It’s been a tough year for sports purists. The 2004 return of the Olympic Games to Greece, the hallowed land of their ancient birth in 776 B.C.E., didn’t exactly herald a return to a nobler age: sadly, the Athens extravaganza will be remembered more for its endless doping scandals, with more than twenty athletes failing urine tests, than for the glory of its record-setting performances. Even the International Olympic Committee’s nostalgic idea of holding the shot put contests inside the original stadium, where the Hellenic events were held for nearly twelve centuries, turned into a PR fiasco when the winner of the women’s gold medal, Russian Irina Korzhanenko, tested positive for anabolic steroids. (Of course, the ancient Greeks wouldn’t have allowed women to compete at the Olympic Games in the first place, or even be in the audience, but that’s another matter.)
Since that symbolic moment, the floodgates have opened, at least here in the United States, where the doping scandals have been piling up with monotonous regularity—in Major League Baseball, in the pro-cycling circuit, even in the Kentucky Derby. Such devious behavior seems a far cry from the classical Greek ideal of athletics, which aimed to elevate the human spirit while perfecting the body. Ancient sculptures like the Discus Thrower portrayed the Apollonic moral purity of sporting champions, who according to the Greek author Lucian had a sacred gift, and were even “equal to the gods themselves.” Despite this, the Greeks had their own equivalent of doping scandals, involving magic potions, charms, and spells—enchanted performance-enhancers that were impossible to regulate, without anything like our modern urine tests to keep contestants honest.
According to the third-century Greek author Philostratus, who penned a useful volume called Handbook for a Sports Coach, the two professional groups most actively involved in sorcery were athletes and prostitutes. Papyrus spell books included magical formulae to enhance strength, speed, luck, and virility—all of extreme interest to athletes, who could rack up vast personal fortunes in the hundreds of sports festivals held every summer around the Greek world. Fragmentary examples of these Greek magical tomes survive today; found in translation in the New York Public Library, they make edifying reading. Chanting one arcane spell to the sun god Helios seven times will pump up a wrestler’s strength and guarantee victory in the ring. The spell begins in Greek, then lapses into a string of obscure terms in Egyptian, which was regarded as the language of magic, since the gods were born by the Nile: “Rejoice with me, you who are set over the east wind and the world, for whom all the gods serve as bodyguards… you who rise from the abyss, you who each day rise as a young man and set as an old man, HARPENKNOUPHI BRINTANTENOPHRI BRISSKYMAS… I ask to obtain from you life, health, reputation… strength… victory over all men and all women. Yes, lord, ABLANATHANALBA….” The spell book also offers a shorter chant that works just as well for wrestlers, provided it is said over an offering of oak charcoal and sacred incense, “with which has been mixed the brain of a wholly black ram and the wheat meal of a certain plant.” An excellent spell for runners, called “Hermes’ wondrous victory charm,” directed to the god of speed, could be inscribed on a tiny gold medallion and hidden in a sandal—outside the gymnasium, that is, since the all male athletes competed naked in ancient Greece. Other festival hopefuls wore grisly “victory amulets,” like the leg of a lizard found in a cemetery, to put an extra spring in their step. The spell instructions specify that the reptile in question must be caught at night, have the right foot cut off with a knife made of a sharpened reed, and be returned to its hole alive. Then there were the oral fixes: magical potions concocted from hundreds of mysterious ingredients including herbs and roots that had to be gathered under certain phases of the moon while enchanted phrases were intoned. Of the 450-or-so plants mentioned in the surviving papyri, very few have been identified by modern scholars. (This is one reason why the spell mentioned above uses “a certain plant”; we have the Greek name but no idea what it is.) Some were even given code names: wormwood, for example, was known as Blood of Hephaestus, the god of fire; buckthorn was known as Bone of an Ibis. Of those plants we do know about, some, like chamomile, wild garlic, and dill seed, might not seem out of place in a modern health-food store. But Greek witches mixed their philters from up to thirty-six magically active ingredients, which would also include such noisome exotica as Ethiopian dirt, the blood of a tick found on a black dog, ground sandstone, piglet’s milk, the flesh of a spotted gecko, and the wine in which a raven has been drowned. Sadly, the specific pharmaceutical use of squeezed mustard-rocket leaf, known to the Greeks as “the Semen of Hercules,” can only be guessed at today.
These enchanted concoctions weren’t always taken orally: Chicory juice smeared on the body at sunrise while one chanted to the sun god Helios guaranteed an athlete victory as well as sexual attractiveness. Imbibed, the draught worked only to cure heartburn.
