The first thing that struck me was how little information there was out there about the Heraean Games (or Games of Hera). I know we are talking millenia ago now but the information available about the male equivalent is in far greater quantities and better quality. As a result there is a lot of conjecture around the Heraean Games. It is a fantastic demonstration of the erasure of Women's History. Despite the fact that they ran for centuries alongside the male equivalent they are considerably less well known. Most of the limited information seems to have been taken from Pausanias and his Description of Greece and then extrapolated from there.
The Games appear to have been established by Hippodamia sometime during the Archaic Period (800C - 500C BC). She wanted to offer her gratitude to Hera for her marriage to Pelops. It seems odd to create a predominantly female space in thanks for being given to a man. Maybe she felt the need for more women-centric activities after joining her life with a man! Hera, however was a strong, independent and dignified woman so was a great taliswoman for the games despite what the linked Wikipedia article says. History has consigned her to being the petulant, jealous wife of Zeus. How the narrative is rewritten according to who writes it! In this case it was the patriarchal Christians who assigned Goddesses as lesser than the Gods and introduced a patriarchal view of the women in Ancient Greek times. In the same vein much of the information about Hippodamia is only available in relation to her husband or father, despite the fact she was obviously a capable woman in her own right. This is not to say that Ancient Greece was a bastion of feminism. In all likelihood it wasn't a great period for women and a patriarchy is very much in evidence. But subsequently misrepresenting women only makes matters worse.
Hippodamia assembled the Sixteen Women and together they founded the Heraea. The Sixteen Women are thought to have been peace-makers between Elis and Pisa and are likely to have been married women. There are several interpretations as to how these women were brought together and where they were from. Some think that the group was made up of women from sixteen cities from Elis and Pisa, others that they were all from Elis. They did succeed in peace between the two regions, after which they were given the task of building the Heraean Games and weaving a spiritual robe for Hera. It is possible that these games may have even pre-dated the men as some think that the male Olympiad were established in honour of Pelops' death.The Games were held in the Olympic Stadium that the men used and were held between 3-5 years apart. The time between events seemed to vary throughout their existence although it is thought that for the most part they matched the men's games, every 4 years. They consisted of three foot races, one in each of three different age categories. Again there is very little information about the format of the races or what the age categories were.
Patricia Monaghan believed that the the age groups match the three phases of women's life: maiden, mother and crone. Hera went through those phases as mortal females did even though she was a Goddess. I like the thought of that I must say. Much more inclusive and female-centric. However, most other sources I looked at, including Pausanius, seem to think the age groups were much younger than that and that only maidens competed. It is entirely possible that whatever the actual age of the participants, they may have represented the phases Monaghan mentions. It is difficult to confirm or reject with any certainty, due to the paucity of information.
It is known that the women used a shortened form of the men's course at the Olympic Stadium and that one of the races was a 160 yard dash. The athletes wore a chiton, which was an off the shoulder short dress in which the right shoulder and breast were left bare. This was an adaptation from a garment that men used to wear when doing labour in hot temperatures.
Courtesy of The British Museum
They won an olive wreath crown and a portion of the ox/cow that had been slaughtered for Hera on behalf of all the contestants. There may also have been inscribed statues created in honour of the winners. One of the known winners was Chloris. Chloris was the daughter of Niobe and Amphion and was spared being killed by Artemis and Apollo. They killed all (except possibly one other) of her siblings in revenge for Niobe insulting their mother with taunts about how many children she had. The misogyny in there is worth a post in its own right, if in fact that was what actually happened. As mentioned earlier we are looking at this through the prism of male, Christian patriarchy. There seems to have been an awful lot of jealousy/rivalry between women to explain male violence. Some may recognise these excuses even today.
There is also evidence that there were other sporting contests in Sparta in which women competed. The girls of Sparta had unprecedented access to education and sports. The reasons behind this seem very patriarchal in that they wanted more healthy warriors. The cynical side of me thinks that it is typical that equality can be given to women when it suits men's ends! Again there is not much known about the women of Sparta for two reasons. Sparta seemed to have deliberately not recorded its history and those observing and recounting the history were overwhelmingly male and it can probably be safe to say had little to no interest in women and maintaining their history. Gymnopaedia seems to have been a sporting event where young women competed. There does seem to have been some links with this and a showcase for marriage potential with young men making up some of the spectators. Like a sporty debutante ball!
So the Heraean Games were created in response to a woman being thankful for being married to a man. Not the most auspicious of starts nor the most feminist. However its establishment could well have been, in part due to the exclusion of women from the male Olympiad. It could have provided both some kind of parity and satisfied their desire to compete. This pattern is still seen today where women are excluded and organise themselves to redress the balance, especially in sporting events. Even the lesser status of these events still holds true.
If the games did indeed predate the male equivalent then it seems that as far back as Ancient Greek times women recognised the importance of organising women-only or predominantly female spaces. Having read only a little about the amount of misogyny and horrible acts perpetrated against women in these times, I can understand why the women would have wanted to praise and celebrate their own sex.