Saturday, February 11, 2017

In Memoriam: Calvin Edward Reames, Sr., K9RWP


Ed Reames, c. 1945
As some of you are already aware, my father’s health—physical and mental—has been failing, especially since autumn.  In late January, he caught pneumonia and was admitted to the hospital.  He never regained conscious awareness and was placed on palliative care.  At 3:15pm, Eastern time, February 10, 2017, he died, almost exactly 92 years and 5 months since he entered this world.

Social media has become the communication currency of our time, and supposedly nothing on the Internet ever really disappears.  Ergo I want to tell you about my father so HE won’t disappear.  This is my own reflection.  No one’s life can be understood by any single individual in it.  We’re too multifaceted.  The father I knew wasn't even the father my brother knew, as we were born almost 18 years apart--he at the beginning of the Baby Boom and me at the very tail end.  Yet my father raised a writer for a daughter, so I feel the need to eulogize him as I knew him.  Others will have other stories, more or less flattering.

Born on the now-infamous date of 9/11, 1924, in Gorham, Jackson County, (Southern) Illinois, he survived the Tri-State Tornado at only 6 months of age.  With him in her arms, his mother ran for the railroad tracks and got on the opposite side from the mile-wide monster bearing down on them, then laid her own body over his; the tornado leapt the tracks and spared them.  Perhaps that was an omen for a charmed life.  On the face of if, his life might not seem particularly charmed, but he survived the Depression, a world war, and mostly made good on the American Dream.  He even lived long enough to see his Cubbies win the World Series.

Iva Mae Gregersen Reames & Daddy
The eldest of 13 children, he grew up in a family who were poor even by Depression-era standards.  It made him generous, occasionally foolishly so.  Yet if he decided someone was “his” (family or friend), he saw it as his obligation to help.  That conviction stemmed less from abstract ethics than from an innate kindness arising out of his recall of what it meant to be in need.  Sometimes people say, “Well, I managed …” and expect others to suffer as they had.  Daddy could do that, too, but mostly he didn't.  If he could prevent someone from suffering, that made him happy.  He just wanted a “Thank you.”  When he was in the war, he sent virtually his whole paycheque home to his mother each month to help care for his younger brothers and sisters.  He kept $5.  Yes, $5 went much further then, but as an unmarried corporal in the US army, he made about $65 dollars monthly in 1944.  So he kept 1/13th of his income and gave away the rest.

US Army Corporal, 126th AAA Battalion, 1943
That, perhaps better than anything, exemplifies his fundament nature.  It’s in our actions and choices that, I believe, we reveal our true selves.

He liked to laugh, and kid, but never cruelly.  For some families, a disparaging jest is meant as back-handed affection, but that wasn’t heard in the house in which I grew up.  When I was younger, I was frequently teased because I walked right into comments with potential double meanings.  Perhaps one of the values of getting old(er) is that I’ve aged out of being an easy target.  Yet I never learned to hear what others said as an opportunity for ribbing because my parents didn’t find that sort of thing funny.  My father's sense of humor was devoid of sarcasm, as he thought it mean-spirited.  Some of that owed to his own mother, who—to hear him talk about her—should have been beatified immediately upon her death.  But I also believe it owed to having lived through real struggle himself.

To his mind, the world is mean enough.  He saw no need to make it meaner via our interactions with people about whom we should care.  It's partly for that reason, and a basic aversion to drama, that he was a much-desired member of the pastor-parish relations committee at our church in Lakeland, Florida.  His presence tended to tamp down exaggerated crises and occasional bouts of flailing (which is actually a bit funny, given his own tendency to worry).

My father had a will of iron, and a quiet ambition easily overlooked.  For instance, when he decided to stop smoking, back before I was born, he’d just received a new carton of cigarettes for Christmas.  He threw them in the trash and quit cold turkey because he’d decided he was done.  He took up a pipe later (I think largely for image), but decided he didn’t want to do that, either, and just put down the pipe one day.  That was it.

