In Mycenean Greece (1600-1100 BC), as in Minoan Crete, athletic contests formed an important component of religious ceremonies and fertility rites. The Myceneans adopted all Minoan games, but they were mostly interested in combat sports, such as boxing and wrestling. Unfortunately, unlike Minoan Crete, the Mycenean evidence is scarce and quite heterogeneous.

Bull-leaping scenes also exist in Mycenean times. The Myceneans, like the Minoans, continued to hold several games such as bull-leaping as parts of religious festivals in honor of a god. Boxing and wrestling became the most popular games among the Myceneans, who passed them over to Cyprus in the late Mycenean periods. A Mycenean vase from Cyprus shows boxing scenes along with the earliest representation of a running contest. The runners are nude and wear ornaments on their heads.

The Myceneans introduced a new game, chariot racing. As indicated by a number of Mycenean vases and stelai, the chariot, the horse and the charioteers appear now for the first time. The chariot was used by Myceneans not only for war needs, but for hunting and athletic purposes. Interestingly, although none of these scenes really presents a chariot race, most of these monuments were recovered from funerary contexts, mainly tombs and graves.

If seen in the light of the later Homeric evidence, this observation gains a special meaning: in the Iliad, the famous Homeric poem of the late 8th century BC, organized games are an important component of funerary ceremonies, as indicated by descriptions of a wide range of athletic contests held in commemoration of the dead Patroclus. Given the fact that the Homeric poems reflect traditions of the Mycenean period, it seems plausible to accept a historical link between these two periods and assume that chariot racing was held as a funeral practice already by the Mycenean era.

Egypt & Mesopotamia | Minoan Crete | Homeric Age

Athletism & Polis | Why Olympia?