Heroic Mimēsis and the Ancient Greek Athletic Spirit

Heather Reid

Citation with persistent identifier: Reid, Heather. “Heroic Mimēsis and the Ancient Greek Athletic Spirit.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:ReidH.Heroic_Mimesis_and_the_Ancient_Greek_Athletic_Spirit.2019


Moral education in ancient Greece engaged in what I call a cultural conspiracy to promote aretē.  In order to understand how sport functioned in that system, we need to connect athletic practice with the cultural phenomena that surround it, including myth, ritual, song, dance, literature, and visual art.  We need, in short, to understand “The Ancient Greek Athletic Spirit,” and to do that we must articulate it in a way that applies across disciplines and over time.  I attempt this by describing a three-stage process linked to the terms athlete, athlos, and athlon. I argue that the process derives from the stories of heroes, and claim that athletic practice represents a ritual mimēsis of that process, which cultivates virtue through experiential learning.  I connect the process with the stories of Herakles and Atalanta, suggesting that prenuptial footraces for girls may well serve as an educational mimēsis of the heroine’s race with Hippomenēs.  I conclude with some reflections on the importance of competition in archaic philosophy, which lays the metaphysical foundation upon which the link among ethics, aesthetics, athletics is built.


My research is motivated by the question of how sport can function as moral education. Since ethics and athletics are connected from the start in ancient Greek culture, I approach this philosophical question primarily through the study of athletics in ancient Greece and Rome. My work has had significant impact in Olympic Studies and the philosophy of sport, with my writings reaching athletes, coaches, administrators, physical education teachers, and journalists, as well as fellow scholars. Currently, I am engaged in an interdisciplinary study of “The Ancient Greek Athletic Spirit,” which examines the cultural links among ethics, athletics, and aesthetics from Archaic through Imperial times. I am striving to incorporate evidence from archaeology, history, literature, anthropology, and material culture into my philosophical argument.  Since that approach makes the project enormous I have decided to focus on female athletics, tracing the myth of Atalanta through to the footraces for parthenoi attested in the Imperial period.

I am devoting this academic year to the period before Socrates “invented” moral philosophy.  My month at the CHS was focused understanding the educational link between athletic practice and the mythological heroes. Since I do not normally have access to a good research library, I spent the first week of my residence reviewing the literature on archaic athletics, which has proliferated in recent years (i.e. Scanlon 2014, Christesen & Kyle 2014). I realized from this review that everyone discusses athletics in Homer, but few explore its connection to heroes and heroism, and no-one except Scanlon (2002) discusses the prototypical athletic hero, Atalanta.

Gregory Nagy (2014) introduced the idea that athletics is ritual mimēsis of heroic myth, I subsequently developed that idea into the hypothesis that this athletic mimēsis cultivates heroic aretē through experiential learning and Platonic anamnēsis (Reid 2017).  I realized, however, that if I wanted to make a truly interdisciplinary connection between ethics, athletics, and aesthetics, I needed to connect the athletic experience with the various other manifestations of the cultural values it attempts to promote.  In short, I needed articulate a versatile and enduring concept of the “athletic spirit” and explain where it comes from.

Because I had access to a variety of experts at the Center, not only Director Nagy, but also religion expert Jan Bremmer and linguist Mark Janse, I was able to formulate a description of the “Ancient Greek Athletic Spirit” as a process comprising three phases, linked to the terms athlete, athlos, and athlon. The first phase is characterized by the decision to become an athlete, which is based on an awareness of inadequacy on the personal, social, or cosmic levels (Lunt 2009).  In short, the person has a sense of how things should be and an awareness that they are not that way, which creates a desire to make them better. The next phase is the athlos, voluntary engagement in a struggle, contest, trial, labor, or whatever form of exertion is needed to make progress toward the goal (Scanlon 1983). The final phase is the athlon, which can refer to a material prize but should be associated with what the prize symbolizes – honor, immortality, independence, personal wisdom, citizenship, etc. (Nagy 1990). Philosophically, the athlon represents beauty, goodness, and truth, therefore the athlete’s desire to achieve it represents an erōs for the kalon.

This athletic cycle operates on multiple levels and is ontologically prior to sport.  It allows me, in effect, to link the essence of sport with aligned cultural activities such as song, ritual, art, literature, and philosophy.  Socrates is as much an athlete as Herakles or even Milo on this forumula.  Most athla do not result in victory, much less valuable prizes (Golden 1986), and even when they do, these are usually just steps toward the larger goal. The metaphysical background for this process, which can be carried out in the “micronarrative” of a single story, song, or contest, as well as the “macronarrative” of an entire life, epic poem, or tragedy, is fundamentally the contrast between a divine ideal, characterized by beauty, goodness, and truth, and imperfect reality, characterized by disorder, injustice, and mortality.  Simply put, the “Ancient Greek Athletic Spirit” involves movement from imperfection to perfection through an appropriate aesthetic orientation and voluntary engagement in public agōn.

That last thought reveals my Platonic biases, but the formula derives from the stories of heroes such as Herakles and Atalanta.  Herakles’ case was pretty straightforward (Padilla 1998, Stafford 2012). His acknowledgment of imperfection involves not only his mortality but also the antagonism of Hera, who delayed his birth and made him, to use Nagy’s (1990) word, “unseasonal.”  Herakles’ athla (normally translated as ‘labors’) made the concept famous well before it was linked to public gatherings and transformed into agōn (Scanlon 1983). Athletic agōnes are publically witnessed athla; although any ordeal which is sung or told about becomes public and thereby educational.  Herakles’ ultimate athlon is his apotheosis, but the completion of each labor makes the hero and his world a bit better. His struggles also lead to katharsis, understood as a clarification of vision (Golden 1969), both for the hero and for those who witness his feats. Significantly, Herakles’ challenges are never merely physical, intellectual, or spiritual; the hero needs strength, intelligence, and judgment (bia, mētis, dikē) to complete them. All of these virtues come together in the athlon, the moment of perfection characterized by beauty and order.

