“What is remarkable about [ancient] Greek sport,” says David Sansone in Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport, “is the seriousness with which it was taken as a cultural and even religious phenomenon.” “Sport is, no less than burnt offerings and libations, a form of ritual sacrifice.”
Though spotlighted almost exclusively in entertainment — and rarely so in politics, except in occasional attempts to portray the other side as psychologically dysfunctional — one of the major divisions in the West is between those who are physical — or “sporty” — and those who regard themselves as intellectual or spiritual.
The modern West represents an abnormal mind versus body mentality. The physical man, the intellectual, and the spiritual person are, as such, merely fragments of the Higher Man (Chinese: Chun Tzu), who, historically, has cultivated mind, body, and spirit — devoting himself to archery, the martial arts, painting, calligraphy, philosophy, rhetoric, and so on.
This fragmentation is relatively new. Until recently, fencing has been associated with some of the more purposeful and elite college fraternities, especially in Germany. And in the private boys’ schools of Britain, the aggressive sport of rugby continues to play a somewhat significant role.
In ancient Greece, the two major events were the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Olympics. The latter, today, is purely a sporting event, with overtones of geopolitics and appeals to tourism.
Sports offer opportunities to excel, physically and mentally, and to go beyond what athletes in the past have achieved. Nevertheless, the modern world contrasts the pre-modern by the general absence of the transcendent. For the ancient Greeks, athletics were also to some degree spiritual. First recorded in 776 BC, the Olympics were held in honor of Zeus, Father of the gods. Its ceremonialism was intimately connected, as Sansone has demonstrated, to ceremonial sacrifice, and the pre-history of that religious function in hunting.
Like the oxen that were ritually sacrificed, the victor in ancient Greek athletics was decorated with wooden fillets, signifying his being consecrated to a god. He was also presented with a kind of cauldron on a tripod, called a lebes. These otherwise served to boil sacrificial meat. The ritual implements are with us still, with the “cup” being perhaps the most sought after prize in an array of sports.
The figure of the priestess, likewise, floats across the horizons of the Olympics still, at least occasionally. In 2012, among the ruins of the Temple of Hera — the original site of the Olympics — the torch-lighting ceremony was reenacted, with synchronized dancers in ancient Greek-style dress. Playing the role of High Priestess, actress Ino Menegaki ceremonially lit the torch.
The reenactment of the ancient ceremony sharply contrasted the actual Olympics opening ceremony in London, which — as if a kind of emotional stink bomb thrown by an intellectual class cut off from spiritual knowledge of the body — featured child actors playing sick in hospital beds. It was a clear attempt to remind us of the potential frailty of our own body, and, by extension a warning — to use an American phrase — not to go there. It was anti-spiritual and anti-initiatic, and, as such, anti-Olympics.
The contrast of the two is the contrast not of notions, but of worlds — the transcendent versus the dumbed down. The Roman Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton sums up the two when he asserts that a young man can keep himself “from vice” (i.e., sleeping around) either by thinking of diseases or by meditating on the Virgin Mary. “There may be a question about which method is more reasonable,” says Chesterton, “or even which is more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is more wholesome.”
The term “wholesome” itself might indicate a certain modernist — at least early 20th century — perspective creeping in, in the same way that Virtus (Higher masculine qualities) descended to virtues and, from there, to prissiness to be avoided. Chesterton seems, in truth, to mean transcendent. The Virgin Mary, the priestess, Zeus, etc., do not offer us something more wholesome per se but something more transcendental — a way of elevating ourselves to the Higher Man. Athletics as a sacrifice to the Divine, means that it cannot become an act of egotism. It is, like other actions done with an orientation toward the transcendent, a sacrament.