"The Lineman," Normal Rockwell
When Daddy decided to do something, he did it.  “Failure is not an option”: Apollo 13’s motto.  Well, the men (and women) who got Apollo 13 home are my father’s generation.  When he returned from the war, he was one of millions looking for a job.  He tried on several, but finally decided to work for the telephone company because communications seemed like the future.  Before the war, he’d wanted to be a pharmacist, yet circumstance had curtailed the college degree required.  So he began showing up regularly in the hiring offices of General Telephone Electric (GTE), asking for work.  He made himself annoying.  But squeaky wheel gets the grease, and finally they sent him north as a telephone lineman … in January … during a blizzard.  He was a relatively little guy (wiry but short), and they doubted he’d last 2 days.  They figured it was a good way to get rid of his terrier persistence.

Daddy on right, GTE employee award
He persisted for 40+ years, and retired as a (self-taught) senior engineer in the mid-1980s.  Never tell a Reames, "You can’t do that."

The guys who’d worked under him at the end liked him so much, they kept coming to visit him for years after.  He had that effect on people, whether at work, at church, or as a ham radio operator ("This is K9RWP calling...").  They sensed he truly cared about them, and responded in kind.  He wasn’t a boisterous or especially outgoing person, but he was still an extrovert.  He’d strike up conversations with strangers in lines at store check-outs.

Especially if there was a baby involved.

Daddy & his Great-granddaughter, Leila
See, Daddy loved babies.  And babies loved Daddy.  Maybe as a result of being the eldest of 13, but he could burp them, change a diaper pronto, or make them laugh.  He so enjoyed watching little kids, especially as he aged; he’d break into a grin just to see them playing at a distance.   He was never among the “Children should be seen and not heard” crowd.  To his mind, children should be talked to and played with.  They would inherit the earth.  When my son was born just a few months after my mother's death, Daddy said, “He’s my little replacement.”  At the time, I worried his words were fatalistic.  But he went on to survive my mother by almost 20 years, and now, I see his words as an expression of continuity.  We are our ancestors.

Daddy, Grandson Ian & Licorice as a kitten
So my son, Ian, is his replacement, in the larger sense.  When we look forward, we also look back to where we came from.  I tried to insure that Ian got to know his Grandpa, who was there just days after he came home from the hospital after birth, and was there when he graduated from high school, even paid his first bill for books at college.  Because that’s who Daddy was.  If he didn’t get to attend college himself, he made sure both his kids did, and his grandkids.  For him, that was an achievement.

As I said…the success of others, especially friends and family, seemed to Daddy the same as his own.

Yet his generosity and empathy extended beyond just people.  Daddy was a cat magnet.  We used to joke that if he sat down and there was a cat within 50 feet, pretty soon, that cat would be on his lap.  He liked dogs, to be sure, but dogs (and horses) were my mother’s favorites.  Daddy liked cats, and they liked him.  Dogs are forgiving.  They’ll stay with even an abusive owner; but cats leave.  They don’t put up with crap.  Daddy?  Even semi-feral cats trusted him.

Daddy and his "napping partner," Licorice
So while he was raised in a time when animals were tools and food more than family members, and he certainly went hunting from a young age to help put food on the table, I think he, more than my mother, had a soft spot for animals.  I remember in the ‘70s, he decided we were going to raise rabbits for food, and bought a pair of does.  Well, it didn’t take long for yours truly to make pets not only of the does, but of the first litter of babies.  All of them had to go to homes where they’d be pets, not dinner.  And while I’d made the pronouncement, it didn’t take much to convince my father.  Shooting a wild squirrel for the stew pot (especially when hungry) was one thing; killing the rabbits one fed regularly and took care of was another.  So our venture in home-grown meat failed miserably (to, I’m sure, the rabbits’ collective relief).  Yet it wasn’t just due to my agitating.  I don’t think Daddy could have killed a one of them, even if I hadn’t protested.  They had names, after all.

He wasn’t a saint.  None of us are.  The cliche applies: we're a mix of vices and virtues, like shadows against the backlight of the sun.  Age softened some of his, while exacerbating others due to a failing filter.  Among other things he did well, Daddy was a champion worrier.  He worried about anything you can imagine (and then some).  Perhaps that owed to growing up in such an unstable era as the Depression when it seemed anything could happen, but for instance, he would remind me constantly to hold onto handrails while going up and down stairs.  It seems trivial, but he genuinely angsted over me falling at home and hurting myself when nobody might find me for days.  So I (mostly) hold onto rails, because I hear his voice in my head, telling me to.

