Pelops vs Oinomaos: the first Olympic chariot race

In the middle of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia was a ruined building. The Greeks believed that this was the megaron of King Oinomaos, who was a very ancient king of the dark ages. A megaron was a Greek king's court in prehistoric times. Literally: mega (great) ron (hall).

Beside the megaron was a large burial mound, enclosed within a wall of five sides. This was believed by everyone to be the burial mound of the hero Pelops. The hero-king for whom the Peloponnesian Peninsula is named.

According to legend, King Oinomaos had a daughter, a girl of great beauty, by the name of Hippodamia. Oinomaos had no sons, so whoever married Hippodamia would inherit the rule of the land. (The usual set up).

Needless to say, a great many unsuitable men asked for the hand of the beautiful Hippodamia, so many that it became an irritant. Oinomaos developed a way of discouraging suitors. He challenged them to a chariot race. If Oinomaos won, then he killed the foolish suitor with his bright spear. But if the suitor won, then the suitor would marry the girl and become heir to the kingdom. Many men died in the pursuit of beauty and wealth.

Note that the name of the princess Hippodamia means Horse Tamer.

Then the hero Pelops asked for the hand of Hippodamia.

Luckily for Pelops, Hippodamia fell in love with him. (The usual setup again.) The only problem was, daddy was the best chariot driver around, so Hippodamia bribed her father's charioteer, a man by the name of Myrtilus, to remove the linchpins from the wheels of her father's racing chariot. His reward if he did so would be half the kingdom, and the first night in the bed of Hippodamia.

And so the race was arranged. Pelops surged to the lead. But the chariot of Oinomaos made ground.

Oinomaos raised his spear to slay Pelops as they raced, when at that moment the wheels of his chariot flew off. Oinomaos was dragged to his death.

Pelops married Hippodamia, became King at once, and they all lived happily ever after. Except for Hippodamia's father, who was somewhat dead.

Myrtilus reaped the usual harvest for treachery: Pelops murdered the fellow when he was brazen enough to claim his reward.

This was considered the first Olympic chariot race, though it certainly wasn't at the Olympics, and it was won by cheating and sabotage. The race between the hero and the king was displayed on the outer pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

Myrtilus was buried under the taraxippus at the east end of the chariot race arena. It's the reason the Greeks believed there were so many accidents at that turn. The psyche of Myrtilus, who was both murderer and murdered, remained to terrify the horses.

26 comments:

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Didn't Pelops's own father kill him and cook him up to serve in a stew to the gods at Mt. Olympus? I guess this race for Hippodamia's hand took place after the gods put him back together again (along with the ivory shoulder blade needed after Demeter absentmindedly took a chomp). Really, these stories are so gruesomely fascinating!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Vicky. Yep, you have it exactly right.

Father/son relations were a little tricky back in those days.

Nicole MacDonald said...

...so happily ever after then.. Don't think we'll see Disney pursuing this story ;p At least not accurately.

Loretta Ross said...

King Oinomaos had a daughter, a girl of great beauty

Has there ever been a rich and powerful king who had a really UGLY daughter?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Nicole. I'm sure Disney would have little trouble turning the Greek myths into mush. They're excruciatingly good at sanitizing.

For that matter, the original fairy tales would be rated R these days.

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, there does seem to be some biased DNA in these narratives, doesn't there? Maybe it's because rich, powerful kings always get to marry stunning swimsuit models and starlets?

Loretta Ross said...

Okay, I've fixed the oversight in the fairy tale department!

(I don't know if this'll work. I don't know how to do links in the comment box.)

http://lorettaross.blogspot.com/2010/07/once-upon-time.html

(And poor Gary's going, "how did we get from chariot races to fairy tales? I was posting something intelligent, I swear!")

Gary Corby said...

Very funny!

Here's the answer on how to put links in comments.

Lexi said...

What a very disagreeable girl Hippodamia must have been. But then the story doesn't reflect well on anyone involved in it.

