The four panhellenic festivals -- the Olympic Games and Nemean Games in honor of the god Zeus, the Pythian Games in honor of Apollo, and the Isthmian Games in honor of Poseidon -- were perhaps the most popular events in Greek religious life (Figure 4.1). They provided an opportunity for Greeks from different cities to gather and compete against each other for the glory of themselves and their cities. The Greeks had a myth to explain the origin of each festival. These myths both helped the Greeks understand why the festival developed in a particular area and also gave each festival a special connection with the gods. This connection increased the prestige of the festivals and ensured that participants and spectators would continue to come from all over Greece.
The Isthmian games have their mythological origin in the story of Palaimon. To understand the story of Palaimon, however, we have to go back to an older and more famous myth–the story of the birth of the god Dionysus. Dionysus was a complex god, whose sphere of influence included wine and madness. His most famous worshipers were the Bacchae, women who temporarily abandoned society for the wilderness. There they gathered together and worshipped the god in an orgiastic frenzy. He was also honored in many Greek cities at the festival of the Anthesteria, where the citizens gathered to drink the first wine of the season. The story of his birth is as follows.
Cadmus was the king of Thebes. He had a beautiful daughter named Semele. The god Zeus fell in love with Semele, slept with her, and made her pregnant (Figure 4.2). Zeus' wife Hera was jealous and extremely vengeful toward Zeus' lovers and their offspring. She devised a way to punish Semele for sleeping with her husband. Zeus was so enamored of his new lover that he promised to grant any wish she might make. Jealous Hera played on Semele's vanity and persuaded her to ask a fatal favor. Hera took on a disguise and convinced Semele that Zeus should come to sleep with Semele in the same way that he would arrive to sleep with Hera. Semele asked him to do this, but got more than she bargained for. Zeus appeared in a chariot with lightning and thunder and hurled a thunderbolt. Poor Semele died when she was hit by lightning. Dionysus was saved by Hermes, who was the god of messengers, merchants and thieves and who led the souls of the dead to the river Styx. Hermes rescued the not-yet born Dionysus from Semele's body and implanted him in Zeus' thigh, from which he eventually sprung. One of Semele's sisters was named Ino, and she was married to Athamas, a Greek king. After Dionysus was born Hermes gave him to his aunt Ino to nurse and raise. Ino was very proud to be nursing a god.
Hera was still mad that Zeus had been cheating on her and was determined to punish Zeus' bastard son and anyone protecting him. She decided to destroy Ino and her family. She went down into the underworld to meet with the Furies, horrible demons who punished the enemies of the gods. She asked the Furies to drive Ino and her husband insane. The Furies obeyed. The tellers of the myths differ about the exact details, but according to all accounts Ino and her family met a tragic fate. Apollodorus said that Athamas became so crazy that he thought his eldest son Learchus was a deer. He then hunted the poor boy down and killed him for sport. Ino then took her younger son Melikertes and tossed him into a cauldron of boiling water. Distraught, she then grabbed the cauldron and leaped into the sea. In Ovid's version, the Furies tricked Athamas into believing that Learchus was a lion cub. The deranged king killed his son by picking him up by his feet and smashing his head against a rock. Ino, mad with grief, then jumped into the sea with Melikertes in her arms, shouting the name Dionysus as she plunged into the water.
A dolphin carried the drowned body of Melikertes to shore at Isthmia. Aphrodite, upset at the fate of her granddaughter Ino, asked Poseidon to intervene. Poseidon agreed to make Melikertes and Ino gods. Poseidon transformed them and gave them new names. Ino became known as Leukothea, and Melikertes as Palaimon. In art, Palaimon is sometimes depicted as a drowned body carried by a dolphin and at other times as a happy, living dolphin-rider, reflecting both the tragic and triumphant aspects of the story.
The myth of Palaimon explains why Poseidon is honored at Isthmia Figure 4.3). Pausanias, who traveled throughout Greece in the second century A.D., reported that Isthmia was the traditional site where the dolphin had brought Palaimon's body to shore. However, there are other obvious reasons for holding festivals and games to the god at Isthmia. Poseidon was god of the sea, and the narrow neck of land that separated the Corinthian and Saronic Gulf was the ideal spot for a temple to Poseidon. Poseidon was rescuer of ships and helper of fisherman, and like Palaimon is often depicted in art alongside dolphins. Poseidon was important to the Greeks for two other reasons. He was believed to cause (and prevent) earthquakes, which often occur in the Aegean. He was also the tamer of horses, and thus popular among the Greek aristocracy.
Like most mythical stories, there are several versions of the founding of the games at Isthmia. According to Apollodorus, Sisyphus, the sly king of Korinth, established the games after Palaimon's body was brought ashore. Plutarch, however, recounts an Athenian version which attributes the institution of the games to Theseus, their national hero. Theseus was the son of King Aegeus of Athens and Aethra, daughter of King Pittheus of Troezen. Theseus lived with his mother until he was a young man, and did not even know who his true father was. His grandfather spread a rumor that he was descended from Poseidon. When he came of age, he learned his true identity and left Troezen for Athens. On his journey to Athens he had many adventures, slaying wild beasts and defeating villains. When he reached Athens, his adventures continued. He went to Crete and slew the Minotaur, and when he returned to Athens he became king. One of his royal deeds was to establish games to Poseidon at Isthmia. Before Theseus, claimed the Athenians, there was only a nighttime festival to Palaimon, there were no daytime celebrations or games. According to Plutarch, some Greeks believed that Theseus established the games to Poseidon as penance for a man he had killed in his youth. At any rate, Theseus made a deal with the Corinthians to allow the Athenians to have very goods seats in the games.
All four of the Panhellenic games have foundation myths, but none of them are as touching or as tragic as the story of Palaimon. There are two myths celebrating the founding of the Olympic Games. The first recounts the victory of Pelops over King Oinomaios in a chariot races, the prize being Oinomaios' daughter Hippodameia. In the second story, the great hero Herakles defeats Augeas and kills Kteatos and Molione, sons of Poseidon, near the spot where Pelops was buried. In celebration for his victory he established the first Olympic Games. The Pythian Games at Delphi were established to commemorate Apollo slaying the snake Python, a huge monster who lurked in the caverns on Mt. Parnassos. A temple to Apollo was erected on the site of the slaying, and a famous oracular priestess, the Pythia, prophesied there. The Pythian games had famous music and poetry competitions alongside the athletic ones. The Nemean Games, dedicated like the Olympian Games to the god Zeus, were founded by Adrastos, one of the seven kings who attacked Thebes. Herakles rededicated them to Zeus after he completed one of his labors and killed the Nemean Lion (Figure 4.4).