Page 2. Ancient Greece: Origins of the Olympic Tradition, Role of Fire in Ritual & Additional Zoroastrian-Greek Connections
Origins of the Olympic Flame Tradition
|Prometheus brings fire to humankind|
Painting in oil by Heinrich Füger,c. 1817.
Füger depicts Prometheus holding the flame in triumph
over the arrogant tyranny of the Olympian gods.
His finger held to his lips
indicates the secretive nature of his deed.
At his feet rests a lifeless creature devoid of life's warmth
which will be brought with the fire.
Image credit: Liechtenstein Museum
Prometheus' Theft of Fire. The Titans
The Greek traditions surrounding the lighting of the Olympic flame have rather ignominious beginnings in the theft of fire from the Olympian Greek god Zeus by Prometheus, a Titan. The Titans were a race of powerful elder gods who ruled during the legendary Golden Age. The Titans were overthrown by a race of younger gods, the Olympians who had their home on Mount Olympus. If religious developments reflected societal developments, the change may have marked a separation from older and perhaps more eastern Greek traditions. After the theft, Prometheus hid the fire in a giant fennel-stalk and gave it to the "old race" of mortals that Zeus was planning to destroy and replace with a "new race". The myth is enacted in a play written by Aeschylus (525/4-256/5 BCE), the first part of which named Prometheus Bound, survives. (Also see the Greek gods as historical personages at The Agamemnon Homepage.)
Fire - the Secrets of Life
In giving mortals the fire, Prometheus also endowed the mortals with the spark and secrets of life and became their champion. The fire revealed the secrets of knowledge, wisdom and the human spirit to humankind.
Prometheus' Punishment in the Caucasus Mountains
Enraged by this act of defiance and challenge to his supremacy, Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock in the Caucasus mountains where his liver was eaten daily by an eagle. We find mention of the Caucuses in this myth - representing the older mythology - very interesting. The Caucasus mountains are considerably east of modern Greece and formed the north-western border of ancient Aryan lands. Some authors even identify the mountain to which Prometheus was chained as Mt. Elburz which would place this myth even further east.
We also find it interesting that this myth (one of the few Greek myths that mention the Caucuses or the eastern realms east of the Black Sea) is also associated with fire and the consequent survival of the "old race" of mortals. Our interest and curiosity grow when we realize that the celebration of this myth is preserved by the ancient torch relays and the Olympic games with its ideals of replacing conflict with competition based on rules of fairness - ideals symbolized by the veneration of a sacred flame.
Greeks & Aryans in Asia Minor
At one time in history, ancient Greek lands in Asia Minor likely bordered (or were in close proximity to) western Indo-Iranian Aryan lands in present-day Asia Minor.
Numerous authors have suggested some form of linkage between Greek and Hittite gods and between the Greek states and Asia via the trade routes through Asia Minor, as well as via the Black Sea and the Caucuses. See The Greek and Hittite Gods by William Hayes Ward (in Essays in Modern Theology and Related Subjects by Charles Augustus Briggs); Myths Concerning Aia by R. Bedrosian. Also see Places of Myth at Poseidon's Greek Mythology. Prometheus is also the god of metallurgy, a craft made possible by the discovery of fire. Homer and Hesiod locate the forge of Prometheus' nephew or work mate, Hephaestus, in eastern Asia Minor, in the land of the Arima associated with the land west of Lake Van in eastern Asia Minor. This area is associated with Ranghaya, the western Aryan lands and not too far from the forge of the blacksmith Kaveh in the Zagros. The Aryans (Indo-Iranians) had discovered the art of making fire and metallurgy early in their history.
Parallels in Greek & Aryan Myth
Readers who are familiar with the battles between the deva and asura worshippers, a struggle preserved as a battle between their respective gods, will find some interesting parallels between the deva-asura and Olympian-Titan myths. There were twelve gods in the Titan pantheon, six male and six female. Most of the Titans were associated with nature and natural phenomena: the ocean, earth, sun, moon, memory and natural law. The twelve first-generation Titans were ruled by the youngest sibling, Cronus / Kronos (whose Roman counterpart was Saturn), who had gained power after overthrowing their father, Ouranos (Uranus), the non-anthropomorphic god of the sky and heavens at the urging of their mother, Gaia goddess of the earth. Gaia was pained by Ouranos' hatred of her children, the Titans, who he had trapped within her womb - deep within the earth - causing Gaia much suffering from the strain. (Zoroastrianism contains the concept of gaya, life.) In later Greek mythology, the goddess Persephone (see below) is also found trapped deep within the earth.
