Could women watch the Olympic Games?

I want to address the vexing question of whether women were permitted to watch the Olympic Games.

Certainly there was a women's camp. It contained the women and children of any men who'd seen fit to bring their families, plus a whole lot of hookers, both pornoi (working girls) and hetaerae (high class courtesans). The women's camp was on the opposite side the river from where the Olympics were held, and there was an easy ford so people could cross at will.

It's known for sure that there was a law forbidding married women from watching the Games. If a married woman was caught inside the stadion, or even on the wrong side of the river, while the Games were in progress, then the prescribed penalty was to throw her to her death from Mount Typaion, a cliff-laden area on the road from Elis to Olympia. But I'm not aware of the penalty ever being exacted, and frankly it seems unlikely to me that men are going to off a woman like that.

There was one woman who was caught red handed. Her name was Kallipateira, and she had personally trained her son in athletics. When he competed at Olympia, she disguised herself as a man and sat in the box with the other trainers. When her son won, she got a trifle too excited and was caught out.

They didn't have the heart to exact the penalty, so they let her off. Ever afterwards, the trainers of the athletes were required to attend the Games stark naked, to prevent another woman pulling the same trick.

There was one woman who was required to watch. That was the Priestess of Demeter from the city of Elis. Olympia lay within the boundaries of Elis and the Eleans supplied all the officials. No one fully understands why a priestess of Demeter had to be there, but we know the contests were considered invalid unless the Priestess of Demeter had watched. There was no temple to Demeter at Olympia, which makes it even weirder.

Oddly, the rule forbade only married women. As a result it's become a standard meme on the internet that virgins could watch the Olympics. This is helped by an ancient writer called Pausanias having made some vague statements about seeing virgins at the Games.

Let's think about that. We have a stadion filled with tens of thousands of drunken, sports-crazed men, and scattered in amongst them are a bunch of teenage virgins.

I don't think so!

What is very likely is that fathers brought along unmarried daughters, to matchmake them with eligible bachelors from other cities. But there's no way virgins were in the stadion when the contests were held. It's just a recipe for disaster.

Normally, when I write my mysteries of Classical Greece, I take the most liberal possible interpretation of the status of women consistent with known history. But this is one instance where I'm a rock-solid conservative. The only women watching the Games were the Priestess of Demeter and, maybe, a few of her assistants.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Gary, I agree. No way. It was a boy's party all the way. I had never even heard about the Priestess of Demeter watching, but given the Games' religious origins, that makes sense.

I've read about Kallipateira (never knew her name, thanks!) but the books I read never mentioned that she was "let off." Would love to read more about her and what happened afterward--any books/sources you would recommend?

Excellent post--I always love posts that make me curious for more!

C. N. Nevets said...

They certainly wouldn't be scattered around the crowd like that. No way. Any chance that they had special, isolated positioning as the priestess and her assistants surely would have?

Lexi said...

Was there any taboo about females seeing naked men, or were the Greeks cool about that? Am I right in thinking the contestants didn't wear clothes?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Vicky,

The total information on Kallipateira is in Pausanias, sections 5.6.7 and 5.6.8. Here it is from Perseus:

As you go from Scillus along the road to Olympia, before you cross the Alpheius,there is a mountain with high, precipitous cliffs. It is called Mount Typaeum. It is a law of Elis to cast down it any women who are caught present at the Olympic games, or even on the other side of the Alpheius, on the days prohibited to women. However, they say that no woman has been caught, except Callipateira only; some, however, give the lady the name of Pherenice and not Callipateira.

She, being a widow, disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus, for so her son was called, was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, bared her person. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip before entering the arena.

Gary Corby said...

Nevets, there's a theory that women attended the theater at Athens in the way you describe, and I think that's true. But there's not a word to suggest they did the same at Olympia, and it doesn't seem likely given the no-married-women rule.

By all accounts the crush in the audience was sardine-level.

Gary Corby said...

Lexi, everyone competed stark naked except for the chariot drivers, who wore white chitons.

There was definitely no taboo against seeing naked men! Not in a society where there were statues of erect phalluses on every street corner.

The objection to women was more along religious grounds, in the same sense that these days you don't see too many female Roman Catholic priests.

dipylon said...

Women were allowed to attend theater. It is said that when Aeschylus' Eumenides premiered, a pregnant woman in the audience was so frightened by the entry of the Furies, that she miscarried.

Gary Corby said...

Women were indeed at the theatre, and I'll be using that detail in a future book!