“Myth” is a term that is derived from the Greek mythos,
meaning “word,” “speech,” “tale,” or “story.” A “story” is
the essence of the term in the present context. But a
“myth” can be more accurately defined as a traditional
tale having collective importance for a society, often
treating religious, cosmic, or heroic themes.
Mythical accounts of sports may be classified by
their formal narrative contexts and rich variety of
themes. Ultimately, their common significance lies in
the theme of contest itself. In ancient Greek myth,
sports episodes are found in essentially three different
contexts, which have counterparts in many myths in
other cultures. First, in the challenge contest, a divinity
or hero is challenged by one of equal or lower status to
a contest in a specific athletic discipline. Second in the
festival contest, games are held to honor a god, a deceased hero, or a guest, or take place to mark a military
victory. Finally, the bride contest is held, often by a father who is also the king, who gives to the victorious
suitor both his daughter in marriage and succession to
the throne. Aspects of the three forms can of course be
combined in a single episode.
All three settings establish oppositions between individual gods or mortals, and in most cases the result
is the conferral on the victor of an enhanced rank or
honor. In the few cases in which the contest is a draw,
both contestants are generally established as having
equal honor. In its simplest form, the mythical sporting
event pairs forces of “goodness,” civilization, productivity, or order against those of “evil,” barbarism, destruction, or chaos. In more complex forms, the antagonists
each have positive and negative attributes, though usually the narrative is biased, on balance, to favor the
more positive contestant. The presence of audience or
referees guides the reader (or listener) in his or her
sympathies toward the contestants.
In the challenge contest, typically an overly self-confident antagonist challenges a hero to competition in a
specific event. The challenger is usually defeated, and
often killed by the hero. The contest may closely resemble a duel, but the essential differences are that in duel,
the overt object is killing or displacing an opponent
from power, whereas in the contest, the quest for simple victory can escalate into a struggle for more serious
stakes, often because of an overzealous attack by the
challenger. The paired contestants often represent the
civilized versus barbarian; the latter is characterized by
hybris or “wanton violence” whose only motive is selfaggrandizement at the expense of the honor of another.
In the Odyssey (18.66–101), for example, Odysseus,
himself disguised as an old beggar, is challenged to an
impromptu boxing match by Iros, another beggar in
the palace. Iros is not killed, but badly injured and
evicted, much to the amusement of an audience of freeloading suitors. The episode serves as a relatively
peaceful foreshadowing of Odysseus’s slaughter of the
suitors and further illustrates the violation of the code
of guest-friendship by both the suitors and Iros. The
civilized-barbarian opposition is frequent in Greek
challenge contests, including some minor labors of
Wrestling or some form of a weaponless combat
sport is, along with the footrace, the most universal of
contests found in myths, and is frequently found in the
challenge myths. In the Old English epic, Beowulf, the
hero defeats Grendel in wrestling. The Icelandic
Younger Edda depicts Thor as victor over the female
opponent Elli in wrestling. and the motif of a waylaying
giant who wrestles passersby is found in the folktales
of Scandinavians, Russians, and the Baltic peoples.
But good does not consistently defeat evil, as in the
Greek pattern of wrestling contests. The oldest literary
account of such a challenge is the wrestling match of
Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the Mesopotamian Epic of
Gilgamesh (Tablet 2), dated to the 13th century B.C.E.
The gods create a savage man of nature, Enkidu, who
challenges Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk and the builder
of a great city, to a wrestling match. Gilgamesh prevails,
again asserting through myth a higher valuation of civilization. The two immediately gain mutual respect
through the ordeal and undertake several heroic adventures together.
Other great cultural leaders come to prominence after a wrestling match, including Jacob and Muhammad. Jacob, prior to meeting a hostile brother, Esau,
wrestles until dawn a stranger who defeats him, but
promises him a greater destiny with his new name, Israel (Genesis 32.25–29). The “stranger” is an agent of
God, and the event is an obvious rite of passage, confirming Jacob’s progress toward becoming patriarch of
his namesake people. Muhammad’s match also ends
felicitously when the prophet persuades a skeptical
strongman of the truth of his message by wrestling and
defeating him twice. Contrary to the Greek pattern, the
stories of both Jacob and Muhammad portray the challenger as victor. But like the Gilgamesh tale, these do
not end in death and reinforce the physical and spiritual strength of a people’s leader.
The challenge motif is also found in sports other
than wrestling among non-Mediterranean cultures, for
example in ball games, which are virtually absent from
Mediterranean myths and cultures.
Challenge myths involving wrestling also frequently
involve a hero who confronts awesome divine or natural forces.Again, Herakles is an archetype of such stories, notably taking on and defeating the divinity
Thanatos (Death) on behalf of the doomed woman, Alcestis. In Sophocles’ Women of Trachis (8–26), Herakles
challenged and wrestled a shape-shifting bull-serpentman, Acheloos, who tried to carry off Deianeira as
bride. Herakles wins the match and the woman as his
Other cultures besides the Greeks describe challenges against divinities and beasts. In one struggle for
control of the cosmos, the Phoenician Baal, a sky,
weather, and fertility god, engages in freestyle combat
with biting and kicking, against Mot, god of death, destruction, and drought. In another, Baal clubs and kills
his opponent, Prince Sea (also called Judge River or
Yam), god of the sea, rebellious waters, and anarchy.
Quiche Maya myth collected in the 16th century C.E. in
the Popol Vuh text tells of two ballplayers and gamblers,
Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu, who anger the
underworld gods, are challenged to a competition by a
messenger, accept, and are killed before the contest.
