The Poetic Games

Two Wrestlers, circa 510 BCE

The Isthmian Games of Ancient Greece included many of the same sporting events as the Olympics such as wrestling and chariot races.

They also included poetry contests (I love that!).

In Symposiacs Plutarch mentions that a woman named Aristomache won a coveted poetry medal.

Polyhymnia, Muse of Sacred Poetry

On a side note, Plato himself is said to have participated in the Isthmian Games. The ancient writer Diogenes Laertius writes that Plato was a wrestler in the Games and that his nickname “Platon” (his real name was Aristocles) may have been given to him by his coach, Ariston.

“Platon” being short for “platus,” which in Ancient Greek means “wide or broad,” could have referred to Plato’s athletic body (ooh la la).

Historical accounts differ, however, and “Plato” or “Platon” could have referred to his broad forehead or his broad, eloquent manner of speaking.

I love watching the Olympics: the Opening Ceremony, the athletes’ nervous anticipation at the starting line, the sheer joy of the winners, finding myself becoming ridiculously critical of the divers (oooooh, there was a little splash there… that’s a shame…).

But most of all because I think we see what the human body is capable of. Grace, speed, and strength as a form of physical poetry perhaps.

When I found out that poetry was part of the Isthmian Games, it reminded me that Olympic medals used to be awarded to poets too (if you’re interested in the history of poetry and the Olympics, you should read this great NYTimes article by Tony Perrottet called “Champions of Verse”).

But, I thought how fun it would be if poetry was somehow introduced into the Olympic events themselves this year.

Perhaps as a relay race, each runner adding a line of poetry? Or a poetic high jump, the jumper yelling out a word or haiku in mid-jump?


All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sources: Plutarch’s Symposiacs, Pausania’s Description of Greece, Laertius’ Life of Plato.