The ancient Olympics have been described as a total pagan entertainment package, a “Woodstock of antiquity” featuring pervasive prostitution, broken bones, animal sacrifice, doping… and sport. It was first and foremost a religious event, held at Olympia, a beautiful place stuck out in the middle of nowhere (a 210 mile walk from Athens) and the most sacred location in the ancient world. The games were also a cultural festival which highlighted artistic happenings, new writers, painters, and sculptors as well as fire-eaters, palm readers and, of course, prostitutes.
The games were dedicated to Zeus, the god of sky and thunder in Greek mythology and the father of the gods and men. Athletic games took place all over Greece but because of the sanctity of Zeus the Olympics were revered over all others. During the opening ceremonies the athletes filed into the temple, where they gave their oath before a statue of Zeus wielding thunderbolts. They also swore over a bloody slice of boar’s flesh that they would obey the rules of the game and not cheat.
The judges were concerned that athletes would use performance-enhancing potions—lizard’s flesh, eaten a certain way, for example, became magickal—but even more popular was the placing of curses on opponents. There are stories of athletes veering off course or not being able to make it out of the starting blocks. Bribes were also paid to competitors to throw matches.
Women did not compete in the Olympics but they could compete in their own event, sort of a second string of the festival. The women’s games were held at Olympia and dedicated to Zeus’s consort Hera. The female athletes ran in short tunics with their right breasts exposed as a homage to Amazon warrior women, who were believed to have cauterized their right breasts so as not to impede their javelin throwing.
Drinking and prostitution were rampant but despite the debauchery the games had a spiritually profound meaning. Olympia, the sanctuary of Zeus, was the most sacred place in the ancient world. The gods paid as much attention to the sports results as mortals. Athletes offered sacrifices nonstop to the gods, and the gods were even meant to have competed in the Olympics at an early stage.
The ancient games ended in A.D. 394 when the Christian emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals. The Christians hated the Olympic Games—the celebration of the human body, guys running around naked, drinking, fornicating, the whole bit. The end came as an incredible shock to the psyche of the ancient Greeks. They assumed quite logically that the games would go on forever.
Britain has a rich history of paganism but did the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics live up to the Olympics’ pagan tradition? Ray Heard, an occasional commentator for Canada’s neophyte Sun News Network thought so. On a brief segment aired on SNN he railed against the so-called pagan symbolism used during the ceremonies, that is when he wasn’t railing against the so-called socialist symbolism, such as the Industrial Revolution workers or the dancing nurses, employed, in Heard’s opinion, to push a socialist agenda. To put Heard’s comments into perspective tis important to realize that SNN is unabashedly far right and pro-Christian, and their talking heads push SNN’s agenda whenever they can, even if some of their attempts are more than a bit of a stretch.
I am a pagan and I watched the opening ceremonies closely, hoping to see homage paid to the western European pagan tradition. London 2012’s opening ceremonies were beautiful, but not pagan; they were historical.
The segments which celebrated Britain’s rural roots featured elements such as a hill, a tree, and Maypole dancing. Pagans have used hills for ceremonies and created more than a few small ones—burial mounds—but hills are not exclusive to pagan rituals; wasn’t Jesus crucified on a hill and is not that hill now a Christian holy site? Although the site is often referred to as “Mount Calvary”, it was more likely a small hill or rocky knoll.
The hill featured in the opening ceremony was modelled on Glastonbury Tor, a site which has been visited, and perhaps occupied, throughout human prehistory. The spot seems to have been called Ynys yr Afalon (meaning “The Isle of Avalon”) by the Britons, and it is believed by some to be the Avalon of Arthurian legend. Glastonbury Tor is also believed to be one of the possible locations of the Holy Grail. The Tor has a pagan connection too; with the 19th century resurgence of interest in Celtic mythology the Tor became associated with Gwyn ap Nudd, who was first Lord of the Underworld, and later the King of the Fairies. Another speculation is that the Tor was reshaped into a spiral maze for use in religious ritual, incorporating the myth that the Tor was the location of the underworld king’s spiral castle. If you wish to associate the hill built for the 2012 opening ceremonies with paganism be my guest, but tis really just a hill and a cool place for the athletes to mount their nations’ flags. The gods and goddesses of the Old Religions may have been pleased with the presentation, but they weren’t being invoked.
The Glastonbury Tor model hill was topped with a tree, obviously a pagan symbol alluding to the interconnectedness of all life. Well, sure, but trees are important in any religion that celebrates the Earth, and one is particularly important in Christian mythology. God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden because they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Trees are also essential to a rural culture and this segment of the opening ceremonies paid homage to the UK’s rural past. Paganism was a part of Britain’s rural history, so if the tree was a nod to this element of her past good for you Danny Boyle.
In the minds of a few perhaps the surest sign that the opening ceremonies were little more than a pagan festival was the presence of Maypole dancers. The dance is a Mayday celebration and Mayday was a rite of passage custom that marked an important seasonal transition in the year. Putting a maypole up involved taking a growing tree from the wood, and bringing it to the village to mark the oncoming season of summer. Mayday used to be a period of great sexual license. People would go off into the woods to collect their trees and green boughs, but once there, would enter into all sorts of temporary sexual liaisons which society did not normally accept.
Mayday is Beltane, a fertility festival for pagans and the maypole certainly does look phallic, but Beltane was also a celebration of optimism and the longer days of the coming summer, logical things for rural people to celebrate.
Today Maypole dancing does not carry the same religious significance it did in the past. I think tis safe to say that the dance is seen as charming by those who bother to watch, and fun by the participants. My partner Karen learned to Maypole dance in school as part of her phys-ed program, ‘twas considered a folk dance. As to the dance’s inclusion in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies, ‘twas just another reflection on Britain’s rural, and cultural, past.
The United Kingdom has a rich history of pagan beliefs, ceremonies, and symbolism, much of which was rolled into Christian practices as the new religion spread throughout Europe. Britain’s paganism was firmly rooted in her rural roots as her people tried to understand and come to terms with the world around them. As Christianity took hold the various forms of paganism fell, or were forced, into disfavour. More’s the pity. The 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies were not a celebration of Britain’s pagan past nor were they an attempt to rekindle old beliefs; the ceremonies celebrated aspects of Britain’s history, and they did a wonderful, visually appealing, job.
Sources: BBC TV, The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games by Tony Perrotet; National Geographic; National Geographic News; Sun News Network