Women Olympians: Reimagining Greek Vases

As a rule, women were excluded from participation in society of ancient Greece outside the home.  There are a very few individual exceptions.  For a few years in the 6th century BCE there were the  Heraean Games, dedicated to goddess Hera. They were the first official women’s athletic competition to be held in the Olympic stadium at Elis. Spartan women were more highly esteemed than in the rest of Greece; they were not prevented from learning hunting, riding and other physical activities; they were encouraged to take part in the same physical activities as their male counterparts.

By 396 BCE Olympic rules were relaxed just enough to allow women to compete in the less-esteemed equestrian events. Cynisca – a Spartan woman – won the four-horse chariot race twice, in 396 as well as 392 BC and in doing so became the first woman champion of the Olympics.

Male participation in the Olympics is a frequent subject in the decoration of classical Greek vases.  Shown below is an exception to the rule, a vase from the  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, labeled ‘Jar (stamnos) with female athletes bathing’, dated 440-430 BC.

Karen Chernick of Hypoallergic describes how  Mary Frances Dondelinger was inspired to expand upon this dearth in the archaeological record:

Two years ago, Mary Frances Dondelinger, a conceptual artist, stumbled across a website claiming that then-First Lady Michelle Obama was a man. Simultaneously horrified and intrigued, she was amazed at how easy it was to pass off fiction as reality. The encounter inspired her to create a new series. She aimed to one-up online fabrications by inventing a wildly alternative history of ancient art. …
The resulting series, titled M.Flandia (a composite of the artist’s first two initials and the word ‘land’), consists of new pottery designed to look like a cache of recently-excavated vases, bowls, and statues.

women olympians

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