Pelops & the Fatal Chariot Race

For others the Games had more bloody origins. Zeus’ grandson Pelops was originally from Lydia. His father Tantalus was so loved by the gods that he regularly dined with them But this was not enough for Tantalus. Begrudging the fact that, while he ate meat, the gods feasted on ambrosia and nectar, he contrived an unpalatable trick. He killed young Pelops, cut him up and served him to the gods in a well-seasoned stew. Only Demeter was deceived. Mourning the abduction of Persephone, she nibbled on a portion of shoulder. The others, furious at Tantalus, condemned him to eternal thirst and hunger. As for Pelops, the gods wiped the sauce from the gobbets of his flesh and reassembled him – all bar the shoulder that Demeter had consumed. This they replaced with an ivory prosthesis. Reanimated, Pelops was so handsome that Poseidon fell in love with him and taught him to be an accomplished charioteer, a skill which soon stood him in good stead.

With Hippodameia standing in his chariot, Pelops, his head crowned with the victor’s olive wreath, guides his chariot team. (Fifth-century BC Attic red figure vase.)

Pelops & the Fatal Chariot Race Gallery Photos

Pelops & the Fatal Chariot Race

Word reached Pelops of a beautiful princess, Hippodameia. Terrified by a prophecy that his son-in-law would kill him, her father King Oenomaeus of Elis was challenging any who sought her hand to a chariot race. One by one the suitors were defeated and eighteen grinning heads, impaled on stakes, adorned King Oenomaeus’ palace. Pelops was determined not to join them Poseidon had given him a team of swift winged horses, but still Pelops was reluctant to take chances. So, with Hippodameia’s agreement, he bribed her father’s chariot-technician Myrtilus, offering to share with him not just the kingdom but also Hippodameia’s bed if he replaced Oenomaeus’ metal lynchpins with counterfeits made from beeswax. Enthusiastically Myrtilus agreed. As Pelops and Oenomaeus raced ever faster, the heat from the wheels’ spinning caused the wax to melt. The wheels flew off, the chariot collapsed, and Oenomaeus’ horses dragged him to his death.

Predictably, Pelops refused to honour his side of the bargain. Instead, he threw Myrtilus into the sea. As he fell from the high cliff, Myrtilus cursed Pelops and his family, setting in motion a cycle of misery that would haunt them in later generations. Too late, Pelops recovered Myrtilus’ remains and buried them at Olympia, where, to placate Oenomaeus’ angry ghost, he held athletic games in the dead king’s honour, the forerunner of the Olympics. Meanwhile, Hippodameia gave thanks to Hera (goddess of marriage) by inaugurating the Heraia, a women’s festival which included a footrace.

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