The irony, of course, is that he was in much more danger of falling, yet he didn't tend to worry about himself.  Before he moved up to be near my brother, I tried to get him to buy one of those Life Alert systems.  I even employed the ultimate weapon: his grandson (Ian), to beg.  He refused.  He’d be fine, because he’s of that generation when all a man should need was himself, a gun, a good job, and a driver's license.  And oh, boy, getting him to relinquish that driver's license as he went increasingly blind from macular degeneration was quite the battle, one my poor brother largely had to face when Daddy moved north to Kentucky in his last years.  Daddy never did let go of the worrying, though.

He could be impatient, and critical, too, sometimes overly so.  I never wanted to sing in front of him because he, like many of his siblings, had an excellent ear and I was, well, usually a little flat.  He could hear it, and would say so.  But the one he was most critical of was himself, if he failed to live up to his (very high) standards of what he thought he ought to do.  Some of that, I lay at the feet of his own father, at least as my mother told it to me.  Yet in contrast, as noted earlier, he was often delighted by the success of others.  As a child and young woman I wanted to succeed not because I feared his critique (except about my singing), but because I basked in his happiness when I did well.  He could be downright embarrassing in his bragging.  If failure, especially his, was not an option, he didn't feel the need to build himself up by tearing down others.  He was happy to share the spotlight, or even to applaud from the sidelines--and mean it.  Again, maybe that owed to being one of 13, but I think it went deeper, back to his fundamental worldview: “You and me,” not, “Me or you.”  He was quietly ambitious, but not especially competitive.  Except at cards.  Then all bets were off (sometimes literally).

Daddy with Mama, Christmas, c. 1990
One of his most outstanding virtues was his loyalty.  For instance, he fell in love with my mother and stayed married to her for 51 years, then never remarried.  While it might have been nice for him to remarry, I don't think it was in him; it would have felt like "replacing" her, and to his mind, she had no replacement.

After her death in 1997, I recall going through old pictures of her with him, one from just after the war, which showed them out with friends.  Keep in mind that my mother, from childhood until after the birth of my brother, was…pudgy.  While on the shorter side, my father was never heavy in his youth.  In fact, he got quite buff during WWII: broad-chested and slim-waisted.  But as we looked at that picture of my mother next to her friends, he pointed to her with tears in his eyes, and said, "She was the most beautiful of them all." Yup, the "pudgy" girl.
Idalee Brouillette, c. 1944

But he was right: Mama was a stunner.  I know that, now, people say I look a lot like her, and I’m honored it’s so.  But I was never as pretty as she was, especially in her youth, and I think my father felt bedazzled that this beautiful, black-haired Brouillette girl decided she was going to marry him, and that was the end of it.  Her family was better off financially during the Depression, even with Indian blood; they had a farm with a full section, and a car, and enough money for my grandfather to send my mother and her sisters into town to go to school when he thought the teacher at the school on Buttermilk Hill was unqualified.  So I suppose you could say Daddy "married up."  But to Mama’s mind, she’d won the deal, getting the determined, smart guy.

See, long before they met in person, Mama had gone with her best friend Annie to Gorham High School for a day, visiting.  In math class, the teacher put a problem on the board and asked the class to solve it.  Only one student could:  my father.  He got up and wrote the solution on the blackboard, and Mama was enchanted.  She asked Annie, “Who is that guy!?”

March 8th, 1946, wedding picture
Some years later, she married that guy.

In many ways, my parents were quite different people.  My mother was progressive in thought beyond her time, naturally empathic and perceptive, a bookworm introvert with a steel spine when she needed it and the amazing ability to keep 5+ people’s business in her head without forgetting anything.  Everything I know about organization (and I’m pretty good at it), I learned from my mother.  My father was conservative, protective, supportive, more intelligent (in sheer IQ), but less emotionally intelligent (EQ), more driven, but less philosophical.  Yet they created a unique alchemy of spirit.  They didn’t share common interests—Mama loved reading novels, Daddy never read fiction, Mama loved watching murder mysteries, Daddy preferred ball games or the news.  Yet they looked out on the world in the same direction, and that’s what mattered.

