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Light my fire: torches ablaze since antiquity

5 August 2021
Did you know the Olympic torch relay is actually a modern invention?
Curator Candace Richards reveals the origins of the torch relay tradition and explores the role of flaming torches throughout the ancient Hellenic world.

Athlete Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron in Tokyo to officially begin the Tokyo Games, but for the flame itself this gesture was actually the end of a long journey. The Olympic torch relay starts at the ancient site of Olympia in Greece months, or in the case of the 2021 Games, over a year, before the Games are due to commence. It then moves across borders and oceans and finally delivers the sacred flame to the hosting country.

Perhaps less well known is that the relay is a modern invention, not part of the Ancient Olympic tradition. Based on the idea of the hearth of the Temple of Hera of Olympia being alight for the duration of the competition, it was added in 1936 to bring the ‘Olympic flame’ to the host city, Berlin. Even though this development was part of the Nazis’ widespread misappropriation of ancient symbolism to legitimise themselves and their ideologies, it was adopted in subsequent years as part of the Games’ opening festivities.

While the Olympic torch relay might be a modern invention, torches were part of athletic competitions and used in civic and religious life in antiquity.

Torchlight races

Torch races, where individuals or relay teams were required to transport a flame, were popular in Classical Athens and were held in other Greek city-states such as Corinth, but interestingly not Olympia. The races were called lampadedromia or lampas and were part of religious festivals that honoured specific deities including Prometheus, who is said to have given fire to humanity, and Hephaistos, the god of fire and blacksmiths.

Pot with lid viewed from above featuring the head of Hephaistos

The head of Hephaistos, god of fire and blacksmiths, is featured on this red figure lidded pyxis (cosmetics pot). Attributed to the Darius Painter, Athens, Greece, 350–325 BC, Nicholson Collection, NM97.188

The Panathenaea was a city-wide festival held every year in Athens, with a Greater Athens games held in conjunction every 4 years. The festivities included a city-wide procession, immortalised in the sculptural frieze of the Parthenon, and a variety of competitions from athletics to poetry and included a torch relay. The winning tribe of the tourch race was rewarded with an ox, and individual competitors received a hydria (jug) worth 30 drachmai – a laudable sum.

Greek vase with athletes

This Lekythos depicts an athlete with jumping eights and a musician with possibly their trainer practicing for competition. Attic black figure white ground lekythos, c. 490 BC, Athens Painter, Athens, NM51.12 

The most unusual torch race in Greek antiquity was held in honour of the Thracian goddess Bendis. Often associated with the hunting goddess Artemis, Bendis was the first foreign deity to be worshipped in Athens. Her cult, established by the late 5th century BC, was based at the port of Piraeus where her temple and altar were built. Her festival, the Bendieia, was one of the most significant for the state of Athens. Historical accounts note that the income from the sale of hides was the third largest across the Greek city states, amounting in 343 BC to 457 drachmai. Some scholars suggest it even incorporated a hecatomb – the sacrifice of 100 oxen at the goddess’ altar.

One of the primary events of the Bendieia was the torch race on horseback, unlike any other relay. The most significant source for information about this event comes from Plato’s work, The Republic. Socrates, having watched the procession of the  inaugural Bendieia, went to leave, remarking that there was nothing left to see. Adeimantus (Plato’s brother) exclaimed “Do you mean to say that you haven't heard that there is to be a torchlight race this evening on horseback in honour of the Goddess?” Socrates replied “On horseback? That is a new idea. Will they carry torches and pass them along to one another as they race with the horses, or how do you mean?” - “That's the way of it.”

The torchbearing athletes

Plaster cast of athletes

Plaster cast of a votive relief dedicated to Bendis, original made Athens, Greece 530–525 BC, Nicholson Collection, NM2008.38

Archaeological evidence also shows the structure of the race and the number of competitors involved. The Nicholson Collection’s plaster cast of a relief sculpture in the British Museum (above) depicts a team of torch-racers approaching the larger-than-life goddess who wears her trademark Phrygian cap, animal skin cloak and long boots. The first two men are bearded and wear himatia (wrapped cloaks). The rest are naked (but with headbands) and beardless, indicating their youthfulness.

Torch detail from the votive relief plaster cast, NM2008.38

Scholars have previously suggested that the bearded men could be the sponsors or trainers of the naked athletes. However, recent research by Nicholas Sekunda proposes that the two figures were commanders of the Athenian cavalry, or the tribal regiment of the cavalry the team were from. 

The first man holds a torch, a long thick staff with a handguard, typical of the types of torches used for relay races. The scene is significant as it confirms Plato's account of the Bendieia torch relay race. 

A light for escapades of the night

Torches appear elsewhere in Hellenic art, although they look very different to those held by athletes. Vase painters often used torches to show the action of a scene occurring at night, or in an other-worldly space. These torches do not have handguards and are often much longer than their counterparts used in competitions. Scenes such as the one on a bell krater by the Dijon Painter from Apulia show long torches, held in both hands by a Maenad running towards an altar, made by tying together bundles of organic matter, possibly sticks or reeds. The torches have horizontal bands along the shafts which indicate ties. A similar bundled torch is carried over the shoulder of an actor dressed as a komast (drunken reveller) on an oinochoe by the Compiegne Painter. 

Differences in torches are significant as they tell us about the different ways in which light and flame were used in the ancient Hellenic world. Torches with handguards were specifically designed for races as the festival and civic bundled type torches would have been completely unsuitable.

Ancient aesthetic in Olympic torch design

The torch used for the modern ceremonial relay of the Olympic flame varies considerably in its design from games to games. Many host cities have chosen modern torch designs that reflect their own identity or nation, including the Sydney 2000 torches for both the Olympics and Paralympics that incorporated elements referencing the Sydney Opera House. However, other designs have based their look on the ancient torches.

Woman carrying Olympic torch

Olympic relay runner with the torch designed for the 1996 Atlanta Games by Peter Mastrogiannis, with Malcolm Grear Designers and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Photo: Flickr, Elvert Barnes.

The torch used for the 1960 Olympics, hosted by Rome was designed by Amedeo Maiuri, an Italian archaeologist, most well-known for his work at Pompeii. His torch design included a hand guard and shaft based on the type used in the ancient relay races. In 1996 the games were hosted by Atlanta, USA, and a competition was run to determine who would design the torch. Peter Mastrogiannis with Malcolm Grear Designers and the Georgia Institute of Technology won with their design based on the ancient bundled torches, using 22 aluminium reeds to represent the 22 previous host cities of the modern Olympics.


Candace Richards is Assistant Curator, Nicholson Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum.

This article is a preview from our upcoming Issue 27 of Muse Magazine.

Featured image (top of page): Unsplash, Igor Lepilin. 

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