Many myths accounted for Olympia’s importance, but none agreed. However, for the ‘learned antiquaries of Elis’ (the city which administered Olympia) it was clear why the site held such significance: this was where Zeus defeated his father Cronus to become the king of heaven. But to the traveller Pausanias’ dismay even the Elians crossed swords:
Some maintain that it was here that Zeus wrestled with Cronus for the kingdom; others that Zeus held games here in celebration of that victory. They say that the list of champions included Apollo, who defeated both Hermes at running and Ares at boxing.
Zeus’ Victory at Olympia Photo Gallery
Nevertheless their explanations united two key elements which made historical Olympia so important: the worship of Zeus and the Olympic Games. More, the suggestion that the Games celebrated Zeus’ defeat of Cronus not in battle but in the (slightly) more civilized sphere of sport allowed the vanquished Cronus to be worshipped at Olympia. Pausanias wrote that every spring equinox, at the Elean new year, so-called King-Priests climbed the wooded slopes above Olympia and sacrificed to Cronus on the summit of the hill which bore his name: the Hill of Cronus.
At Elis, Pausanias heard another foundation myth for the Games with a rather more tenuous link to Zeus. It told how, on Mount Ida in Crete, the young Zeus was entertained by Curetes or Dactyls, young male gods who staged footraces, with olive crowns awarded to the winners. The eldest of the Curetes, whose name (like that of the great hero) was Heracles, subsequently introduced the footrace into mainland Greece, where it formed the basis of the Olympic Games, held – because there were five Curetes – every fifth year (Greeks counted inclusively).