Ed Reames in high school
In the end, what can I say but that Daddy was the epitome of the Greatest Generation.  And now he’s gone.  I won’t say we’ll never see their like again, because nobody knows the future.  They weren’t perfect—racism was an institutionalized assumption enshrined in segregation, women barely had the vote, LGBTQ wasn’t even talked about—but we, in our current America, could take a page from those who survived abject poverty and economic collapse without government safety nets, then went on to save the world from fascism.  They did it not by grand deeds, but by the simple heroism of young men and a few women storming a beach at Normandy or Iwo Jima, a lot of whom never came home.  Daddy used to joke that he chased Hitler all over Europe but never caught him.

Daddy, you did catch him.  You were part of the men and women who stopped him.

You are my hero.  You are the real Captain America.

I’m privileged and grateful to be your daughter, and I love you, forever.

Now for the standard: Ed Reames is survived by his son, Calvin Edward Reames, Jr., and his daughter, Mary Jeanne Reames (me), by three grandchildren: Samuel Edward Reames, Selena Marie Reames, and Ian Andrew Reames-Zimmerman, and by one great-grandchild, Leila Jolie Janney.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Princess Who Became a General


Today, I feel old.

Maybe it’s because my back and joints are hurting more than usual and Aleve just isn’t cutting it.  But I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis since I was 29, so I don’t usually associate the pain with age.

Maybe it’s a function of the post-holiday blahs.  The tree is empty, the fridge is full of left-overs, and days are short while nights are long.

Or maybe it’s because my son is leaving home in less than two weeks.  He starts college at UNL this spring and is moving into the dorms.  That’s exciting, and he’ll be back in the summer—but soon, my nest will be empty part-time.

Yet I think the real reason I feel old today owes to the first news to hit me in the face when I woke up this morning.

Carrie Fisher is dead.

Remember that line Han Solo delivered in the garbage compactor?  “I have a bad feeling about this.”  That was my reaction when news broke of her heart attack.  2016 has been an especially shitty year for pop-icons, from David Bowie to Alan Rickman to Prince.  My thought was, “2016, you can’t have HER.”  Then news came she was improving.  The Christmas-day death of George Michaels, whose music—along with Prince’s—I danced to in college and grad school made me hope he’d be the last one 2016 claimed.  According to family reports, Carrie Fisher was stable.  Princess Leia would live to fight another day.

Except she didn’t.  The damn 2016 garbage compactor got her.

I admired Carrie Fisher a lot: her honesty, her courage, her wit, her talent.  I read Postcards from the Edge not long after it came out and thought, “Wow, unlike a lot of celeb authors, this woman can actually write.”  But I didn’t actively follow her career.

The author, 13th birthday, Sept. 23, 1977
Also, in the eternal “Star Trek vs. Star Wars?” comparisons, I always wind up on the Trek side.  Make no mistake, I loved Star Wars and saved my allowance to watch it four times in the theatre when it first came out in 1977, plus I managed to sneak in a tape recorder to tape the dialogue.  (This was well before VCRs.)  Yet watching Star Wars four times wasn’t really a lot, even for a 12-year-old with limited allowance.  Of more importance were the elaborate recreations of portions of the film that I did that summer with two male friends, one of whom had a film camera and visions of making movies himself one day.  The recreations required costumes, including a white dress and attempts to get my hair into double buns that were never quite BIG enough.

But my chest was big enough.  With a pre-teen’s delicious, slightly scandalized attention to detail, I’d noticed that Leia didn’t seem to be wearing a bra under her virginally white princess dress.  I’d matured on the early side, so if I didn’t have enough hair, I did have enough breast.  I decided that if Princess Leia could go braless, so I could I.  My mother disagreed.  Even if most of her attitudes were advanced for a woman born in 1924—she’d marched for ERA—letting her almost-teen daughter out of the house without a bra was not something she could condone.  So I wore my bra out of the house…then took it off for the filming of our amateur effort.  I might not have Princess Leia hair but I had Princess Leia boobs.

That Fisher wasn’t wearing a bra* might seem like a funny thing to remember about the first movie—but not really.  Princess Leia represented a fundamental seismic shift in the portrayal of women onscreen, so it seems perfectly in line that she went braless.

