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Pythian Games

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Delphi museum the pythian games stadium

The Pythian Games (Greek: Πύθια; also Delphic Games) were one of the four Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece. They were held in honour of Apollo every four years at his sanctuary at Delphi. They were held two years after each Olympic Games, and between each Nemean and Isthmian Games. The Pythian Games were founded sometime in the 6th century BC, and, unlike the Olympic Games, also featured competitions for art and dance. The art and dance competitions pre-dated the athletic portion of the games, and were said to have been started by Apollo after he killed Python and set up the oracle at Delphi. Otherwise, the athletic events were the same as those at the Olympic Games.


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The winners received a wreath of bay laurel, sacred to Apollo, from the city of Tempe, in Thessaly. Smaller versions of the Pythian Games were celebrated in many other cities of the Levant and Greece.

Pythian Games Delphi the Pythia Apollo Greek god Apollo

The pythian games


The Pythian Games supposedly start with the mythical serpent, Python. It had been sent to chase the pregnant goddess Leto by a jealous Hera. Leto managed to escape and gave birth to Artemis and Apollo. Despite being only a few days old, Apollo swore vengeance on Python and vowed to kill him. Meanwhile, Python had fled to Delphi and hidden himself there. Apollo followed him and, after a fierce battle, slew the monster with his bow. After burying the body, Apollo founded the oracle of Delphi. However, by slaying Python, Apollo had committed a crime and Zeus declared that he had to make amends. Apollo then created the Pythian Games to pay for the death. According to another version, Apollo exiled himself in the land of the Hyperboreans and founded the Pythian Games upon his return, as a sign of celebration.


The historical timeframe of the Pythian Games started in 582 BC, when the administration of the Games was handed over to the Delphic Amphictyony, a council of twelve Greek tribes, at the end of the First Sacred War. As of that time, they did not take place every eight years as in the past, but every four years, two years before and after the Olympic Games, presumably at the end of August.

In the beginning, only musical contests were held in the Pythian Games then extended by singing to instrumental performances. These retained great importance as also in the other big festivals, although with the new rearrangement gymnastic competitions and chariot racing were also introduced to the games.

Preparations for the games began six months prior. Nine citizens from Delphi, called Theoroi, were sent to all Greek cities to announce the beginning of the games in order to attract athletes, as well as to declare the period of the Sacred Truce (Hierominia), aiming at protecting not only the Theoroi and the athletes who travelled to Delphi, but also the temple of Apollo itself. If a city was involved in armed conflict or in robberies during that period, its citizens were forbidden to enter the Sanctuary, participate at the games, or consult the Oracle. At the same time, the truce allowed the Amphictyony to focus on preparing for the games, which included restorations for all structures of the Sanctuary, from the temples to the streets and fountains. Scores of people flocked out of entire Greece, bringing in substantial revenue to the city.

Despite the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the 4th century, Delphi remained an active pagan site and the Pythian Games continued to be celebrated at least until AD 424.


Unfortunately, the testimonials and documents covering the Delphic Games were mainly destroyed through human violence and natural catastrophes. All the remaining resources highlight the glory and glamour of the Games. The records of Aristoteles present an overview about the festivities: the Games lasted for six to eight days and were started by a reenactment of the victory of Apollo over Python. In a festive and glamorous procession a ritual sacrifice was performed in the Temple of Apollo. After four days of festivities the Games began.


The athletic competition included four track sports (stade, diaulos, dolichos and hoplitodromos (racing encumbered with pieces of Hoplite armor)), wrestling, boxing, pankration, and the pentathlon. These sports were introduced to the games gradually over time. The final day of the games was dedicated to equestrian races which gradually came to include harness racing, synoris (a chariot drawn by two horses), chariot drawn by four horses, and racing with a horse (without a chariot), held in a hippodrome in the plain of Krisa, not far from the sea, in the place where the original stadium was sited. (ref: Pindar) The other athletic contests took place in the Stadium.

In the Roman period theatrical competitions were introduced, carried out in the late-Hellenistic theater.

The musical disciplines included:

  • A Hymn addressed to Apollo, the god of arts and music.
  • Aulos (reed pipe) and kithara (an old Greek string instrument) with or without singing
  • Acting and dance
  • Painting
  • Prizes

    No monetary prizes were awarded to winners in the Games. Instead they received a wreath of bay laurel, sacred to Apollo, from the city of Tempe, in Thessaly. This is similar to the practice in the other Panhellenic games, which were all on this account called "stephanitic" ("crown") games. Smaller versions of the Pythian Games were celebrated in many other cities of the Levant and Greece.

    Pindar and the Pythionikoi

    Of the 45 poems composed by the Theban poet Pindar in honor of winners at the Panhellenic games, 12 were called Pythionikoi, since they were composed for winners at the Pythian Games. These special constitute a special source for the Games. In those poems, Pindar praises not only the victors, but also their families, as well as the aristocratic and athletic ideals of the late archaic period.

    The Pythionikoi as a source of information

    Pindar worked on lyric poetry. The largest part of his surviving works is the Victory Odes (Epinikia), chorus songs to be sung in the homeland of the winner of the Games upon his return. The Greek aristocracy of the first half of the 5th c. B.C., mostly the tyrants of Sicily and the conservative aristocracy of Aegina, constituted the clientelle of the poet. Thus, his Odes of Victory reflect the aristocratic ideals which were losing ground so fast. The winner’s laudation is reinforced by adding mythological details. However, a prerequisite for understanding and cherishing the poems is a well-educated audience. The poet uses his work not only to speak of the victory won by his client and his family, but also to accentuate the family’s history and its connections all over Greece. The total number of Victory Odes is 45 celebrating the winners in the four most famous panhellenic athletic competitions: the Olympic, the Nemean, the Pythian and the Isthmian Games. The hymns celebrating victories in Pythian Games include 12 odes and offer information on the exact competition of each athlete. Thus, we can constitute a list of the winners as follows: In 498 B.C. Hippokles from Thessaly won at the children's diaulus (10th Pythionicus). In 490 B.C. Midas from Akragas won at the musical contests as a flute player (12th Pythionicus). In 486 B.C. Megakles from Athens won at the chariot racing (7th Pythionicus. In 475 (?) and in 474(?) B.C. Hieron of Syracuse won the chariot racing (2nd Pythionicus. In 474 Thrasydaeus from Thebes won at the children's stadium (11th Pythionicus) and Telesikrates from Cyrene won at the armed race (9th Pythionicus). In 470 B.C. Hieron from Aetna won at the chariot racing (1st Pythinicus). Finally, in 462/1 B.C. Arkesilaus from Cyrene won at the chariot racing (4th and 5th Pythionikoi).

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