Pythian Games: their mythical history

A 1800 years old brief overview of the Pythian Games!

The old­est con­test and the one for which they first of­fered prizes was, ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, the singing of a hymn to the god. The man who sang and won the prize was Chrysothemis of Crete, whose fa­ther Car­manor is said to have cleansed Apollo. After Chrysothemis, says tra­di­tion, Phil­am­mon won with a song, and after him his son Thamyris. But they say that Or­pheus, a proud man and con­ceited about his mys­ter­ies, and Musaeus, who copied Or­pheus in every­thing, re­fused to sub­mit to the com­pe­ti­tion in mu­si­cal skill.

They say too that Eleuther won a Pythian vic­tory for his loud and sweet voice, for the song that he sang was not of his own com­po­si­tion. The story is that Hes­iod too was de­barred from com­pet­ing be­cause he had not learned to ac­com­pany his own singing on the harp. Homer too came to Del­phi to in­quire about his needs, but even though he had learned to play the harp, he would have found the skill use­less owing to the loss of his eye-sight.


In the third year of the forty-eighth Olympiad, at which Glau­cias of Cro­tona was vic­to­ri­ous, the Am­ph­ic­tyons held con­tests for harp­ing as from the be­gin­ning, but added com­pe­ti­tions for flute-play­ing and for singing to the flute. The con­querors pro­claimed were Melam­pus, a Cephal­len­ian, for harp­ing, and Echem­bro­tus, an Ar­ca­dian, for singing to the flute, with Sacadas of Argos for flute-play­ing. This same Sacadas won vic­to­ries at the next two Pythian fes­ti­vals.

On that oc­ca­sion they also of­fered for the first time prizes for ath­letes, the com­pe­ti­tions being the same as those at Olympia, ex­cept the four-horse char­iot, and the Del­phi­ans them­selves added to the con­tests run­ning-races for boys, the long course and the dou­ble course. At the sec­ond Pythian Fes­ti­val they no longer of­fered prizes for events, and here­after gave a crown for vic­tory. On this oc­ca­sion they no longer in­cluded singing to the flute, think­ing that the music was ill-omened to lis­ten to. For the tunes of the flute were most dis­mal, and the words sung to the tunes were lamen­ta­tions.

What I say is con­firmed by the vo­tive of­fer­ing of Echem­bro­tus, a bronze tri­pod ded­i­cated to the Her­a­cles at Thebes. The tri­pod has as its in­scrip­tion:

Echem­bro­tus of Ar­ca­dia ded­i­cated this pleas­ant gift to Her­a­cles
When he won a vic­tory at the games of the Am­ph­ic­tyons,
Singing for the Greeks tunes and lamen­ta­tions.

In this way the com­pe­ti­tion in singing to the flute was dropped. But they added a char­iot-race, and Cleis­thenes, the tyrant of Sicyon, was pro­claimed vic­tor in the char­iot-race.

At the eighth Pythian Fes­ti­val they added a con­test for harpists play­ing with­out singing; Age­laus of Tegea was crowned. At the twenty-third Pythian Fes­ti­val they added a race in ar­mour. For this Timaene­tus of Phlius won the lau­rel, five Olympiads after Damare­tus of Her­aea was vic­to­ri­ous. At the forty-eighth Pythian Fes­ti­val they es­tab­lished a race for two-horse char­i­ots, and the char­iot won of Ex­e­ces­tides the Pho­cian. At the fifth Fes­ti­val after this they yoked foals to a char­iot, and the char­iot of Or­phon­das of Thebes came in first.

The pan­cratium for boys, a race for a char­iot drawn by two foals, and a race for rid­den foals, were many years af­ter­wards in­tro­duced from Elis. The first was brought in at the sixty-first Pythian Fes­ti­val, and Io­laidas of Thebes was vic­to­ri­ous. At the next Fes­ti­val but one they held a race for a rid­den foal, and at the sixty-ninth Fes­ti­val a race for a char­iot drawn by two foals; the vic­tor pro­claimed for the for­mer was Ly­cor­mas of Lar­isa, for the lat­ter Ptolemy the Mace­don­ian. For the kings of Egypt liked to be called Mace­do­nians, as in fact they were.

The rea­son why a crown of lau­rel is the prize for a Pythian vic­tory is in my opin­ion sim­ply and solely be­cause the pre­vail­ing tra­di­tion has it that Apollo fell in love with the daugh­ter of Ladon.

Pau­sa­nias, DE­SCRIP­TION OF GREECE, (Trans. by W. H. S. Jones)


Pau­sa­nias (Greek: Παυσανίας, c. AD 110 – c. 180) was a Greek trav­eler and ge­o­g­ra­pher of the 2nd cen­tury AD, who lived in the times of Hadrian, An­ton­i­nus Pius and Mar­cus Au­re­lius.

He is fa­mous for his De­scrip­tion of Greece (Ἑλλάδος περιήγησις Hel­la­dos Perie­ge­sis) a lengthy work that de­scribes an­cient Greece from first­hand ob­ser­va­tions, and is a cru­cial link be­tween clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture and mod­ern ar­chae­ol­ogy.

This article is republished courtesly from the your guide for Delphi, the “Navel of the Earth”.