
Egypt & Mesopotamia | Minoan Crete | Mycenean Greece
Homeric Age | Athletism & Polis