Olympia Sanctuary

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  • Topic: Ancient Greece, Tyrant, Archaic Greece
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  • Published : February 6, 2013
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Course title: Classical Civilisation 1A

Essay title: Choose any major Greek sanctuary and explain what the layout, architecture, monuments and artefacts tell us about Greek religious practice in the Archaic period.

The sanctuary of Olympia

1. Aerial view of Olympia (http://www.sunrise-greece.com/en-areaphotos.htm)

* Location

2. Map of ancient Greece (http://www.olympia-greece.org/ancientgreecemap.html)

The sanctuary of Olympia lies in the alluvial valley formed by the confluence of the rivers Kladeos and Adelpheos, bounded to the north by the wooded hill of Kronos. The sanctuary of Zeus is located in the northwest part of the Peloponnese. Olympia can be identified as a non-urban sanctuary, and consequently, as a Panhellenic sanctuary. The use of the term Panhellenic, in present purposes, indicates a major shrine in a Greek territory that is not dominated by a major polis or ethos. Zeus’ sanctuary was under the government of Elis, and, in the early period, Elis was considered a weak government. In the Greek world, all communities were religious, and, worshipping the gods, as well as taking part in religious festivals, were occasions for different groups to meet together. The location of the sanctuary of Olympia, makes it a good place for meeting and competitions between rival individuals and states. H.A Shapiro (2007) has stated that ‘a truly Panhellenic shrine was, in Pindar’s phrase a pandokos naos, an “all welcoming temple” (Pindar Pythian 8.61-2): it was open, in theory at least, to everyone.’ From this sentence we can deduct that, the Panhellenic shrine is the literal antithesis of a polis: it is Greek, civilised, but it stands in the place where the polis is not. François de Polignac (1995) has argued that ‘the sanctuary, the place where two worlds meet, is accordingly seen as the stable point where a controlled passage from a world to the other is possible’ ; so, non-urban sanctuaries ‘manifest the integration of deities who from being potentially hostile, become beneficent for the communities that makes room for them within its religious life’. In ancient greek, the words used to define a sanctuary were: hieron (sacred), and temenos (from the verb temno which means ‘to cut off’ , in other words it suggested the idea of a place set aside). The greek words for defining a sanctuary underlined the idea of a sanctuary as a sacred area, a place away from the world of humans in which the gods were venerated.

3. Plan of the Sanctuary of Zeus, Olympia (http://shelton.berkeley.edu/175c/OlympiaPlan.JPG)

* The early years and the votive objects
During the eight century we assist to a gradual transformation of the sanctuary from a rural shrine, into a Panhellenic sanctuary. Catherine Morgan identifies this fundamental transformation in two main reasons. The first one was considering Olympia as a good location ‘for conspicuous consumption by aristocrats, via athletics and votive offerings’ . The second one, was that, shrines like this one, ’helped to resolve internal conflicts in the emergent states by means of their oracles’. However, the presence of votive deposits datable around 800 BC ca, suggests that Olympia was originally used as a meeting place for chiefs from Arcadia and Messenia, to make offers to the gods in order to have success in battle, to celebrate victories, and to give thanks for good fortune. During the eight and the seventh century, we can see a consistent increase in the number of votive objects. According to François de Polignac (1995) the quantity and the quality of the offerings dating from the eight and the seventh century is an index of the popularity of religious acts in intra-urban sanctuaries. Among the most popular offers, we can identify: figures of animals and mythological beasts (such as: griffins, sphinxes, birds and bulls), figures of warriors (probably as a symbol of the victories of their donors), pieces of armours, and terra-cotta and metal...
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