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Welcome, as always, dear readers.
In our last posting, our second about archers, we talked about the archery contest which Penelope
arranged, as a way of finally ridding her house of a gang of mooching suitors. It was, in reality, a two-part contest:
1. the contestants were required to string Odysseus’ bow
2. then fire an arrow through—but the story as told in the Odyssey is a little confusing here—through a series of axe heads? Through the rings on the axe heads? Through rings on the shafts of the axes? The following illustrations will show you that there are all sorts of possibilities!



Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, is the only one who can string the bow and fire it,
and then goes on to begin picking off Penelope’s obnoxious suitors with it.
Prizes and women seem to be a not-uncommon theme in Greek mythology. When we were discussing Penelope and the archery contest, we also mentioned that there was an ancient story that Odysseus had actually won Penelope from her father, Icarius, in a footrace.
In general, Odysseus was regarded in Greece as neither a bowman nor a runner, but as the supreme trickster (he even has his own adjective, in fact polumetis, which we might translate “multiplotter”) but he is recorded in Book 23 of the Iliad as a runner, when he competes (and wins) in a footrace as part of the funeral games for Achilles’ beloved companion, Patroclus.
(This amazing piece, from 1778, is by the “painter of the French Revolution”, Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825. In his earlier career, David had painted grand, florid things like this, often with a classical theme. When the Revolution came, David became an enthusiast, as well as one of its visual recorders, his most dramatic painting being “The Death of Marat”, commemorating the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a major revolutionary, killed in his bath in 1793.
The era of the French Revolution has been a favorite of ours for years, probably originally because we grew up with Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, 1859,
and the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1903-05.
We plan to write about the Pimpernel in a later posting—he’s a very important figure for 20th-century images of heroes with double-identities, being, it would seem, the original.)
It is worth wondering whether, in the choice of the bow and the archery contest, Penelope was actually indicating that she already knew the identity of the beggar. Certainly it put a deadly weapon into the hands of someone who immediately used it to rid her of the suitors. If that’s true, then offering herself as a prize was not a kind of passive surrender, but the beginning of an attack on the occupiers. This would give us a Penelope who was the very opposite of the girl offered as a prize in her father’s footrace. But that footrace reminded us of an earlier one, in which the prize stated the terms—and then enforced them.
Several generations before the Trojan War, Atalanta was a princess and huntress,
who was pressed by her father to marry. She agreed—but only on the condition that a suitor would have to join in a footrace with her and, if she beat him, she would kill him. A number of suitors tried and failed and paid the price before Hippomenes, brighter than the rest, knowing that he couldn’t outrace her, outthought her, praying to Aphrodite for help. The goddess gave him three golden apples and, as the two raced and Hippomenes was being outrun, he tossed one of the apples to the side. Atalanta was distracted and thus slowed until, after the third apple, Hippomenes won the race—and Atalanta.
The pattern of winning brides by races is repeated not only on foot, however. In another pre-Trojan-War story, King Oenomaus took fright from a prophecy that he would be killed by his son-in-law. When suitors came for his daughter, Hippodamia, he demanded that they join him in a chariot contest: they would race, but it was more a race for life than a sport, as, if Oenomaus caught up with the suitor, he would kill him.
So far, Oenomaus had managed to polish off eighteen suitors before Pelops, son of King Tantalus, appeared. Like Hippomenes, he was not the most scrupulous of competitors. (In one version of the story, Oenomaus displayed the heads of the unsuccessful suitors on the pillars of his palace—this might have proved a strong incentive to cheat!) In Pelops’ case, he persuaded Oenomaus’ charioteer to replace the bronze lynchpins (the pins which hold the chariot wheels on the axles) with ones made of wax and, in the (literal) heat of the contest, they melted and Oenomaus was dragged to his death. (And so the death-by-son-in-law prophecy came true!) Pelops then betrayed and murdered the charioteer, who, dying, put a curse upon Pelops and his descendants.
Supposedly, the chariot race which formed a central part of the Olympic games in later centuries
was either in commemoration of the death of Oenomaus or a celebration of the victory of Pelops. In fact, we have, on the eastern pediment (that’s the big triangular bit just below the roof) of the temple of Zeus at Olympia
the main characters in the story depicted.
This was a very grand temple and contained one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a giant seated statue of Zeus, made of ivory and gold.
The statue didn’t survive the eastern Roman government’s attacks on pre-Christian culture, however, either being destroyed in a fire in the temple in 426AD, or in a fire at the eastern capital of Constantinople in 475AD.
In fact, the temple at Olympia itself was badly damaged in that fire of 426 and its whole structure was tumbled in earthquakes in 551 and 552AD, its columns collapsing onto the ground into lines of column drums like piles of stacked coins.
Seeing that fallen building, we wonder whether Oenomaus’ charioteer’s curse extended to the site of the famous (and deadly) race!
To all of this mayhem around women as prizes at athletic events, we would add one happy occasion. Among the stories about Heracles, there was that of his wrestling match with death. This was not done to win a prize for himself, but to rescue Alcestis, the heroic wife of Admetus, King of Pherae, who had given her life to save her husband. (In fact, Admetus had won Alcestis in a challenge—but that’s a story for another posting!) Having brought her back, Heracles, to tease Admetus, says, truthfully, that Alcestis was a woman he had won in a contest—but neglects to say with whom he’d wrestled!
(This, by the way, is a painting by Frederick, Lord Leighton, 1830-1896, who built much of his reputation on his reconstructions of the Greek classical and mythological world. We plan a future posting on him and on other classical myth-painters—among whom, in fact, was David, whom we mentioned above.)
Thanks, as ever, for reading.