The horrendous forest fires in Greece threatened the site of one of the now lost Seven Wonders of the World, the Statute of Zeus at the site of the ancient Olympics. It was twelve metres tall and made of ivory and gold. It is long gone, but the site of the games remains, and through the efforts of firefighters, made it through this latest threat.
The games began in 776 BC. The Greek city states were almost constantly at war, but for the Games, there was peace. In addition to athletic qualification, one had to be male, of the free class, and Greek speaking to participate. There are several myths as to why the games began, but why the games ended is clear. The Emporer Theodosius I, aka Theodosius the Great, the last Emperor of both the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, outlawed them after the games of 393 AD as part of the establishment of Christianity as defined at the Council of Nicea as the state religion.
For that matter, he also shut down the Temple of Vesta in the Forum in Rome, put out its "eternal" fire, and disbanded the Vestal Virigins. He started out fairly tolerant of pagans, whose support particularly among the ruling class he needed, but got himself excommunicated by St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, in 390. His governor in Thessalonica had been assassinated, and he ordered massacres in retaliation, but after excommunication did public penance for months and his orders against pagan institutions probably were an extension of this. The Olympic Games, by whatever account associated with the pagan Greek gods, became, as they say, history.
This also ended a practical effect of the games -- time was counted in Olympiads, the four year interval between games, giving a unity to the various calendars of the city-states, and this of course ended with the games no longer being held. The site remained, however, until it was destroyed in an earthquake in the Sixth Century. In the 2004 modern Olympic Games, the shot put contest was held in the ancient stadium. What's a stadium? Where the stade (stadion) race is run, the original single event of the Olympics, a sprint of somewhere around 200 metres, the exact length unknown. Over time other events were added, and the games were one of the two great rituals of ancient Greece, the other being the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Now, the basis of that was the story about Hades seeing Persephone out one day picking flowers, went nuts for her and took her away to, well, Hades, the realm of death. Her mom Demeter, goddess of life, therefore fertility and agriculture, went looking for her, abandoned her duties, causing famine and drought, and finally with the help of Zeus found her and thus ended the calamity with the first Spring. However, Persephone had to abide by certain terms. She had to spend four months with Hades in the Underworld, four months with Demeter, and the last four she could choose, and she chose Demeter. The four months with Hades are the hot, dry Greek Summer, prone to drought and, hey, forest fires!
Could there be -- nah, Theodosius shut down the Eleusinian Mysteries too, in 392! There were a few holdouts from the Nicene Christian end, but they were stomped out four years later by Alaric, King of the Goths, who was an Arian Christian. So, between Nicene and Arian Christianity and an earthquake, the more or less thousand year era of the Olympic Games and two thousand year era of the Eleusinian Mysteries came to an end. At least thanks to modern firefighting, what's left is still left.
What's of Lutheran interest about this? Well, the Games of course have their modern version, though one no longer needs to be male or Greek speaking to participate. The Mysteries, what were they? Nobody knows for sure. They were secret initiation rites into the deal about Demeter and Persephone, thought to unite the initiate with the gods, with divine power and a good outcome in the afterlife. So whaddya think, on Sunday morning do we have a toned down Greek mystery religion filtered through Nicene Christianity and the new Imperial state religion loosely based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Jewish messianism that would have passed into history long ago were it not so reinvented through Greek mythology, or do we have the revealed religion of God through Jesus Christ, completing and fulfilling the incomplete hints of it found in human religion in Greek antiquity and everywhere and in the previously revealed religion of the Old Covenant?
I'll go with the latter. And I'm glad the site of the classic Games made it through this latest threat.
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