As mentioned above, I’m really more of a Star Trek fan than Star Wars, and I was cast as the lone female character in childhood make-believe games long before our pre-teen attempts to refilm parts of Star Wars.  In fact, as a young girl playing with the boys down the block, Star Trek was our go-to.  Bobby was Captain Kirk, Kevin was Mr. Spock, and I, of course, was Lt. Uhura.  I didn’t get to do much because Uhura didn’t either.  Nichelle Nichols broke a lot of barriers with her role, but 1960s Uhura wasn’t Uhura of the reboot.  Back then, it was, “Hailing frequencies open captain.”  Or getting captured by Klingons or Romulans so the boys could rescue me.

Occasionally, I complained about this, and might get “upgraded” to Chekov or Sulu (not McCoy, he was too old).  But mostly I was Uhura, and also—as noted—I didn’t do much unless I needed to be rescued because that’s what happened to women in the TV shows we grew up on, although in Star Trek that honor was typically reserved for the pretty, blond, (white) love-interests of Kirk.  It’s of note that we (children) just transferred that role to Uhura without much thought for the racial divide.  For our youthful disconcern we can thank Roddenberry when he insisted a black woman could sit on the bridge.  To us, that she was a woman mattered more than that she was black.  That’s a good thing.

But it’s also worth noting that the boys found it easier for a white girl to play a black woman than for a white girl to play a white (or even Asian) man.  That’s not so good a thing.  The gender divide became more significant than the racial divide.  (And I don’t think it an accident this country elected a black man as president before a white woman.)

The advent of Princess Leia, however, changed the dynamics yet again.  Even if Lucas&Co did put her in that stupid gold bikini.

So let me clarify that if I wasn’t necessarily a Star Wars fan over Star Trek, I was a huge fan of Princess Leia.

1979-80, Drum Major

When I first saw Leia grab Luke’s blaster to defend herself?  I wanted to stand up and cheer.  Instead, I think I sat in my seat in the theatre with my mouth open.  Then she told Luke, “Into the shoot, flyboy!” and Chewy, “Get this big, walking carpet out of my way.”  And that scolding she gave both Han and Luke?  “I don’t know who you are, or where you come from, but I’m grateful.  But from now on, you do as I tell you.”

See?  I can still recite her lines (without looking) all these years later because I recited them to myself so MANY damn times then.

So yes, I loved Star Wars (if not as much as Star Trek).  But Princess Leia became a HERO for my 12-year-old self.  She was competent.  And the sassy I wasn’t (and never would be).  She was also (apparently) smart, like Meg from A Wrinkle in Time.  The era in which I grew up warned girls: “Let the boys win,” and “Don’t be smarter than the boys; they won’t want to date you.”  Unfortunately, that’s still true.  Smart girls might be sexy now, but not if they’re smarter than the boys.  That, however, is the topic of another post.

What I want to focus on is just how different Leia was, as an icon for girls my age.  Yes, there were other powerful, strong, smart women—not least the Meg I mentioned above from Madeline L’Engle’s work.  Female SF/F authors from L’Engle to LeGuin had been blazing trails for women well before Star Wars hit theaters.  But such female icons weren’t found in mainstream film and books—never mind an international blockbuster.  It didn’t hurt that Princess Leia was able to do all this and still be considered attractive.  Yes, the stupid gold bikini helped, but long before Return of the Jedi, teen boys and young men saw Carrie Fisher in her white dress and hair buns and blaster and saucy remarks, and they fell in love.  They also watched her tame cocky Han Solo, who followed her lead (at least sometimes).  So it became more acceptable for a woman to be in charge.  Young boys who grew up on Princess Leia never questioned that a woman couldn’t handle a blaster or run a rebellion.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia kicked down the damn door.  Nichelle Nichols cracked it, but Fisher blew it down.  After Leia, it became increasingly acceptable to see women onscreen take their fate into their own hands.  She made possible Ripley from Alien, Sarah Conner from Terminator, and Xena, the Warrior Princess.  A space princess with a blaster had gone before one with a sword and chakram.  The Grrl-Power Genie was out of the bottle and she wasn’t going back in.

