"Always excel, and be preeminent above others, and not bring shame on the line of my ancestors..." Iliad 6.207-11

The two great Homeric poems, composed in the Geometric period (8th and early 7th century BC), give a full description of all athletic contests, as these are known in the historical period: chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, running, armed combat, discus, archery and javelin. Although reflecting customs of the Mycenean period had been preserved by tradition, these poems also describe the practices and the values of the elites of the following Geometric era.

In the Iliad, we are given long descriptions of the funeral games, organized by Achilles in honor of his beloved dead friend, Patroclus. In the Odyssey, the games are practiced in a totally different atmosphere: they form part of an entertaining spectacle organized by the Phaiakians in honor of their guest, Odysseus, upon his arrival on their island.

In the Homeric society, athletic competition is the means for a hero to demonstrate his virtue (arete) and gain communal recognition. By exercising and competing, the athlete demonstrates not only his physical strength, but his bravity and intelligence, therefore, his virtue. "I say that you know nothing of games, stranger", says Eyryalos to Odysseus, "you are not an athlete", and Odysseus, receiving his word as a great insult and dishonor against his arete, demonstrates his excellence in discus throwing. In many ways, the athletic spirit is equivalent to heroic spirit. "Athlos" means the great achievement. Every hero is like an athlete who tries to surpass the others and win.

The heroic society of Homer places high esteem on athletes who practice for superiority, and thus, the Phaiakians award Odysseus for his excellence, by acknowledging in public his superiority. The athlete's virtue (arete) and the communal acknowledgement of the athlete's status comprise two inextricably linked aspects of the athletic identity in the Homeric era.

Egypt & Mesopotamia | Minoan Crete | Mycenean Greece

Athletism & Polis | Why Olympia?