Panhellenic Sanctuary of Zeus
Nemea is on the north-eastern part of the Peloponnese in the prefecture of Corinthia, southern mainland Greece. Ancient Nemea is the old stamping ground of Heracles and a precinct and sanctuary sacred and dedicated to the God of Nemean Zeus.
Situated amongst gentle rolling hills overflowing with Greece’s premier vineyards lays Ancient Nemea, famous in Greek mythology as the place where Heracles slew the ferocious Nemean Lion.
There’s no sign of Heracles these days, but the local red wine is known as the ‘blood of Heracles’ and among the sacred cypress trees at Nemea’s sanctuary of Zeus, the timeless 4th century BC Temple of Nemean Zeus currently endures as the proud witness to the legendary feats of antiquity.
Nemea was not actually a permanently inhabited town, but one of four famous ancient Greek Panhellenic sanctuaries (Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia were the others) where festivals (Games) took place in rotation in the late summer every two years. During the classical period, all four Games were of an equal importance and the ancient Athenians awarded free meals for life to her citizens who won a crown at any of four games.
According to the oldest myth, the establishment of the Nemean games is attributed to the death of the prince Opheltes, the infant son of Nemean Priest King Lykourgos and Eurydike.
When Opheltes was born, the King consulted the Pythian oracle of Delphi on how to ensure the well-being of his new son. The Pythian oracle responded the baby must not touch the ground until he could walk. The nursemaid, entrusted by the king to look after his son, was walking through a meadow with the Royal baby when she was approached by the “Seven champions marching against Thebes” asking her for something to quench their thirst.
The nursemaid placed the infant down momentarily on a bed of wild celery to fetch them water from a nearby stream. Tragically, a snake that lay concealed in the celery killed the baby prince. The “Seven Against Thebes” took this death as a bad omen (which it turned out to be) for their own mission and renamed the baby Archemoros “Beginner of Doom” and to appease the gods they held the funeral games, hence founding the Nemean Games.
In honour of the infant prince Opheltes, the Games Judges wore black robes of mourners and victors received a crown of wild celery. This was normal practice for the duration of the Nemean Games through the centuries.
By the end of the 5th century, the sanctuary of Zeus had been destroyed and the Games were transferred to Argos, a nearby powerful city of ancient Greece. The games returned to Nemea around 330 BC when the city was raised from ruins by a burst of building activity that included a new Temple and Stadium of which are to be seen today.
Unfortunately, the new prosperity was short-lived when the games were once again transferred to Argos with the sad fact they were never returned to Nemea. Over the following centuries, the sanctuary was abandoned and the temple columns were knocked down and used for other building projects.
Fortunately for us, the temple has been restored in parts and so has the stadium, thanks to the dedicated efforts of many including the University of California at Berkeley operating under the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and with the permission and supervision of the Archaeological Service of the Ministry of Culture of the Hellenic Republic. The Director of those excavations was Professor Stephen G. Miller.
The Nemean games resumed in 1996 thanks to the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games, a movement intended to resurrect the competitive and egalitarian spirit of ancient Greek athletics. They have been held every 4 years since and are open to anyone who wishes to take part.
I have been to Ancient Nemea several times and I have always found it a highly rewarding site to visit. It has a splendid museum and the Temple of Nemean Zeus and the Stadium are outstanding examples of their time.
All Images, Text and Content are Copyright Steven Sklifas.