So today I feel old, but also oddly buoyed.  I was witness to a revolution.  I got to see Princess Leia explode onto the screen at an extremely formative time for me.  Princess Leia gave my 12-year-old self a wholly new idea not only of a woman as a hero, but of what “princess” might mean outside Disney.

I won’t say I am who I am—a university professor—due to Princess Leia.  Waaaay too many streams fed that river.  But Princess Leia was part of it because a young girl on the cusp of womanhood saw another young woman grab a blaster from her “rescuer” and rescue herself (and him, too).  So I never went to college for an “MRS.” degree.  I went to school for my degree, and I pursued my career.  Yes, I got married and had a kid, because being one’s own person doesn’t mean one has to do it alone.  But when, many years later, I got a divorce, I still had my career, and eventually, I bought the house I wanted with a mortgage in my name alone.  So just as Princess Leia went on to become General Organa (without Han Solo), I went on to become a tenured professor, grad chair, and to start our Ancient Mediterranean Studies Program as its director.  If I’ve not published as much as I’d like, family reasons (divorce and raising a kid not least) got in the way.

But I think Princess Jeanne did okay on her way to Dr. Reames.

The Author in 2016.
Now Princess Leia has returned to the Force, at least in any physical embodiment beyond film already in the can.  Those of us who had our eyes opened when she grabbed that blaster will have to go on without her.  It’s our turn to be a model for the girls (and boys) who come after us.

Are we there yet?  Hell no.  We just elected a president who bragged about grabbing pussy without consent, and that didn't, apparently, disqualify him for a significant voting block.  Only about 63% of women report sexual assault and notably fewer of those cases ever see the perp convicted.  Women still make only 80 cents on average for every man's dollar.  We're a looooong way from there yet.

But young princesses do turn into generals, and young or old, we’re bad-asses who can save ourselves—and you, too.

Peace, Carrie Fisher.


(*For the record, it turns out she actually had gaffer tape on her breasts, but I didn’t know that then.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Ancient Greek Olympics



Ancient Greek Olympics
(As Rio approaches, the following questions were submitted to me by Charlie Reed of UNO Media Relations.  I decided to post my replies here, as well, for other interested parties.)


1)  What are the origins of the Olympics in Greece and why were they created?

Greek athletic competitions began as “Funeral Games” for early kings and other nobles, such as Patroklos in Homer’s Iliad.  It was a way to honor the dead by offering one’s “best” (aretē).  Gradually, these “games” became associated with particular sanctuaries instead of funerals, and occurred more regularly.

Unlike the modern Games, which are secular, ancient Games were always a religious event dedicated to a particular god and his/her associates.  For instance, at the Olympics, Zeus was chiefly honored, but so was his wife, Hera.  Like us, they had opening and closing ceremonies, but theirs were parades and sacrifices honoring the god to whom that particular set of Games was dedicated, not showboat entertainment extravaganzas.  Yet the mood was festive rather than somber, and although only men and boys competed (and only men and boys were allowed in the stadium), whole families traveled to enjoy the fair-like atmosphere. One could find showmen, singers, gymnasts, actors, drink- and food-sellers, pastry- and fish-cooks, prostitutes, and thieves. 

The modern term “Game” is misleading, suggesting a diversion, amusement, or pastime.  That certainly described the overall festival, but not the athletics themselves.  The word for these festivals in Greek—agonēs—means contests.  There was nothing recreational about them.  The Greeks were extremely competitive and athletes at the Panhellenic festivals were professionals.

The Olympic Agonēs themselves began as a local festival at the Sanctuary for Zeus at Olympia in the NW Peloponnesian city-state (polis) of Elis.  The first contest in 776 BCE had only one event on one day as part of the larger festival: the stadē race, or running one length of the stadium: about 600 feet.  (Ancient Greek footrace tracks were straight; oval racetracks were for horses.)  This was the sole event for the first 13 Olympics.  By the 14th, a second event—wrestling—was added.

More and more events (Pentathalon, Race in Armor, the Pankration, etc.) joined until the final form of the program was reached in 520 BCE, held across five days.  All were single-competitor events.  No team sports.  While the Greeks did play ball games, including something like field hockey and another remarkably close to rugby, the Agonēs were about individual fame and glory (timē).  One winner, and only one.  What about a tie?  The two had to compete again until a single winner was named.