But for the ancient Greek athletes who really wanted to get a competitive edge, there was an even more convenient side to the cheating coin: using black magic to blight the performance of opponents. This “negative magic” appears to have been extremely popular, judging from the surviving evidence. Archaeologists have excavated hundreds of “curse tablets” around Greece—spells written on scrolls of lead, rolled up, and buried in cemeteries, where the dead were supposed to take them to the Underworld. One found in Athens was aimed at a runner named Alkidimos: “Do not let him get past the starting lines… and if he does get past the line, make him veer off course and disgrace himself.” Another curses a wrestler named Eutychion to become “deaf, dumb, mindless, harmless” as soon as he steps in the ring. Petres the Macedonian, another strongman, is cursed simply to be caught “in the dark air of oblivion.” The most common use of these curses was to influence chariot races—no doubt because gambling was generally involved. (Greeks loved to bet on the races; ancient racing fans were known to sniff the manure of horses to test the quality of the fodder.) Wealthy owners would hire magicians to place evil spells on other horses—“drive them mad, without muscles, without limbs” reads one curse tablet found in Greece; another, “let them be unable to run or walk or achieve victory, or even leave the starting gates.” Others were aimed at the hapless charioteers themselves: “I bind the hands (of drivers)… send them blind… let them be tossed to the ground, so they are dragged by their own vehicles throughout the Hippodrome.” Just for good measure, on the way to an event, ancient gamblers might sacrifice a live dog to Hecate, the goddess of the Underworld, at a rural crossroads, begging her to wreak havoc on opponents. Accidents in the chariot races were common and often fatal, so the threat was taken extremely seriously: drivers hung phallic charms on their rigs to ward off black magic and the Evil Eye, then hired magicians of their own to inscribe spells on the hooves of their horses that gave them extra speed on the track.
All this clearly disturbed the Greek sports organizers, who hosted more than 350 regular events around the Mediterranean on a revolving cycle, the most prestigious of which was the Olympic Games, held every fourth year at a remote sanctuary in the Peloponnesus. At the Olympics’ opening ceremonies, the hundreds of athletes—all male, all competing in the nude and rubbed down with olive oil—had to gather for a solemn oath, made on a bloody slice of boar’s flesh in front of a terrifying statue of Zeus with his thunderbolts, which included a promise that the athletes had trained according to the Olympic rules and would use no unfair means to gain victory. This safeguard was taken to prevent corruption as well as magic. (Corruption scandals were a regular feature of the games after the fourth century B.C.E., when a certain boxer named Eubulus of Thessaly bribed his opponents to throw their match against him; hefty fines were imposed, and the funds were used by the judges to build statues of Zeus at the entrance of the stadium, each with inscriptions warning athletes that they should “win at Olympia with the speed of your feet and the strength of your body, not with money.”)
Nobody, it seemed, could be trusted in the ancient Greek sports. The buffed Olympic contestants were even forced to live together for thirty days before the event in special barracks in the host city of Elis—all so that the judges could keep an eye on them, making sure they didn’t get juiced up on nefarious potions or gobble other mysterious substances recommended by their professional coaches, who doubled as the pioneer sports doctors. During their years of training, many athletes indulged in fad diets in their quest for a competitive edge which, while strictly speaking not illegal, were regarded as only one step away from witchcraft: boxers would eat nothing but sheep’s testicles for days to improve their strength; all-meat regimes were popular with wrestlers; obscure river fish were favored by pentathletes, who needed to keep their figures lithe and light; and one long-distance runner apparently gained victory on an all-fig diet. Some trainers allowed their athletes to eat pork only if it had been fattened on cornel berries and acorns, while others banned the consumption of bread—the first low-carb diet on record. But once they were housed in the Olympic Village of Elis, athletes had to stick to a “traditional diet”—unleavened bread, olives, feta cheese, a moderate amount of meat—and no special supplements. At the ancient Greek Games, the stakes were even more immense than in 2004: winning at Olympia was as close as mortals could come to deification. Although the official prize was only a symbolic olive wreath, huge amounts of money were involved. Champions were awarded huge cash sums by their home cities, lifetime pensions, front-row seats at the theaters, lavish victory parades, and guaranteed “sweet smooth sailing,” as the poet Pindar put it, for the rest of their lives. Some were provided with honorary priesthoods; others became politicians: a certain third-century-B.C.E. Athenian athlete became a leading senator, anticipating Jesse Ventura by two millennia. In the Roman era, a victor might become the personal masseur to the Emperor. What’s more, an Olympic crown was a genuine form of immortality: Greeks remembered the names of their sporting champions better than we remember those of presidents, and history itself was dated by Olympiads. There may not have been any corporate sponsorship deals, but Olympic victors could earn huge fortunes just by appearing in prize bouts at provincial games around Greece, touring like members of a traveling circus. In short, the ancient sports celebrities became as removed from their fellow citizens as NBA stars are today. The temptations, it seems, were irresistible. The athletes may have been treated like demigods, but they were only human, after all.