The Women

Were The Ancient Olympics Just For Men?

Along with the athletic contests held at ancient Olympia, there was a separate festival in honor of Hera (the wife of Zeus). This festival included foot races for unmarried girls. Although it is not known how old the festival was, it may have been almost as old as the festival for boys and men.

Little is known about this festival other than what Pausanias, a 2nd century AD Greek traveler, tells us. He mentions it in his description of the Temple of Hera in the Sanctuary of Zeus (model, courtesy of British Museum, shown above and plan shown below), and says that it was organized and supervised by a committee of 16 women from the cities of Elis. The festival took place every four years, when a new peplos was woven and presented to Hera inside her temple.

Plan of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia in the 5th century BC showing the Temple of Hera, the Hera Altar, and the stadion. (Plan from H. V. Herrmann, Olympia, Heiligtum und Wettkampfstatte, fig. 111.)

Pausanias gives us a description of a girl’s attire for the Hera games of the 2nd century AD. The girls wore their hair free down their back and a tunic hanging almost as low as the knees covering only the left shoulder and breast. The costume that Pausanias describes may have been the traditional costume at Olympia and possibly elsewhere for centuries.

Unmarried girls had a number of advantages at Olympia. They not only had their own athletic contests of the Hera festival in which to participate, but they were also allowed to watch the men’s and boys’ contests of the festival of Zeus. Married women, on the other hand, were not allowed to participate in the athletic contests of the Hera festival, and were barred on penalty of death from the Sanctuary of Zeus on the days of the athletic competition for boys and men. We don’t know whether or not the women allowed the men to watch the girls’ contests!

The lady is a champ…
Attic Red Figure Amphora, ca. 490 BC. A winged Nike (goddess of victory) hovers above the ground, holding a flowering tendril and a smoking censer. The shape of the amphora is similar to those awarded to victorious athletes in the Panathenaic Games at Athens and therefore may have been a victory prize. University of Pennsylvania Museum Object ID 31-36-11.