Copyright © One Reed Publications, 2002

The Origin of the Olympics:
Ancient Calendars and the Race Against Time

by Valerie Vaughan

Throughout the world, all ancient or primitive cultures have held a similar type of ceremony to celebrate the new year. In general, this ritual usually involved someone, who represented the old year, being driven out by someone representing the new year. The new year person usually led a procession of some kind, often made up of dancers or people who jumped and leaped. Such a procession is precisely what occurred during the earliest Olympic festivals in Greece.

There are several myths which describe the origin of these Olympic festivals which were the inspiration for today's Olympic games. One story tells of a man named Pelops who wanted to marry Hippodamia, the daughter of King Oenomaus. Oenomaus was willing to offer his daughter's hand to any potential suitor who could compete with him and win in a chariot race. Each contestant would take Hippodamia in his chariot and try to beat her father, but Oenomaus would always win and then kill the losing suitor. Before Pelops came along, Oenomaus had so far killed twelve suitors and hung up their heads for display. Hippodamia loved Pelops, and she secretly fixed her father's chariot so it would fail. In the race, his chariot crashed and Oenomaus died, making him the 13th victim, so Pelops won. Pelops got the girl, became the new king, and according to Pindar (5th c. BC), the Olympics were started to commemorate the chariot race of Pelops.

This story is more than a description of a sporting event. Three important features tell us otherwise. First, it is a contest between an old and young king, ending in the death of the elder and the succession of the younger to the kingdom. Second, there is a carrying off of the bride, for at the end of the story, Pelops and Hippodamia drive off in the same chariot. Even though Hippodamia loves Pelops, this is a "marriage by capture," a theme that appears in many myths. Third, there are some very suggestive numbers mentioned, namely 12 and 13, which relate to the lunar cycle. What this story reveals is a transition in calendar systems, from the old Moon-based calendar to one based on the motion of the Sun. When the ancients began to adjust their calendar to the solar cycle, they did not wish to simply abandon the old lunar calendar completely. The great calendar problem of antiquity was how to fit together the old Moon "year" with the new Sun year.

In order to explain how they did this, we need to review some basic astronomical math. As we now know, the Sun appears to turn once through the zodiac in about 365.25 days, one tropical year. (The Greek word tropikos means "turning.") The Moon takes about 29.53 days to move through one synodic month. Synodic comes from the Greek words syn (meaning "with") and hodos (meaning "the way"); thus, syn-hodos means "a meeting of the ways." The ancients wanted to coordinate these two systems of timing, but the Sun cycle and Moon cycle cannot be made to fit together easily. During one solar year there are precisely 12.36827 cycles of the Moon, a value somewhere between the whole numbers 12 and 13. Because such a long decimal is not easily translated into whole numbers of days, it was a big challenge in ancient times to figure out how to reconcile the lunar calendar with the solar.

The Greeks, however, figured out a rather neat solution. They noticed that eight solar years was close to 99 lunar months. So they started a new calendar called the octaeteris, which was eight solar years or 99 lunar months. They arranged the eight years so there were five years containing twelve months each, and three years with 13 months. They inserted each of the three extra months in the 3rd, 5th and 8th years. According to legend and Greek historians, the Greeks started keeping this 8-year calendar when they started the Olympic Games in 776 BC. Later, they measured the octaeteris as two four-year periods, one of 49 months and one of 50 months, and they called these 4-year periods "Olympiads." This 4-year period still survives today. Every four years, we add a leap day in February, and we also hold the Olympics. In America, we even elect a President (a "new king") every four years.

The Olympics originated as a reenactment of an astronomical myth which described a calendar. The triumph of Pelops and his marriage with Hippodamia was the story of the race of the Sun and the Moon. It was not a race to compete but to meet. The Sun and Moon had to meet (syn-hodos) somewhere between 12 and 13 lunar cycles. Here's some more math:

One solar year is 365.25 days

12 months = 12 x 29.53 days = 354 days (too few)

13 months = 13 x 29.53 days = 383.5 days (too many)


8 years x 365.25 days = 2922 days


99 months x 29.53 days = 2923.5 days

So the Sun and Moon are conjoined every eight years or 99 lunar months (with a difference of about 1.5 days). If we follow this "race" through the entire cycle, as the Greeks added one month during the 3rd and 5th years, we would see that the Moon and Sun take turns leading until the last leg of the cycle, the 8th year, when the final (extra) month is added, and then the soli-lunar congruence happens and the race is a "tie."