Long before 520, however, the festival had become “Panhellenic” (all-the-Greeks). There were, in fact, four big Panhellenic athletic competitions, called “the Circuit,” of which the Olympics was the most prestigious.  Second to the Olympics came the Pythian Games held at Delphi, sacred to Apollo.  Then the Nemean and Isthmian Games, sacred to Zeus/Herakles and Poseidon, respectively.  The Olympian and Pythian Agonēs were held every four years, the other two, every two years.  They were staggered, not concurrent, so athletes typically competed in all of them in rotation.

In addition, other regions and city-states had their own Agonēs.  Athens held the Pananthenaia, which included Games that honored Athena.  “Minor” competitions occurred yearly, but special Pananthenaic Games occurred every fourth year.  Macedonia (in north Greece where modern Thessaloniki is located) also held Olympic Games at Dion, another city sacred to Zeus.  The Macedonian Olympics were on a different schedule from the Peloponnesian Olympics.  Serious athletes tried to hit all these various Agonēs.


2)  At what point did other countries become involved, and why? 

All competitors had to be Greek (and free, no slaves except for jockeys), yet ancient Greece, unlike modern Greece, was a geographical region united by language, religion, and culture.  Within that, city-states had their own governments, laws, traditions, and coinage—so Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, Elis, Argos, Eretria, etc., were independent (and sometimes warring) nations.  Some of these city-states governed areas no bigger than Douglas County, Nebraska (metropolitan Omaha), although others were larger—relatively.  Attika, where Athens was located, was among the largest, yet only about the size of Rhode Island.

These city-states would send athletes who competed to honor their cities, and themselves.  As Greeks moved out of the mainland to colonize the coastal areas of Asia Minor, the Black Sea, south Italy, Sicily, and northern Africa, Greeks from these colony cities also came to compete.

By the late 300s BCE after Alexander the Great, they began admitting Macedonian competitors, although earlier, only Macedonian kings were allowed to compete, as regular Macedonians weren’t considered Greek.  Later yet, Romans were also admitted, yet all competitors were still required to be free.


3)  Why did the original Olympic Games get eliminated and what was the reason for them coming back?

The ancient Olympics were celebrated regularly down to AD 261.  They came to an end during a period of Roman Imperial history called the “Barracks Emperors,” which involved a lot of civil war and unrest.  After that, they were celebrated more sporadically until terminated in AD 393 by the Emperor Theodosius because they were “pagan.”  He was a Christian, and in that year, he banned all pagan cult, not just the Olympics.

They were restarted in 1896, in Athens, as diplomacy via sport, although the first modern Olympics had only 14 countries and 241 athletes.  All modern Olympic parades are led by the Greek delegation, as a matter of respect.  The modern Olympic flame is kept in Olympia, and sets out from the ruins of the ancient Temple of Zeus.

While sacred fire was certainly a part of the ancient Olympics as it was a religious event and fire was crucial to sacrifice, there was no comparable relay of a torch around Greece.  The Olympic Flame never left Olympia.

1896 trivia: the Marathon—never an ancient event—was run along the course of the first supposed “marathon,” from the beach of Marathon in Attika into the brand new Olympic Stadium in the heart of Athens, near the ancient akropolis.  It was won by a Greek: Spiridon Louise; another Greek, Kharilaos Vasilakos, took second place.  The Greeks were overjoyed.

The irony?  No Greek athlete has won a medal in that event since.  In addition, the original “marathon” was a legend of the First Persian War; it didn’t actually happen.


4)  How are the modern Olympics different from the original games? How are they similar?

As noted above, the original Agonēs were religious in nature.  A second major difference, also noted above, was recognizing only one winner: second and third place didn’t count.

Third, it wasn’t just athletics.  Although the ancient Olympics had only athletic events, other Agonēs such as the second-most prestigious, the Pythian Games at Delphi, included competitions in music, poetry, dancing, and even painting.  If done to honor Apollo (patron of both arts and athletics), it was also because, to the Greeks, all of life was agonίa—an arena for competition.  So they competed in a wide variety of ways.