Georges Dumézil in his Ouranós-Váruna: Étude de mythologie comparée indo-européenne (Paris:Maisonneuve 1934), proposed some similarities between Ouranos and Vedic asura Varuna based on linguistics. In addition, the ancient Greek term for mother-earth, ga-mater, is close to the Sanskrit gau-mata, cow-mother signifying mother-life or mother-earth in Aryan usage.
Role of Fire in Ancient Greek Ritual
|Hestia tending the fire. Image credit: clipart.com|
The Home Hearth, Fire Altars & Hestia
In his book Greek Religion, Walter Burker starts his section on Fire Rituals with the comment "Fire is one of the foundations of civilized life." In ancient Greece, the word for hearth hestia, was also the name of the hearth flame's guardian goddess, Hestia (Roman Vesta. Roman worship of Vesta differed from the Grecian Hestia. The Roman fire was cared for by the six Vestal Virgins) (see Wikipedia article). Hestia is thought by some writers to be an Indo-European goddess, brought by the Indo-Europeans when they came to Greece around the second century BCE.
Ever-burning Fires of Apollo
Just as the home fire was not permitted to die out, was too was an ever-burning fire maintained in some temples such as the temple of Apollo in Delphi, the temple of Apollo Lykeios at Argos, and the temple of Apollo Karneios in Cyrene. "Hestia, you who tend the holy house of the lord Apollo, the far-shooter, with soft oil dripping ever from your locks, come now into this house, come, having one mind with Zeus the all-wise, draw near, and withal bestow grace upon my song." (Homeric Hymn to Hestia 24).
Role of Fire in Rituals
When a member of a household died, the heart fire was extinguished and after the required period of mourning, the fire was rekindled with a fire from the state hearth. The fires on the island of Lemnos are 'purified' once a year by a community-wide ritual when all the fires on the island were extinguished for a period of nine days. Then, the fires are reignited using a fire brought by ship from the temple in Delos. When a new Greek colony was established, the flame from Hestia's public hearth in the mother city would be carried to the new settlement and a symbol of the linkage and continuity with the older community.
Hestia as Goddess of the Home & Peace
Hestia was the goddess of the home and household as well. In these roles, she was the guardian of correctly cooked meals and the maintenance of domestic tranquility. It was normal for an offering to be made to Hestia before and after every meal and indeed before any public offerings to other gods: "pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last" is a phrase found in Homer's ode to Hestia. Her role as peace-maker and conflict-resolver was reflected in myth where despite being the oldest (the first-born of Rhea and Kronos, and paradoxically the youngest as well) of the twelve original Olympian gods, she gave up her seat in order to tend to the sacred fire on Mt. Olympus and accommodate the newcomer Dionysus. Hestia, and thereby fire, became a symbol for civic peace and good order in a manner similar to fire being the symbol of Asha, righteous order in Zoroastrianism. As an unassuming goddess who did not partake in exploits or wars, Hestia's name does not occur frequently in Greek mythology. During the observance of the Olympic games, a truce was declared across Greece and all conflicts were to be suspended.
Fires as Symbol of Divine Presence
The fires of Hestia were considered divine and "a sudden burst of flame from the altar" was seen as a sign of divine presence.
Source & Lighting of Sacred Fires
Since the fires of Hestia were considered divine, the fires were lit from sources considered to be pure: the sun and by friction.
|Prytaneion at Ephesus (now in Turkey's Aegean coast)|
which housed the sacred, ever-burning fire of Hestia
Image credit: khoogheem at Flickr
Outdoor & Indoor Fire Altars
In a manner similar to open-air fires lit by early Aryans for their ceremonies, many orthodox Greek temples had a fire altar in the open air opposite the entrance. Some temples such as the temple of Apollo also had an inner hestia or hearth. The temples that had outdoor altars lit their fires on special occasions, while temples with indoor hearths had the ability to maintain continuous ever-burning fires.
Prytaneum / Prytaneion
The indoor hearths of Hestia were housed in a building called a Prytaneum / Prytaneion. The indoor altar of Hestia in the Prytaneum is reminiscent of the Persian Pyraetheia tended by the magi and referred to by Strabo.
Outdoor Fire Altars
The outdoor altar of Zeus at Olympia replicates the outdoor worship setting of ancient Zoroastrians who lit a fire "on high places" at times of public worship as observed by Herodotus.