A bit like the Old Testament, where a lot of the goodies behave extremely badly. Including God, come to think of it.

Gary Corby said...

A lot of the Greek myths are like that Lexi. The more clever Greeks were uncomfortably aware of the problem.

Elizabeth said...

Cheating and sabotage seem pretty tame for the Tantalids, actually. But betrayal and patricide fit right in!

Meghan said...

Disney DID turn Greek mythology into mush: it's called Hercules and it's a hilarious and cute movie featuring the voices of Danny Davito as Philoctetes and James Woods as Hades. :D

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I wonder if arranging marriages were so violent among the common people? Civilizations certainly has a broad range of interpretation.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks for the warning Meghan. I'll be sure never to watch it.

Gary Corby said...

Susan, I'm quite sure normal people did things a little more sedately, or there wouldn't have been too many generations of Greeks.

It does all rather remind me of Midsomer County though.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Elizabeth. The father of Pelops was Tantalus, as you point out, so sticky endings do seem to run in the family.

Come to think of it, with Pelops having previously been murdered by his own father, and resurrected by the Gods, and with the happy couple having recently offed the bride's father, arranging the seating at the wedding reception must have been more than usually difficult.

Lexi said...

Two Funerals and a Wedding...

Gary Corby said...

Lexi, you should be writing humour.

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, if I recall my mythology correctly, the family tree went something like this:

Tantalus (killed and fed his children to the gods) --> Pelops --> (murdered his co-conspirator) --> Atreus (killed one brother, then killed the sons of another brother and fed them to him; the brother, Thyestes, then slept with his daughter to have a son who then killed Atreus!) --> Agamemnon (sacrificed his daughter to the gods, then was murdered by his wife, who had taken his cousin as a lover) --> Orestes (killed his mom, went crazy, then killed his cousin's husband so he could marry his cousin).

Murder, incest, cannibalism. Such a lovely family!

Meghan said...

Thanks for the warning Meghan. I'll be sure never to watch it.

LOL!

Gary Corby said...

Elizabeth, that's hilarious. Beautifully put!

vickileon.com said...

Hey Gary, wish I hadn't had to miss the Roman Hist Books chat last night..
Just finished reading your great Hippodamia tale and was delighted to learn why the taraxippus scared the horses. Congrats on a great blog site! I'll be reading more. Cheers, Vicki

Gary Corby said...

Hey Vicki, lovely to see you here!

I was late to the book chat too, my weak excuse being that I'm staring a newly arrived editorial letter.

Ladies and Gentlemen, for those of you who haven't come across her yet, allow me to introduce Vicki Leon, who wrote two of the funniest books ever written about the ancient world:

Working IX to V
and
How To Mellify A Corpse

AvenSarah said...

Re: Hercules, just as one example, Gary, of why you might not want to watch it (though it's a perfectly fine Disney movie if you just pretend it's not about Greek myth!) is that Hercules ends up happily married to Megara (Meg), having given up his godhead to do so. That would be the Megara he *kills* in a fit of madness in the actual myths. Sigh.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Aven,

My instant thought when I read that was, I wonder how much damage this is doing to the classics?

Will they become like fairy tales, where the socially approved current versions are considered the only correct ones, and the originals considered wrong?

AvenSarah said...

The re-writing and sanitizing of myths has been happening for a while -- like, as you say, the fairy tales. I'm sure more people know the Disney version than the 'real' versions... I don't really despair about that, though, because I think if it weren't for Disney, most of those people wouldn't know the myth at all. In other words, it's not replacing another source of knowledge; the Greek myths are, realistically, esoteric knowledge now. In an ideal world, I'd prefer that not to be the case -- but I'm fairly resigned to it. That's simply something to keep in mind when teaching Classics (or English lit, or Western culture, or anything else that needs knowledge of such things) or when writing/speaking about the ancient world in general.