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Sports, challenges, and punishments in ancient Greek culture

This article gives you an overview of a few aspects of ancient Greek culture and mythology. They’re all referenced in this lesson’s fiction extract, The Race Official; you’ll likely come across them in other texts too. Ancient Greek stories and traditions continue to influence modern-day culture, thought, and literature.

The Olympics

While the modern Olympics date back to 1896, they were inspired by the ancient Greek Olympic Games which were held every four years between the 8th century BCE and the 4th century CE. That’s right—they ran for almost 1200 years! The games took place in the ancient Greek city of Olympia, and the sports included boxing, running, wrestling, and chariot racing.


Hermes was the messenger of the gods, and a god in his own right, in Greek mythology. He was a speedy traveler, moving quickly between the worlds of gods and mortals thanks to the power of his winged sandals. Among many other things, Hermes was the god of games and athletes; he was said to have invented both wrestling and racing.


Sisyphus was king of Ephyra; a human character from Greek mythology. According to legend, he was deceitful, greedy, and murderous. After his death, Zeus (king of the Greek gods) sent him to Tartarus—the Greek version of hell.
In Tartarus, Sisyphus was sentenced to eternal punishment for his wickedness. He had to push a giant boulder up a hill, but every time the boulder got close to the top, it rolled back down, forcing him to start all over again. In modern-day English, the word Sisyphean describes a task that’s never-ending, pointless, or both.


Unlike Sisyphus, Actaeon was a hero; a legendary hunter. Unfortunately, he offended Artemis, goddess of hunting and the wilderness. Accounts vary on what he did wrong—some versions of the story say he stumbled on Artemis bathing naked, others that he boasted he was a better hunter than the goddess. Either way, Artemis wasn’t happy and turned him into a stag—he was then hunted and torn apart by his own hunting dogs.

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