Cynisca and the Heraean Games: The Female Athletes of Ancient Greece

The Heraean Games, held in the Olympic stadium, were instituted as the first athletic competition for women and helped undercut the gendered segregation of Greek society.

Olympic stadium. Credit: jean-Marc Astesana/flickr/(CC BY-SA 2.0

Olympic stadium. Credit: Jean-Marc Astesana/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The first recorded instances of the Olympics – inscriptions listing the winners of a foot race held every four years – date the games to 776 BC. According to ancient Greek legend, after Hercules completed his 12 labours, he built a stadium at Olympia to honour Zeus, the king of the gods of ancient Greece and established the custom of holding the games.

Held every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, the Ancient Olympics were mega athletic events as well as religious festivals held in honour of Zeus. The various city-states and kingdoms of the Hellenic peninsula sent representatives or ‘champions’ to participate in the games. Athletic events such as foot races, combat sport, equestrian events and a pentathlon (jumping, discuss and javelin throws, foot race, wrestling) featured alongside ritual sacrifices to Zeus and Pelops, the mythical king of Olympia.

Women in classical Greece

Pilgrims travelling to Olympia would pass through warring states without being harmed or molested as they were believed to be under the protection of Zeus. However, these pilgrims would almost always be men, especially during the games. While the Greeks were perhaps the first to establish and promote the concept of democracy, women of those times did not enjoy any legal or political personhood.

In classical Athens, women were considered to be part of the oikos (a term related to the concept of family, family property and the house) headed by a male patriarch. They were excluded from the demos (the mass of the common people who could exercise legal and political rights). Most thinkers of those times supported this gendered segregation. In his book Politics, Aristotle stated that women were “utterly useless and cause more confusion than the enemy”. Women’s roles were restricted to the household and family. No woman ever acquired citizenship in ancient Athens and hence women were excluded from Athenian democracy both in principle and in practice.

While women generally took part in public festivities in the Peloponnese states, the Ancient Olympics retained their ban on women, given the religious and political significance of the event. According to the accounts of Greek travel writer Pausanius, the government of Elis, the city where the games were held, decreed that if a woman was caught present at the Olympic Games she would be “cast down from Mount Typaeum into the river flowing below”.

The Heraean Games

The Heraean Games, dedicated to goddess Hera, the queen of the Olympian gods and Zeus’ wife, was the first official women’s athletic competition to be held in the Olympic stadium at Elis. The games, which occurred in the 6th century BC, were probably held in the Olympic year itself, prior to the men’s games.

Initially, the Heraean Games only consisted of foot races. The champions of the events were rewarded with olive crowns and meat from the animal sacrificed to Hera. They also got the right to dedicate statues or portraits to Hera – winners would inscribe their names on the columns of Hera’s temple. The only recorded victor of the foot races is the mythical Chloris, Pelops’ niece who was also said to be Zeus’ granddaughter.

Participation in the Heraean Games was restricted to young, unmarried women. The men generally competed nude in the Olympics but the women taking part in the Heraean Games generally wore a chiton, a garment worn by men while doing heavy physical work. Pausanius in his accounts describes their appearance as “their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast.”

No one is certain of the origin of the Heraean Games. Pausanius provides two separate theories on the subject. The first theory suggests that Queen Hippodameia was grateful to Hera for her marriage to Pelops and selected 16 women to compete in footraces in Hera’s honour. The other theory suggests that it was the result of diplomatic efforts to resolve tensions between the cities of Elis and Pisa (in western Greece). Sixteen wise, elderly women were chosen from each of the 16 Peloponnese city-states to weave a robe for Hera every four years and to organise the games as symbols of peace. Pausanius wrote:“Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen Women, and the same also hold games called Heraea.”

We cannot ascertain what societal changes led to the Greeks establishing separate games for women or whether the Heraean Games were only a temporary easing of restrictions on women. However, most historians suggest that it could be due to the rise of Roman influence in the Hellenic peninsula. In Rome, daughters of wealthy families freely participated in men’s festivals and athletic competitions.

Spartan women

Unlike the rest of Greece, where women were made to wear long and heavy clothes that concealed their bodies, kept in seclusion and prevented from learning hunting, riding and other physical activities, the women of Sparta wore short dresses, went where they pleased and were encouraged to take part in the same physical activities as their male counterparts. This was, however, only due to the belief that a physically fit woman would produce strong children.

However, Spartan women did enjoy a kind of social status that was inaccessible for women in the rest of classical Greece. Although they were excluded from formal military and political life, they were responsible for running their estates and could even own them. Sarah B. Pomeroy states in Goddess, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, that in the 4th century BC, Spartan women owned approximately 35-40% of all Spartan land and property.

Young Spartan girls received the same education as their male counterparts, rarely married before the age of 20 and possibly even took part in the Gymnopaedia or the ‘Festival of Nude Youths’. Perhaps in it unsurprising that a majority of the participants of the Heraean Games were Spartan women.

The legend of Cynisca, the first woman Olympic champion

Cynisca, born around 440 BC, was the daughter of Archidamus II, the king of Sparta. She was an expert equestrian and aspired to participate in and win at the Olympics. By this time, the Olympics’ rules were slightly relaxed and women were allowed to participate in the equestrian events, but only by training the horses. Cynisca’s brother Agesilaus II actively encouraged this ambition.

There is a lot of speculation over Agesilaus’s motives for encouraging his sister. Some say that he wanted to rekindle the warlike spirit of Spartan society while others think that he wanted to promote the cause for women in general, which is perhaps not as unlikely as it sounds given that Spartan men generally held women in much higher esteem than the rest of Greek men did. On the other hand, Athenian historian and soldier, Xenophon suggested that Agesilaus considered chariot-racing to be inferior and unmanly, and, by having a woman win it, sought to undermine and discredit the event.

Whatever Agesilaus’ motive might have been, Cynisca won the four-horse chariot race twice, in 396 as well as 392 BC and in doing so became the first woman champion of the Olympics. She was honoured by having a bronze statue of her chariot and horses, including a charioteer and herself, erected in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. The statue had an inscription declaring that she was “the only woman in all Hellas to have won this crown”.

Cynisca’s victory in the Olympics had a tremendous impact on the ancient Greek world and other women subsequently took part in and won the chariot-racing event including Euryleonis, Zeuxo, Timareta, Cassia and Belistiche.

Few records exist of female sportspersons of those times. Unrecognised and unappreciated during their time, figures like Cynisca, Belistiche and the female athletes of the Heraean Games were perhaps the pioneers who made the case for women’s sports. This year’s Summer Olympics at Rio de Janeiro have the most number of women participants (45%) ever. There is however, a long, long way to go before gender barriers are fully removed in the world of sports and, of course, society at large.

Shirsho Dasgupta is currently a graduate student of english literature at Jadavpur University. An aspiring journalist and semi-regular quizzer, he takes a keen interest in football, politics and philosophy. He tweets at @ShirshoD