The ritual fires were designed to appeal to all the senses. The materials could also be those that added fragrance to the fire's smoke and thereby to the surroundings. According to Homer, the gods too had their "fragrant altars" and the fragrance of temporal fires may have had the purpose of inducing a sacred experience in "an atmosphere of divine fragrance." The fragrance resulted from the selection of wood used as well as materials added to the fire. The use of frankincense imported from the Middle East was customary.
Differences in the Ritual Use of Fires
While there are some striking similarities and interesting parallels between the ancient Greek and Zoroastrian use of fire in worship and ritual, there are also important differences. The Greeks appeared to adopted the Semitic custom of using fire for animals (and reportedly human) sacrifices. This concept is completely alien to Zoroastrian values which would consider a burnt offering or cremation to be a form of pollution and therefore a sin.
Additional Ancient Greek-Zoroastrian Connections
The goddess Hera (Zeus' wife and sister) is often depicted holding a pomegranate (see our page on Barsom. The pomegranate is native to eastern Iran / Central Asia and not to Greece. According to a Wikipedia article, even today, the pomegranate has strong symbolic meaning for the Greeks).
The pomegranate is also a symbolic item associated with Persephone, a name that appears to mean 'Persian-speaker', but whose meaning is given as 'destruction' (from the verb, perthein ?!) by most writers who engage in considerable mechanics to try and avoid any suggestion that Greeks might have eastern i.e. pseudo-Persian origins or connections. Even the name Perses (see below) - the ancestor of the Persians according to Greek mythology - is also taken to mean destruction. David Sacks, Oswyn Murray and Margaret Bunson in A Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World state that Persephone was worshipped before the Greeks settled in present-day Greece and was a pre-Greek, i.e. pre 2100 BCE, deity. Persephone is often depicted holding a flaming torch.
Perseus & Perses
In Greek mythology, Perseus, son of Zeus and the maiden Danae, is the legendary founder of the state of Mycenae and its Perseid dynasty. [Mycenae was the dominant Greek city-state in the second millennium BCE, and a centre of Greek civilization. Today, the city's ruins are located 90 km south-west of Athens, in the north-eastern Peloponnese.]
Perseus' son Perses is credited as being the eponymous ancestor of the Persians in Greek mythology. Perseus is associated by some writers with Mithra, an angel in Zoroastrianism and a pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Iranian asura. This suggestion of a Mithraic connection bears further research and has interesting implications.
Aia was a mythical kingdom located in the south-eastern corner of the Black Sea where it meets the Caucuses. We find mention of Aia in the myths of Phrixus and the Ram, as well as the myth of Circe in book ten of Homer's (eighth century BCE) Odyssey. It these myths, Aia was ruled by King Aeetes, a son of Helios the sun god, and Perse (or Perseis), a sea nymph. Aeetes was also the father of Chalciope, Medea (compare with Media), and a son, Apsyrtus.
Aia, Aeetes, and his family appear again in the well known story of Jason and the Argonauts, one of the oldest of Greek myths. Both Medea and her aunt Circe have extensive knowledge of the healing plants and medicines (cf. Haoma). The Homeric myths allude to a migration of Aia soldiers and Medea westward. (Reference: Greek Mythology)
Possible Origins of Greek-Persian Connections
It is our impression that Greek-Persian connections can be traced to the era following the creation of the sixteenth Aryan land, Ranghaya, the last Aryan land to be mentioned in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta (please see our map the Aryan lands). The following are some factors that lead us to this impression:
- In mythology, there appear to be connections Aryan, Hittite and Greek mythology (see Parallels in Greek & Aryan Myth above).
- In Greek mythology Persephone, Perseus & Perses appear to record elements of the connection.
- The legend of Prometheus centres around the Caucasus Mountains
- From Ranghaya, Aryan groups could have fanned out and continued spreading along the Aryan trade roads:
- north to Caucasus Mountains, and from there along the southern Black Sea coast
- West to the Hittite lands and
- Further west to the shores of Asia Minor to what would become Ionian Greece
- By this reasoning the earlier pre-Greek settlements would have been the west and northwest coasts of Asia Minor
- South-west to the Mitanni and Aramaean lands
- South-east to Media (alternatively Media could have emerged from the twelfth Vendidad land, Ragha)
- South-south-east to Persia
- Aryan traders would have maintained interaction between the different groups
- Greeks referred to Greek allies of Persia as Medized Greeks, considering Persians to be Medes
- King Darius the Great gave Greek aristocrats special access to the Persian court
- The establishment of the Persian empire by Cyrus included for the main part historic Aryan lands or lands along the Aryan trade roads - a uniting of the extended family so-to-speak.
Site of interest:
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