The Olympics Games were a moveable festival, like Easter, which combines the lunar and solar calendars. (Easter is determined as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.) The scholars of the late 19th century believed that the Olympic Games were held at the second or third full moon after the summer solstice, and this "fact" is often still repeated in modern texts. However, more recent research has shown that this is not how the Greeks figured it; their counting process actually began earlier in the year. The date for celebrating the Olympics was actually determined as the eighth full Moon following the first full Moon after the winter solstice. This date can correspond to either the second or third full Moon after the summer solstice, which is what confused earlier scholars. Here's how it goes:

Start with the first full moon after the winter solstice. (In 777 BC, this occurred in late December.) Then count forward eight more full moons. (The first Olympics occurred in August, 776 BC.) From this date, count 49 more full moons. (July, 772 BC.) Then count 50 more full moons. (July, 768 BC.) A total of 99 moons every eight years. The ancient Olympics were always held at a time we would call July or August, when both the Sun and Moon were strong. (The Sun's energy is strong in the summer, and the Moon is strong when it is full.) The myth about the origin of the Olympic Games shows it is essentially a New Year festival, the inauguration of a year. It is concerned with a royal marriage of the Sun and Moon. As an interesting side note, the Queen and King in a pack of playing cards are the 12th and 13th cards in a suit, following the Jack (11) and the ten card.

This analysis leads us to make a suggestion concerning the study of myths. Special attention should be paid to stories containing contests, races, a marriage (meeting), or a change in rulership. These are likely to be astronomical in nature.

There is another Greek myth that explains the calendar relationship of the Sun and Moon, the story of Atalante. Atalante was an athletic girl, raised by a bear in the mountains. She was a virgin and a huntress, quite clearly a human version of Artemis, the Moon goddess. She was also an excellent runner and no one could catch her. Atalante was pursued by a steady parade of admirers, but she could outrun them all. She finally agreed to marry anyone who could beat her in a race, but any challenger who could not beat her would be killed.

In this story, the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) gets involved. Venus likes everyone to obey their sexual urges, so she helped one suitor, Hippomenes, to fix the race. Venus gave Hippomenes three golden apples and told him to drop one apple each time that Atalante started to overtake him. As Atalante stopped to pick up the apples, she fell behind just barely enough for Hippomenes to win the race. In this story, the three golden apples symbolize the three extra months added in the octaeteris to keep the moon in step with the sun and the seasons. Since the 99 lunar months are just a little bit longer (1.5 days) than eight solar years, this small discrepancy is the amount by which Atalante lost the race.

What is quite interesting about this story is the involvement of Venus, who gives an important astronomical clue. The eight years of octaeteris is not just a soli-lunar cycle; it also happens to be the time it takes for the cycles of Venus and the Sun to meet. Eight solar years is very close to five Venus synodic cycles (averaging 584 days). Thus,

8 years x 365.25 days = 2922 days

5 Venus cycles x 584 days = 2920 days

 99 months x 29.53 days = 2923.5 days

So astronomically, the period of eight solar years has triple significance. It is the time period that marks the meeting of the Sun, Moon and Venus. Thus, for example, if the new Moon appears close to Venus on a certain day of the solar year (such as the day of the vernal equinox), this configuration would appear on approximately the same date eight years later.

There is much mythological evidence for the 8-year cycle. Apollo had to serve eight years with Admetus after he killed the dragon Python. The Pythian games were, in the beginning, celebrated every eight years. There was also a Greek myth about King Minos of Crete that involved the eight-year cycle. Every eight years, the Athenians had to sacrifice seven youths and seven maidens (14, a lunar number) to the Minotaur in payment for the death of Minos's son. Also every eight years, Minos went up into the mountains to converse with his father Zeus, a tradition known to Homer. Evidently, many of the Greek kings had to replenish their power at the end of eight years by a fresh communion with the deity. At Sparta, every eighth year, the Ephors had to watch for signs in the sky on a clear and moonless night. If they saw a meteor, the king would be removed from office.