The twin sons of Hun-Hunahpu, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, take up the challenge, compete, and survive several contests until Hunahpu is decapitated. His brother
overpowers the underworld opponents and avenges his
In myth, such festivals may be held to honor a dead
hero, a god, or a guest or celebrate a victory. The honor,
glory, and fame of the victor is one fundamental motif,
but the process of achieving victory also imparts
lessons about the socially sanctioned behavior.
The association of athletic festivals with funeral
games has been understood as a reflection of actual
cults of the dead, a connection particularly evident in
Greek myth and society from the 13th to the 5th century B.C.E. But the Slavs, Celts, Prussians, Maltese, East
Asians, and Native Americans also had funeral games.
Why they were held remains unclear, perhaps to honor
the dead, assuage the consciences of the living, and
honor the living ancestors of the hero.
The Greco-Roman tradition contains many onetime-only funeral games for heroes, including those for
Abderos, Achilles, Aigialeos, Amarynceus, Anchises,
Azan, Cyzicus, Eurygyes, Laius, Oedipus, Paris, Pelias,
Patroclus, and Polydectes. Many local Greek festivals
trace back to funeral games, including those for Adrastus, Aeacus, Alkanthoos, Amphitryon, Areithoos, and
Herakles, as do the origins of the four major Panhellenic festivals.
Homer’s 8th-century B.C.E. account of the games
held by Achilles in honor of the hero Patroclus (Iliad
23) is the earliest and most influential treatment.
Eight events are held: chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, a foot race, an armed duel, tossing a weight,
archery, and javelin throwing. Aspects of this account
are interestingly at odds with the practices of actual
Greek sports known from later festivals, which may
be a reflection either of archaic practices, or of poetic
Contests in which the bride is the prize, perhaps based
on actual customs, are widespread in world myth. Most
frequent are races (foot or chariot), or archery,
wrestling, and other tasks. Races may symbolize the
goal-oriented aspect of marriage, particularly for females in traditional societies. The bride is usually the
daughter of a king, and success implies succession to
the throne. The premise for such myths is that physical
prowess is the best measure of a suitable mate. Variations occur, including resistance of the father or the
daughter to the marriage; rivalry between suitors,
daughter, and father; use of trickery; murder of unsuccessful suitors or of the father.
The contest of Pelops and Oenomaus, mentioned
above, is perhaps the most famous Greek myth of this
sort. Apollodorus (Epitome 2.3–9) describes the father’s anxiety over displacement: Oenomaus set the
contest either because he himself loved Hippodameia
or he had heard that he was fated to be killed by her
husband. Pelops wins by bribing Oenomaus’s charioteer with promise of half the kingdom or of one night
with the bride, then kills the driver before he can receive the reward.
In the Mahabharata, King Draupada sets a “bridegroom choice” archery contest for his daughter Draupadi. The festival is a wondrous spectacle with entertainers and wrestlers performing, and many elite
guests. As in the Odyssey, the successful suitor must
string a mighty bow and shoot an arrow through a hole
into a target. Barons and kings fail, but Arjuna, posing
as a holy brahmin, wins. Arjuna, like Odysseus, is recognized by his feat. Other bride contest myths include
the Nibelungenlied, when Siegfried won a foot race in
which he conceded handicaps to Gunther and Hagen.
Then Gunther takes Brunhilde after Hagen treacherously kills Siegfried. In the Grimms’ fairytale, “Six
Came through the Whole World,” a suitor for the king’s
daughter must fetch water from a disused well and defeat the girl in a race; he barely succeeds with the help
The inherent drama of a contest contains within it
an antagonistic struggle seeking resolution. The antagonisms themselves reveal the categories that a culture
holds in tension. The resolution often validates social
hierarchies, practices, or ideals.
In the challenge contest, we have seen that a culture’s positive and negative values can be put into conflict, sometimes mirroring the cosmic conflict seen in
the creation myths. Great cultural figures, such as Gilgamesh, Jacob, and Muhammad, are put into challenge
contests that underline their authority. In a few cases,
women figures compete in a challenge, with or without
a male companion, illustrating aspects of gender reversal to validate the powerful roles of women. Challenges faced by heroes against beasts or divinities
show a human superiority to natural opponents like
monsters and even death itself, overstated labors that
are probably meant to encourage men in the lesser
tasks of daily life.
Festival contests give social context a greater role,
demonstrating how fame and glory may be won in
peaceful competitions that parallel more serious activities. Here the prize-givers are like the rulers in society,
setting and bending the rules to accommodate human
circumstances. Societies that staged sports festivals in
later times probably took inspiration from the courage
and skill of their legendary ancestors, putting themselves in the place of those outsized heroes.
Mythical bride contests contradict most social practices of betrothal, but, through their symbolic structure, describe marriage to the right person literally as a
goal worth pursuing. These mythical contests on the one hand highlight the tensions and anxieties of all betrothals, on the other validate the normative practice of
not leaving the choice of bride to the vagaries of chance.
—THOMAS F. SCANLON
Bibliography: Kirk, Geoffrey S. (1970) Myth, Its Meaning and
Function in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press. Poliakoff,
Michael. (1987) Combat Sports in the Ancient World. Competition, Violence, and Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Raschke, Wendy J., ed. (1988) The Archaeology of the Olympics. The Olympics and Other Festivals in
Antiquity. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
“Myth” is a term that is derived from the Greek mythos,