When Greek women organized their own Olympic Games

A bronze sculpture of a female athlete from c. 560 BC. Credit: Caeciliusinhorto / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Olympic Games are the most spectacular and historic sporting event in the world. The Games regularly bring together more than a hundred countries in 35 different sports and 400 events.

The modern Olympic Games evolved from the ancient Games which were held from the 8th century BC. The Games were held in ancient Greece where they originated in Olympia. They take their name from this site. This first iteration of the competition was reserved exclusively for men to show off their strength, skills and endurance.

But the texts of the ancient Greek geographer Pausanias describe Olympic Games organized in the 2nd century AD exclusively for women: the Herean Games.

The History of Herean Games

Temple of Olympia Hera
The ruins of the Temple of Hera at Olympia. Credit: Ingo Mehling / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

There are very few historical records of the Herean Games, but they are believed to have taken place right after the traditional Olympics around 776 BC. Both versions of the games took place in the stadium of Olympia.

The Herean Games, named for the Greek goddess Hera, were held every four years. The games, which were associated with teenagers, were seen as a rite of passage into adulthood for women.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

The competition initially only included racing sports. The Heraen Games did not include combat sports, which of course made up a large part of the men’s games. The Heraean Games included:

  • Stadium : a sprint competition on the stadium running track (177 meters)
  • Diaulos: two consecutive sprint races on the stadium track (354 meters)
  • Hippies: four consecutive runs over the full length of the stadium (708 meters)
  • Dolichos: an endurance race of 18 to 24 laps around the stadium (approximately 3 miles)

The winners of each race were crowned with a wreath of olive leaves and animals were sacrificed in the name of Hera. The Greeks believed that the victors would be endowed with strength by eating the meat of animal sacrifices.

The winners were also given the opportunity to dedicate portraits and statues to Hera, and they would commemorate their athletic achievements by inscribing their names on the columns of Hera’s temple.

Women at the Heraean Games competed wearing a chitona kind of dress worn by the ancient Greeks, while men went through their competitions completely naked.

Both men’s and women’s games were discontinued in 393 AD when Roman Emperor Theodosius banned Panhellenic games and other religious festivals celebrated in ancient Greece.

The Legend of Cynisca and Spartan Women’s Athletics

Spartan women were not required to wear long dresses, a common custom in most of Greece. This quality of Spartan women’s fashion was seen as emblematic of the freedom, strength, and agility that Spartan women were known for.

Spartan society firmly believed that athletic women gave birth to strong children. Thus, Spartan women were allowed to ride horses and travel as they pleased, as well as hunt and wear short dresses.

One would assume that the majority of participants in the Herean Games were Spartan women.

Cynisca, the daughter of Archidamus II, King of Sparta, the first woman winner in the history of the Olympic Games. She owned a chariot that won the chariot race at the Games. Credit: Sophie de Renneville / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In fact, Cynisca, the daughter of Archidamus II, King of Sparta, was the first woman in history to win the Men’s Olympic Games.

Cynisca won the four-horse chariot races in 396 and 392 BC, as she was the owner of the chariot that won the race at those Olympics. She was honored by having a bronze statue of her, her chariot and her horses displayed in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

The inscription on the statue reads:

Kings of Sparta who are my father and my brothers
Kyniska, victorious with a chariot of swift-footed horses,
erected this statue. I declare myself the only woman
throughout Hellas for winning this crown.
Apelleas son of Kallikles did.

Ancient Greek translation:

Σπάρτας μὲν βασιλῆες ἐμοὶ: πατέρες καὶ ἀδελφοί, ἅρματι δ’ὠκυπόδων ἵππων: νικῶσα Κυνίσκα εἰκόνα τάνδ “ἔστασεν μόναν: δ’ἐμέ φαμι γυναικῶν Ἑλλάδος ἐκ πάσας τόν [-]: δε λαβεν στέφανον. Ἀπελλέας Καλλικλέος ἐπόησε.


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