There is another myth that relates the origin of the Olympic games and involves Herakles, who was recognized as a Sun-god. Many of his Twelve Labors correspond to the 12 signs of the Zodiac, such as the slaying the Nemean lion (Leo), capturing the Cretan bull (Taurus), etc. One of the Twelve Labors imposed on Herakles was to clean the cattle stables of King Augeas of Elis, a city-state located about 30 miles from Olympia. He accomplished his task in one day by diverting the Alpheios River from its course and causing it to flow through the stables. According to this myth, Herakles celebrated his success by founding the Olympian games. Historically speaking, Elis was in actuality the city-state that supervised the Olympic games, and the peak of the Olympic festival occurred when one hundred oxen were sacrificed to Zeus.

There is an interesting feature in the story of cleaning the Augean stables, and that is the mention of specific numbers. According to the myth, the stables had not been cleaned for thirty years, and since 3,000 cattle had been kept in it, the accumulation of filth was tremendous. Also, Herakles was required to clean the stables in just one day. Let's consider the possibility that this myth refers to a calendar problem. If the early Greeks were using a calendar system that was not very accurate, there would be a build-up of time discrepancies that would eventually be noticeable as an "accumulation of filth" that needed to be cleaned out. The fact that Herakles was able to accomplish this feat in one day suggests that all he had to do was simply adjust the calendar. (Technically speaking, the Gregorian calendar was adjusted on one day by simply changing the date. The ancient Mesoamericans did the same thing with their calendars.) The following is an explanation of how the myth of the Augean stables could represent a solution to the calendar problem.

According to one ancient writer, Censorinus, the earliest and least accurate soli-lunar calendar that the Greeks used was formed by alternating years of 12 and 13 lunar months. They allowed 12 lunar months for one year and 13 months the next year (an average of 12.5 months per year). Thus, for every eight years, they were counting 100 lunar months (the number of oxen sacrificed during the Olympic festival). With the real value being 12.368 lunar cycles per year, the Greek's lunar calendar would drift off the solar calendar at a rate of nearly 4 days per year. If each of the "years" mentioned in the myth were symbolic (as they sometimes were in myth) of one 8-year period, then thirty of these "years" would in actuality be 240 years (30 x 8). And 240 real years of 12.5 months each equals 3,000 months (240 x 12.5). These 3,000 months could be the mythical cattle because the Moon is associated with the bull/Taurus. Thus, the amount of drift or discrepancy in 240 years would be about 930 days, which is indeed a tremendous "accumulation of filth."

Remember the story mentioned earlier about Herakles capturing the three apples of the Hesperides which were guarded by a dragon? Now, it so happens that this dragon had been placed as a guardian of the apples by Hera, the goddess of marriage. Hera had received the apples as a marriage gift from Gaia when she married Zeus. Hera, incidentally, was the goddess who had suckled Herakles and given him his name. In addition to all these converging coincidences, Hera was also popular at Olympia. The first known temple to be built there was dedicated to her. In the late 6th century BC, Olympic foot races which were run by girls were dedicated to Hera.

There is another interesting story that connects the Olympics with apples. We know from history that it was a tradition for the Olympic victor to be crowned with an olive branch, which is another hint that this was an agricultural or seasonal new year festival. But there is also some evidence that the victor's wreath was not originally from the olive tree. One ancient writer tells that in the sixth Olympiad, the Delphic oracle was consulted as to how the victors should be crowned, and the message was: "Do not make the fruit of the apple tree the prize of victory, but take the wild olive." Consequently, the first victor to be crowned with olive was the winner of the foot race in the 7th Olympiad.

This story tells us something about a transition or cross-over period from the lunar to solar calendar. The Greek calendar was controlled by the priest(ess) of the Delphic Oracle, who harmonized the lunar with the solar calendar. It is known that, during the earliest Olympics, there was only one event, the foot race. There is also evidence that the foot race was a variation on the ritual (mentioned earlier), which is common among many peoples of the world, i.e., a procession to the altar, led by the new year person or replacement "king." Evidently, the foot race was more often associated with the Moon (as it was in the Atalante myth) and with girls (as in the foot races of Hera).

