Lykaion

In the ancient Greek region of Arcadia in the southern Peloponnesos, the sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion stands out for its great fame, mysterious rituals and wide-ranging significance. This site, located to the west of Megalopolis in southwestern Arcadia on the modern-day mountain of Agios Elias, held fascination for the ancient Greeks and has continued to be important for modern-day scholars of archaeology, classics, and Greek religion. Pausanias described the sanctuary of Zeus in great detail in his Guide to Greece (8.38.2-8.38.10) and indicated that the whole mountain was considered a sacred place by ancient Greeks. It was identified in Greek mythology as the birthplace of Zeus (at Cretea) and, according to Pausanias, on Mt. Lykaion there was a stadium and hippodrome in which athletic games for the Lykaion festival were held, a sanctuary of Pan, and, at the summit, a formidable temenos and altar of Lykaion Zeus. In front of the altar, Pausanias says, there were two columns crowned by gilded eagles.

The ancient Lykaion Games were contemporaneous with those held at Olympia (in Elis) throughout much of their histories, and the two sanctuaries were only 22 miles apart, as the eagle flies. Although we do not yet know when the athletic games originated at Mt. Lykaion, there are a number of hints to suggest that the games, as well as the cult at Mt. Lykaion, are very old. In antiquity, political and military conflicts occurred between the people of Arcadia and those of Elis, and one wonders what the relationship was between these two prominent and neighboring sanctuaries of Zeus. Since the earliest material found relating to the cult of Zeus at Olympia dates to the 11th century BCE, and we are finding evidence from the earlier Mycenaean period on the altar at Mt. Lykaion, perhaps the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion influenced the developments at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia.