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History of the Olympic Flame

On May 10th 2012, the Olympic flame was lit in what has come to be seen as a traditional and sine-qua-non ceremony of the Olympic Games.

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The ceremony is supposedly a reenactment of what took place every four years in Olympia, although the flame used for the ancient Games was not lit by the sun’s rays but came from the ever-burning sacred fire of Hestia, goddess of the hearth, and from there was carried to all the altars of the site. The fire was probably at the Prytaneion, a smallish and unassuming building of which very little survives, which was the administrative centre of the cult of Olympic Zeus and the Games.

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For many ancient cultures (and some modern ones) fire was sacred, god-like, magical or purifying (or any combination of the above). In the days before Zippo lighters, starting a fire was a complicated and time-consuming task. It was therefore necessary to keep a fire always burning so that one would light a torch or lamp quickly in an emergency. Every city had its own ever-lasting fire. It was the duty of the priestesses of Hestia (or Vesta in Rome) to make sure that it never died. Every major religious ceremony started with the lighting of a fire – necessary even in cases where no animal sacrifices were demanded. Even today, the Orthodox service for the Resurrection features the lighting of the congregation’s candles with “Holy light”.

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Our knowledge of the ceremonies that took place in Olympia before the games is scant, to say the least. Ancient writers mention them little, if at all, concentrating instead on the winners, losers and interesting moments of the games. Today, someone describing say, a wedding, would describe the venue, the dress, the cake, etc, but not the ritual itself, which is something everyone knows.

The rise of Christianity, which regarded the games as a pagan ritual, put an end to the Olympic Games sometime in the 4th or 5th century CE. Their modern version was first held in 1896, in Athens. The modern Olympics are not a revival but rather a modern interpretation of the Ancient Games, with different sports, medals instead of olive wreaths, and hosted by a different city every 4 years. Nudity is of course banned, but not women, while in antiquity the reverse was the case.

There was no flame lighting and no torch relay in the early modern Olympics. The lighting of a flame was introduced in the 1928 Amsterdam Games, but it was not lit in Olympia until the 1936 Berlin Games. The Nazi regime seized the opportunity to be associated with classical Greece and organized the lighting of the flame in the birthplace of the Games as a highly symbolic gesture. Another novelty they introduced was the use of a parabolic mirror to concentrate the sun’s rays and produce a fire untouched by human hand, as well as the relay race that carried it all the way to Berlin. Despite its poor associations, the innovation had an appeal which led to its repetition after the War, for the 1948 London Olympics, and both summer and winter Games since.

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The highly stylized gestures and dances of the women playing the priestesses and the men who accompany them owe a lot to the classical revivalism of the 19th and early 20th century, and especially Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, who had tried to re-enact the ancient Pythic Games, in Delphi, a few years earlier. Mrs. Sikelianos -a remarkable woman by all accounts- was a great admirer of classical Greece. She was an acquaintance of actress Sarah Bernhard, whose trademark style involved dramatic diction and grand gestures, and a friend of Isadora Duncan, whose revolutionary dance style drew inspiration from ancient statuary. The fusion of these influences was evident in the theatrical performances Mrs. Sikelianos staged in Delphi, which, in turn, influenced directors and actors for years to come, as well as the choreographers of the original Olympic ceremony.

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There is so little information on ancient dances and music, that re-enacting them is an impossible task. However, it is my belief that ancient music must have been much more rhythmical and melodious than what we usually hear in attempts to recreate it, as it was meant to be sung, danced to or even to prompt people into battle. As for the dancers’ movements they must have been less wooden and statue-like. The women would have been more flowing and graceful in a modestly feminine way, as required by the morals of the time. The men would have danced to a faster tempo with movements demonstrating strength and virility, perhaps with mock battles and a few battle cries for good measure. One can get perhaps an idea of what these dances were like by looking at their distant descendants, surviving in Greek folk tradition to this day (eg. here and here).

I should mention here that the ceremony is performed every two years, one for the Summer Games and one for the Winter ones. Before each ceremony there is a full dress rehearsal, during which a flame is produced the same way as in the official ceremony which will follow. The fire from the former ceremony is preserved as a backup in case the skies are cloudy during the latter.

(Main sources: Judith Swaddling: The Ancient Olympic Games, 1980, London, Alexis Solomos, Theatrikon lexicon, 1989, Athens [in Greek], plus the links in the text)

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5 comments on “History of the Olympic Flame

  1. Great info on your blog. I’m glad someone has given a treatment to the flip side of the Olympic symbolism, and how other nations use it politically for their own agendas.

    Just one question though, seeing as you are Greek and are somewhat of an expert on the subject, did the 2012 Olympic relay pass by Delphi, and/or stage a special event there on the way, as per the Berlin precedent? I found the symbolism of the London Olympic Bell, and the Phoenix quite unsettling, knowing as I do that the key symbol of the Berlin Olympics was a huge Bell.

    I guess what I am getting at, is that since all Olympic torch relays start in Olympia, and Greece is always the mother country for the relay, do all torch relays go to Delphi from Olympia, before leaving Greece for the host country? I’m curious because of the ancient traditions between Delphi and the flame of Hestia, of which all Greek city states staged an annual relighting ceremony from this particular flame … so I would have thought that Delphi was kind of a secondary ritual element to the ancient Olympic flame at Olympia, which I assume also must have been re-lit annually from Delphi also?

    Many thanks in advance if you can help with my query, and my thoughts go out to all the Greeks in the world, with the current financial torment going on; can’t be very settling to watch all of this unfolding in the very birth place of democracy, watching troikas dictate which assets need to be sold, to pay an un-payable odious debt and its usury. Thanks.

    • Hi, and sorry for replying so late to your comment.
      I’m afraid the answer is negative: not only is there no ceremony performed at Delphi, but the modern flame routes bypass the site entirely, probably because of the difficult, uphill terrain, or perhaps because it’s not on the way to someplace bigger. (Source for the 2012 route: http://www.nooz.gr/greece/i-teleti-afis-tis-olumpiakis-flogas)
      On the other hand, as I’ve already said, the modern flame-lighting ritual is exactly what it is – modern. In antiquity, the flame of the Games was not lit, but carried over from the ever-burning fire of Hestia, which probably burned in the Prytaneion, administrative centre of the temple and the Games. There was no corresponding ceremony in Delphi, which held their own Games, known as the “Pythia,” at a different time.
      It seems that the modern flame-lighting using a parabolic mirror was an idea conceived by the Greek archaeologist and painter Alexander Philadelpheus.
      And one more thing: Ever-burning fires of Hestia burned not only in every major shrine, but in every city and usually in every house as well – an ancient tradition based on the need to have immediate access to fire (and light) in case of an emergency, back in the days before lighters had been invented.

      • Thanks for the reply. I just remember reading once that a rule was put in place that any Greek city which had it’s Civic flame (in the Prytaneion I assume) ‘religiously polluted’, had to have a fresh one obtained from Delphi whilst all fires remaining in the city had to be extinguished, but I believe that this might have been instated after the Persian Wars and may not have been an Archaic custom.

        Cheers, and I’m praying for a benevolent resolution for the Odious (IMO) debt problems in Greece. The drachma wouldn’t be so bad in the face of a debt which can NEVER be paid back and should be born on the shoulders of creditors outrageous enough to have extended credit so flippantly in the first place (where is due diligence in the world today, that entire generations of children who benefited not from credit should be enslaved by foreign nationals coming for their pound of flesh every few months. Disgraceful IMO)

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