Chariot or horse races, however, were associated with the Sun. The solar cycle is usually depicted in Greek art and myth as a chariot race (for example, in the myths of Phaeton and, as we saw earlier, Pelops). During the period of the first twelve Olympics (12 x 8 years = 96 years), the only competition was the foot race, indicating that the Moon was still considered important at that time. Chariot racing was not introduced at the Olympics until 680 BC (96 years after 776 BC), and this is about the same time that the four-year cycle (Olympiad) became well established and replaced the 8-year cycle. One scholar has suggested that this shift from Moon (8 year cycle) to Sun (4 year cycle) reflects a transition from matriarchal to patriarchal authority. If this is so, it is possible that the chariot race may have been a matriarchal test to check on the virility and fitness of males to qualify as consorts.

There is also evidence that the chariot races of the Roman Circus were associated with the movement of the Sun. One ancient writer said that the Roman Circus events represented the change of seasons, with the 2-horse race representing the moon, and the 4-horse chariot that of the Sun. Another ancient writer mentions that there were altars at the Circus Maximus in Rome dedicated to the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Also, in the later Olympic festivals of Greece, there were 12 rounds of the chariot race, and these may have represented the course of the Sun through the 12 signs. According to Pindar, the chariot races were begun at the altar of the Heavenly Twins (Gemini). The foot races, on the other hand, were started in a different place, the tomb of Endymion, who represented the sinking sun who married Selene the Moon. This pair had 50 daughters, which most scholars agree represented the 50 lunar months of the 4-year Olympiad.

There is a parallel to these Olympic myths in a Hebrew tradition which combines the moon and sun races. According to this story, there was once a discussion among Rabbis concerning the hippodrome of Solomon. Solomon held 12 horse races each year, one for every month. One disciple was concerned about the lunar cycle and asked, "Why not 13, since there are 13 months?" The Rabbi answered, "Because one race was not a horse-race, but a foot race," which was run in the intercalary month containing the winter solstice.

Another parallel to the Olympic Games is the legendary Ball Game of the Maya, which was much more than a sports event. The myths that relate the story of the Ball Game have to do with the gods and the planets, especially the Sun, Moon and Venus. Mesoamerican calendars were very complex, but one main feature was the eight-year cycle of Venus.

By the 5th century BC, the Greeks had realized that 99 lunar months was not a totally accurate equivalent of eight solar years, and that a longer cycle of 19 years would work even better because it was nearly equal to 235 lunar cycles. Again, here's the math:

19 years x 365.25 days = 6939.75 days

 235 months x 29.53 days = 6939.55 days.

This so-called Metonic cycle shows up in a myth also. Apollo (the Sun god) was supposed to visit an island once every nineteen years. According to one ancient writer, "Opposite to the coast of Celtic Gaul, there is an island in the ocean, not smaller than Sicily, lying to the North, which is inhabited by the Hyperboreans. On this island is a remarkable temple of Apollo, built in a round form. When Apollo visits once every 19 years, the stars complete their revolutions, and the god Apollo plays the harp and dances, from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades." Modern scholars have suggested that Hyperborea was probably Britain, and many have speculated that this remarkable round temple was Stonehenge. They aren't so sure about the frolicking period from the vernal equinox to the time of Pleiades rising, but there's a possibility that this refers to the extra time it takes to go from the eclipse cycle (18.61 years) to 19 years.

For those who are interested in pursuing the astronomical content of myths, the following advice is suggested. (1) Investigate the original versions and the earliest stories, not the modern adaptations. (2) Always be on the lookout for numbers -- their inclusion is never arbitrary. (3) Take note of myths that involve competitions, contests, or races, the change of rulerships (old kings replaced by new ones) or the conquest of a woman. If there are specific numbers mentioned in such myths, there is a good chance that the story is about a cycle of return, which suggests a calendar, which in turn indicates an astronomical myth.

Copyright © One Reed Publications, 2002

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