Let's Homeschool Together Uncategorized Women’s History Month: The Games of Hera

Women’s History Month: The Games of Hera

Olympics have been a hot topic of conversation these past few months, but did you know that when they started, that women were not even allowed to go WATCH the Olympics?! I couldn’t believe it! So in honor of Women’s History Month, let’s learn a little more about the history of women in sports, which starts with something called the Games of Hera.

However, to fully understand the Games, we actually need to back up and start with the Olympics. So here is a super quick overview of some facts and history since it all ties together…

Olympic Overview.

According to Greek legend, Hercules built a stadium in Olympia to honor their god, Zeus, and established the Olympic Games. The first written record of the Olympic Games was in 776 BC. It was the list of winners of a footrace. The Olympics were held every 4 years and it was considered to be both a political and spiritual event, with ritual sacrifices made to Zeus, king of the Greek gods, and Pelops, the mythical king of Olympia. The athletic events included foot races, equestrian events, combat sports, and a pentathlon with the 5 events of jumping, foot race, wrestling, discus, and javelin throws.  

Only free, Greek citizens could compete. Women were considered to be property of their husband at this time in history, and were not allowed to become legal citizens of ancient Athens. Among other things, this meant they were not allowed to participate in Olympic games, or even attend to watch them. Greek writer, Pausanius, noted that if a woman was caught present at the games, she would be “cast down from Mount Typaeum into the river flowing below.”

Enter: the Games of Hera.

No one is sure of the true origin of the Heraean Games. We do know that in Greek mythology, Hera was married to Zeus, and thereby was queen of the Olympian gods. So, a women’s game to honor her, just as the Olympics were made to honor Zeus, made sense in their culture. The Games were also thought to have helped to ease political tensions at that time. They were held in the 6th century, BC, and were the first women’s athletic competition ever to be held in the Olympic stadium.

Atalanta statue

With the exception of Spartans, women were not encouraged to participate in athletics.  Only young, unmarried women were allowed to compete, as married women needed to focus on their household duties.  While men usually competed nude in the Olympic games, women were allowed to wear a chiton, which was a garment that men usually wore while doing heavy work.  The appearance of the women was described by Pausanius as “their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare a right shoulder as far as the breast.”  This image shown here is a statue thought to represent it!

Heraean Games were every 4 years, and only included a foot race, which was 1/6th shorter in length than the men’s Olympic race. There were three age categories, though we don’t know those age ranges. Champions of the Games were rewarded with olive crowns made from leaves of the sacred olive tree in Olympia, and meat to eat taken from animals sacrificed to Hera. They were also granted the right to dedicate statues and portraits to their goddess, and winners would inscribe their names on the columns of Hera’s temple. These statues and portraits no longer remain, and the Temple of Hera was destroyed. So the only written record we have of a foot race winner is the mythical Chloris, who is said to be granddaughter of Zeus.

The Games of Hera opened the door to eventually allowing women to participate in Olympic sports, starting with the Spartan women, who generally trained like the men.  The first woman champion in the Olympics was Cynisca (also written: Kyniska), daughter of the King of Sparta, who won the Olympian chariot race in 396 BC and 392 BC. They erected a bronze statue in the Temple of Zeus to honor her accomplishment.

No one knows the official end of the Games of Hera, but the ancient Olympics ended around 394 AD, when pagan celebrations became outlawed by the Roman emperor, Theodosius I.  The modern world Olympics were reintroduced in Athens in 1896.

Sports Today.

Today, women’s sports are commonplace and there is not a second thought about seeing women compete in the Olympics, or in other sports competitions.  That is why, no matter how you feel about the Olympics, we can all thank the female athletes who were part of the Games of Hera for being first to demonstrate that women can participate, and excel, in competitive sports!

Sound off in the comments! We want to hear from you –

Did you know about the Games of Hera?

Do any women/girls in your family play sports?

Who is your favorite woman athlete?

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