Ancient athletes at the Big Four were all men.  Likewise, the spectators were men; women (especially married women) were not only barred from competing, but even from entering the stadium.  If they did, they might be executed.  At Olympia, only one woman was allowed: the Chief Priestess of Hera, as Hera was Zeus’s wife, and her priestess was her representative.

Ancient athletes competed naked.  The Greeks believed the human body was a work of art and should be honored.  Nakedness was normal for all exercise, not just the Games.  This nakedness was another reason women were not admitted as spectators.  In 396, when a Rhodian athlete’s mother, Kallipateiras, snuck into the stadium dressed as his trainer in order to see him compete, it resulted in a change of rules so that both athletes and trainers had to appear naked henceforth.

Women, however, did attend the Agonēs festivals, if not the stadium events.  In fact, a little before the Olympics themselves, Games were held at Olympia for women and girls, dedicated to Hera.  Somewhat predictably, Sparta dominated, although Sparta did not dominate the men’s events the same way.  The reason?  Only ancient Sparta encouraged girls and women to exercise and train.  “Feminism” wasn’t the reason; exercise was key to making Spartan women superior baby-making machines.

Much like modern athletes, ancient athletes hired specialty trainers and dieticians, and began training at a young age.  Most Games had both boys’ and men’s events.  Then as now, trainers who produced winners were in high demand and charged accordingly.  Whole families might dominate a sport.  The mother of the boxer mentioned above was the daughter and niece of winning boxers, her brothers won, her nephews won, as well as her son.  These connections were why her “impiety” at violating the all-male rule was overlooked and she wasn’t executed.  In fact, we know about the story because Pausanias (an ancient travel writer) described their statues (including hers) in the main city on the island of Rhodes.

Ancient athletes were not amateurs; that’s a myth.  They competed in all four main (Panhellenic) Games, as well as other Games (such as the Pananthenaia).  It was their job, and if the Big Four—called stephanitic or “crown” games—offered only a ribbon and crown, made of various types of branches (olive for the Olympics, laurel for the Pythian), other Agonēs did offer prizes, including expensive bronze objects or fancy painted pottery filled with fine olive oil or wine.

Plus ancient athletes who won were honored extensively by their hometowns with perks such as free theatre seats, lifetime dinners at state expense, or even freedom from taxes.  Victors might have their trainers paid for by the state (ancient “corporate sponsorship”), and were highly sought as models for sculptors.  Those beautiful Greek statues are often of a real person, even if we don’t know who.  Famous poets such as Pindar wrote victory songs for the banquet on the night of their victory—the ancient version of standing on the platform to hear a national anthem.  Sometimes cities, especially in Thessaly, helped fund horses for chariot and jockey races in order to showcase their superior horse-breeding.

Money was all over the ancient Games, just like the modern.

Then as now, ancient victors also commanded huge fan followings—a point ancient intellectuals complained about, even intellectuals who were athletes themselves, such as Plato, a wrestler.  The names of ancient athletes might be better known than generals and statesmen.

For instance, today we call athletes “jocks,” but in ancient Greece, they were a “Milo” after a famous pankratist [wrestler] who won 32 titles across various Agonēs.  “Meat-eater” was also a name for an athlete, as regularly eating meat (aside from fish) was sporadic.  (It was expensive.)  Athletes, however, often had diets high in meat.  In fact, that same Milo was famous for entering the stadium carrying his “dinner” on his shoulders—a small calf!

The most famous athlete, however, wasn’t Milo, but Theoganes of Thasos, an ancient Jim Thorpe.  Active in the early 400s, around the time of the Persian Wars, he won all the Big Four, competing in multiple events of both strength (wrestling) and speed (racing), and was said to have amassed 1300 crowns total (across all Games, not just the Big Four).  A local legend in Thasos named Herakles (Hercules) as his real father, and a bronze statue of him in the main city on the island was said to have healing powers.


5)  Anything else about the Olympics you wanted to add?

Ancient Greeks used the Olympic schedule to mark “common” time, as otherwise, there was no calendar shared by all the different city-states.  For instance, the year we call 344 BCE was the year of the 109th Olympiad, 343 was the second year of the 109th Olympiad, 342 was the third year, and 341 was the fourth.  Then 340 became the year of the 110th Olympiad.  And so forth.