The first “Olympics” were races of girls of various age-groups around a 500 foot stadium in ancient Olympia. The races of girls were held every four years on the new moon of the month of Parthenios (September/October). They were dedicated to Hera Parthenos who renewed her virginity in the river Parthenias. The winners of the races wore olive crowns and feasted on the flesh of Hera’s sacred cow.
These “Olympics” for Hera and for girls came before the more celebrated Olympics for men that were dedicated to Olympian Zeus. The temple of Hera at Olympia is older than the temple for Zeus and the girls’ Olympics were tied to the more ancient lunar calendar.
What did the girls’ Olympics celebrate? A clue can be found in the ritual of Hera renewing her virginity. According to myth, Hera herself bathed in the river Parthenias and emerged “renewed” or “virgin.” The myth points to a ritual. The most ancient statue of Hera at Olympia was made of carved wood and clothed with intricately woven robes made by women who were chosen for this sacred task. (Think of the robes with rich red and purple threads woven with gold worn by priests.) Every four years the statue was undressed and taken to the river and washed. It was then brought back to the temple where the new robes were dedicated.
What is the meaning of this ritual? We are told that through it, Hera Parthenos renewed her virginity. Parthenos is generally translated “virgin” but its earlier meaning is “girl.” We are most familiar with Hera as the unhappy wife of the rapist and womanizer, Zeus. The worship of Hera Parthenos suggests that Hera was the name of a Goddess whose history did not begin with her marriage to Zeus. Archaeologists believe that Hera was the name of the most widely worshipped pre-Indo-European Goddess of the Peloponnese area of Greece.
When marriage became a patriarchal arrangement, parthenos also came to mean “not belonging to a husband.” Though virginity in the sense of not having been penetrated by a penis came to be expected in patriarchal marriage, we can imagine a time when girls and women were free to choose their lovers. Parthenos is a pre-Indo-European word. Many of the traditions surrounding Hera Parthenos (and Athena Parthenos) must have pre-dated the arrival of the patriarchal Greeks and their God Zeus into the Peloponnese. (Many of the rituals to Athena also involved girls.)
What did it mean for Hera Parthenos to renew her virginity, or more accurately, her girlhood? Archaeologist Frances Cornford* suggests that the ritual and festival had to do with the renewal of the year. Hera’s renewal would then be related to the later story of the New Year’s Child who drives out Old Man Time.
Why was the New Year in the fall? In many cultures especially those where the summers are hot, the New Year begins with the autumn rains that refresh the parched earth.
Why every four years? The lunar cycle is an eight-year cycle, with the celebrations at its beginning, middle, and end. When Hera was renewed, she became young again, ensuring that renewal would follow birth and death. The end is also the beginning.
Why girls? Girls who have not yet given birth are a powerful symbol for the power of life to renew itself. In the normal course of events, girls will give birth and die, but as girls, they have not yet entered into the cycle of birth that will lead over time to death. The olive crowns they wear celebrate the power of life they hold within them.
Why races? Because life, like a race, is a movement through time and space. The “winners,” the fastest girls, symbolize the life force itself. They are fed with the meat of the sacred cow to give them strength to run the race of life.
In the days when Hera was unmarried and girls chose their own lovers, girls were not controlled by their fathers and husbands. They ran free. When the Olympic Games dominate the airwaves again, let us remember that there was a time when the Olympics were a celebration of the renewal of life. Let us remember Hera Parthenos. Let us celebrate the strength of girls!
This is dedicated to Hannah and Sarah.
Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the fields of women and religion and feminist theology. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute. She has worked all her life for the vision of a world without racism, poverty, and war, a world where women and men are equal.