Ancient Greek Musical Contests at the Pythian Games, Delphi

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Athena Pronaia Sanctuary at Delphi.

Dedicated to Apollo, the Pythian Games at Delphi celebrated Ancient Greek music. Archaeological has uncovered the venue of the contests-the theatre.

Athletics contests are the events usually associated with ancient Greek games but musical and dramatic productions also part of the programme.

At Delphi, the only events of the Pythian games were musical until the sixth century BC. Contestants competed to be hailed the best performer in honour of Apollo, the patron deity of the games.

Even when athletic contests were added to the programme of events, music remained an important part of the festival. Archaeology has uncovered the purpose built theatre at Delphi. The position of the theatre and its size show that musical contests remained an important part of the Pythian games.

History of the Pythian Games

The earliest games at Delphi were held in the eighth century BC. Initially, they were wholly religious. They formed part of the festival of Apollo. A sacrifice of three different animals opened proceedings, followed by a sacred banquet. The games began the following day.

From the earliest times, the contests included musical events, due to Apollo’s reputation as a musician. In the sixth century BC, the games were reorganised by the Amphiktyons, who were the council who ran the sanctuary of Delphi. They took over responsibility for arrangement of the games and added sporting events to the programme. As a result, from 586 BC, the programme of events began with the music contests, then the athletics events and finally the equestrian contests.

Ancient Greek Music at Delphi

The original musical competitions required participants to sing the hymn to Apollo accompanied by a lyre or Kithara. Contestants had to play the instrument themselves rather than employ a musician to accompany them.

With time, these strict rules relaxed. As the contests became less religious in character, other musical events were introduced. By the sixth century BC, the musical programme had expanded to allow singing accompanied by flutes which were played by musicians.

The Greek Theatre at Delphi

Originally, the musical contests were held in the area of the later stadium or on temporary structures built in Delphi’s temenos. In the second century BC, the first permanent theatre was constructed at Delphi, situated in the north west of the sanctuary.

The theatre was constructed from white limestone from Mount Parnassus. It consisted of 35 rows and could seat around 5000 spectators.

The auditorium and paved orchestra still survive but only the foundations remain of the stage buildings. It has been deduced from unskillful reliefs of the labours of Hercules that local craftsmen were used on later first century BC additions to the stage area. Archaeologists have also learned that the scene and proscenium, which formed a back drop to the stage, would not have been very high. This is because a tall backdrop to the theatre would have impaired views of the dramatic scenery of Delphi.

Athletic contests may have begun to overshadow the musical events but the location of the theatre within the sacred precinct, its high seating capacity and careful design show that musical contests remained an important part of the Pythian games.

Sources:

  1. Gates, C, 2003 Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, Greece and Rome. Routledge: London and New York
  2. Konstantinou, I K, 1995. Delphi: The Oracle and its Role in the Political and social life of the Greeks. Athens: Hannibal.
  3. Ingpen, R and Wilkinson, P, 1990 Encyclopaedia of Mysterious Places-The life and legends of ancient sites around the world. Guild publishing: London