Since Herakles is so commonly associated with athletes and gymnasia, I expected his story to fit well with the “Ancient Greek Athletic Spirit.” What I didn’t expect was what the story of Atalanta would reveal.  There are scholars who deny outright that she is a hero (Howell & Howell 1989, Larson 1995), so the first thing I did was to compare her athla with others, as reported in ancient art and literature.  I found that they followed a similar pattern (including an Achilles-like dispute over her prize in the Calydonian boar hunt), but were distinctive in that they emphasized her maidenhood (Barringer 1996). This links up perfectly with what we know historically and anthropologically about female footraces in ancient Greece, namely that they originated in pre-nuptial initiation rites (Scanlon 1990, Serwint 1993). The possibility that these footraces were ritual reenactments of Atalanta’s race against Hippomenēs (or Melaniōn) fits my hypothesis about sport as educational mimēsis perfectly since it would allow the initiates to experience Atalanta’s life-and-death ordeal (athlos) and thereby to cultivate and demonstrate the virtues of a heroic parthenos.

Not only does Atalanta’s story illustrate the athlete-athlos-athlon formula, her particular virtues (andreia, sophrōsunē, and kalokagathia) are characteristic of athletes and gymnasium culture. Her challenge to opponents such as Pēleus and Hippomenēs has the characteristically athletic effect of making them better people.  The heroic death of her maidenhood, furthermore, begets the enduring athlon of her fame. I am currently exploring the intriguing possibility that Atalanta appears in gymnasium iconography because her parthenic virtues apply to male ephebes as well as females.  In any case, her story and her special kind of beauty shed important light on the underexplored connection between heroic virtues and athletic practice.

In the days before I left the CHS, I also laid the groundwork for a paper linking the metaphysical concept of strife in archaic thought with the ethical process of athlete, athlos, athlon illustrated by the heroes, and the ritual function and symbolism of the early Olympic Games. I argue that if we understand Olympic agōnes to be a representation of constructive eris, we might associate competition with justice as Heraclitus did in DK B80 (Kahn 1979). This agonistic image of harmony achieved through ordered opposition reverberates among the pre-Socratic philosophers, several of whom set their philosophy to verse, placing it firmly within the competitive song culture of archaic Greece, and suggesting not only that it was performed rather than read, but also that it represented a competitive response to Homeric and Hesiodic metaphysics (Benzi 2016).  It is characteristic of my work to connect athletics and philosophy in ancient Greece and I am happy to have found an important link between the two in the archaic period.

I intend to develop this metaphysical background this summer, when my annual conference on Western Greece will have the theme of agōn and feature a seminar on strife in Empedocles.  Next fall, I am organizing a conference on Pindar in Sicily and in preparation for that, I intend to explore the topic of choral dance, which may well have functioned analogously to athletics for parthenoi (Calame 2001).  Meanwhile, however, Atalanta has a wrestling hold on me and won’t let me go until I have done justice to the concept of athletics as mimēsis of heroic virtue.

Select Bibliography

Barringer, Judith M. 1996. “Atalanta as Model: The Hunter and the Hunted.” Classical Antiquity 15:1. 48-76.

Benzi, Nicolo. 2016. Philosophy in Verse: Competition and Early Greek Philosophical Thought. Durham theses, Durham University.

Calame, Claude. 2001. Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece. CHS: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn3:hul.ebook:CHS_Calame.Choruses_of_Young_Women_in_Ancient_Greece.2001

Christesen, Paul, and Donald Kyle, eds. 2014. A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity. West Sussex: Wiley.

Golden, Leon. 1969. “Mimesis and Katharsis.” Classical Philology 64:3. 145-153.

Golden, Mark. 1986. “Sport and Wage Labour in the Heracles Myth.” Arete: The Journal of Sport Literature 3:2. 145-158.

Howell, Reet A., and Maxwell L. Howell. 1989. “The Atalanta Legend in Art and Literature.” Journal of Sport History 16:2. 127-139.

Kahn, Charles H. 1979. The art and thought of Heraclitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larson, Jennifer. 1995. Greek Heroine Cults. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

London and New York:  Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

Lunt, David. 2009. “The Heroic Athlete in Ancient Greece.” Journal of Sport History 36:3. 375-392.

Nagy, Gregory. 1990. Pindar’s Homer The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nagy, Gregory. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Padilla, Mark W. 1998. The Myths of Herakles in Ancient Greece. Lanham: University Press of America.

Reid, Heather. 2007. “Sport as Moral Education in Plato’s Republic.Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 34:2. 160-175.

Reid, Heather. 2011. Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World: Contests of Virtue. New York and London: Routledge.

Reid, Heather. 2016. “Athletes as heroes and role models: an ancient model.” Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 11:1.

Reid, Heather. 2017. “Performing Virtue: Athletic Mimēsis in Platonic Education.” In Politics and Performance in Western Greece, ed. H. Reid, D. Tanasi, and S. Kimbell, 265-277. Sioux City: Parnassos Press.

Scanlon, Thomas, ed. 2014. Sport in the Greek and Roman Worlds, 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scanlon, Thomas. 1983. “The Vocabulary of Competition: Agon and Aethlos, Greek Terms for Contest.” Arete: The Journal of Sport Literature 1:1. 147-162.

———. 2002. Eros and Greek Athletics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Serwint, Nancy. 1993. “The Female Athletic Costume at the Heraia and Prenuptial Initiation Rites.” American Journal of Archaeology 97:3. 403-422.

Stafford, Emma. 2012.  Herakles. Oxon: Routledge.


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