From ancient times, the ancient Greeks held formal athletics competitions within a stadion (Latin stadium), the most famous of which lay at Olumpia in northwest Peloponnese, home of the Olympic Games. The word stadion derives from ancient Greek stadia, a standard unit of length measuring 600 Greek feet (approx 183 metres), which was the standard length given to their athletics fields. Ancient Greek stadions usually had one end or side completely enclosed by an auditorion (Latin auditorium) or raised ground for the spectators. While many stadions were situated to take advantage of the natural terrain, either being built into the hollow of a hill or across a slope, others required considerable earthworks to achieve the desired form.

Nemea Athletics Stadion

Nemea Stadion south view
Nemea Stadion - View south into auditorion
Nemea Stadion north view
Nemea Stadion - View north from auditorion

One of the best preserved of ancient Greek stadions lies at Nemea, which is located about a hundred kilometres southwest of Athens along the road to Tripoli. In ancient times, Nemea lay along the much disputed border between the Peloponnesian districts of Arkadia and Argos, a dispute that may have begun with the slaying of the Nemean lion by the Argive hero Erakles (Herakles). Like its Olumpic counterpart, the Nemea stadion was linked to a sanctuary of Dios (Zeus), which dominated the then townless valley.

Nemea Stadion plan
Nemea Stadion - Plan
Amanita muscaria vertical sections
Amanita muscaria - Vertical Sections

With sport most befitting of youth, the basic layout of the Nemea stadion resembles an adolescent Amanita muscaria mushroom, or one whose pileus has yet to open, as seen in vertical section. Aligned north-south, the southern end of the stadion was completely enclosed by a steep semi-circular auditorion built into the hollow of a hill, where the outer diameter of the auditorion is almost three times the width of the stadion. The auditorion extends along both sides of the stadion for almost half its length, whereupon the auditorion was terminated perpendicular to the stadion. At this point, the contours of the hill meet those of the stadion, but the hill descends many metres more to the valley floor just beyond the northern end of the stadion. However, as the northern end of the track has completely eroded away, we can only speculate that this end was shaped similar to the bulbous volva common to the mushrooms of Amanita species. Nevertheless, with the surviving portion of the stadion measuring almost 178m long by about 25m wide, its aspect ratio of approx. 7:1 compares favourably with that found in Amanita stipes. The slight bulging towards the centre of the stadion also compares favourably with that occassionally found in the stipes of Amanita mushrooms, especially where a pileus weighs heavily upon its stipe, and with the entasis often given to Doric column shafts. Delineated running lanes, becoming more rutted with every race, compare to the capillary tubes within the wall of the stipe, as well as the central vein, and to the general fluting of Greek column shafts.

Nemea road cutting
Nemea Road Cutting - Nemea
Nemea road cutting - Tripoli Hwy
Nemea Road Cutting - Tripoli Hwy

The material colour scheme of the stadion also compares closely with that of an Amanita muscaria, with the stadion proper paved with an imported white clayey-sand, while the lower tiers of the auditorion were constructed from an imported yellowy-red limestone upon a hill of natural red earth. The colour scheme of the mushroom pileus is also evident in a raised water channel constructed around that part of the stadion enclosed by the auditorion, where slender beams of yellow poros were hollowed into U-shaped channels that were then sealed with a red mortar. Immediately beneath the scarlet skin of the pileus, the white flesh of the Amanita muscaria is usually stained a bright yellow, as also occurs at the margin of the pileus, where the universal veil meets with the partial veil. Water was further distributed around the stadion by an underground network of red terracotta pipes, whose joints were sealed with a fine white clay. In between the water channel and the auditorium, a narrow sidewalk was paved with slabs of a grey stone, that mimics the shadowy void that forms between the stipe, pileus and partial veil.

Nemea terracotta water pipes
Terracotta Water Pipes
Nemea lion-head water spout
Lion Head Water Spout

About fifty metres from the southern end of the stadion, a 36m long vaulted tunnel was constructed through the western side of the auditorion. This tunnel enabled athletes and officials to pass to and from the stadion and the temple of Dios, which lies about 300m northwest of the tunnel. Constructed from blocks of yellowy-red limestone with its floor paved in the white clayey-sand, the colour scheme of the tunnel also matches that of the Amanita muscaria. A mushroom shape is further espoused by the short approach to the tunnel. However, twenty or so metres further northwards, no tunnel would have been necessary as the level of the auditorion meets that of the stadion. One of the oldest surviving arches on the Greek mainland, had this tunnel been built by the Arkadians, along or within whose border the Nemean sanctuary lay, this may provide the origin of our word "arcade". A similar tunnel was constructed at the Olympic sanctuary, situated along the opposite side of Arkadia, but this tunnel afforded a view down the length of its stadion.

Nemea tunnel approach trackside
Tunnel Approach Trackside
Nemea tunnel interior
Tunnel Interior

According to the Greek travel-writer Pavsanias, there was an ippodromos ("horsetrack") at Nemea, where red rocks, said to blaze like fire in the sunlight, were placed at the turn to frighten the horses. However, as the ippodromos has yet to be located, we can only speculate that the red stone used to scare the horses was the same as the yellow-red limestone or the stone used to construct the temple of Dios, which develops a bright red patina not unlike the skin covering the pileus of the Amanita muscaria.

Athletic Events

With the Nemean stadion constructed in the shape of a mushroom, the athletic events held within ancient Greek stadions may also bear relation to a mushroom.

Diskobolus - discus thrower

Diskobolos (discus throw)
As mentioned in the Introduction, the diskos appears to have been modelled upon and named after two same-sized mushroom pilei joined gills to gills following the removal of their stipes. While a diskos held aloft by the splayed fingers of one hand suggests the underside view of a gilled mushroom, the rotating action of a diskos-thrower circumscribes the shape of a mature mushroom. The rotating action is portrayed in the classic statue titled diskobolos (discus-thrower), usually credited to the fifth century BCE Athenian sculptor Muron (Myron), but of which only Roman copies survive. The small stump carved behind the diskos-thrower may also reference a mushroom stipe, especially as the ancient Greek mushroom word mukes was also applied to stumps of olive. The famous club of Erakles was said to have been carved from the stump of an olive.

With oil applied daily to the bodies of athletes and then scraped off at the evening bath, we might wonder to what use the waste material was put. While some of this muck may have been foisted upon an unsuspecting public believing it to have extraordinary powers, the remainder may have been used to make moulds for the casting of various metal objects, such as statues, votives, and sporting equipment. The method of casting metal objects in a mould of sand mixed with oil was common practice in ancient Greece, and is still common practice, with the oil serving to bind the sand and reduce the permeability of the mould. With ancient Greek diskoi made of bronze or iron known to have been cast in sand moulds, it is possible that some of the scrapings from the athletes was used in the moulds. Coincidently, our word mould (or mold) is also used for a particular class of fungi.

diskos iron
Rusty iron diskos
diskos bronze
Bronze diskos
Amanita muscaria paired pilei
Paired Amanita muscaria Pilei

In the Iliad (Greek iluos = slime) of Omeros (Homer), the aged warrior-king Nestor reigned over the west Peloponnesean city-state of Sandy Pylos (amathoentes Pulos). However, the name and epithet given to this city-state may have played upon the name and physical appearance of an Amanita muscaria mushroom. While the term amathoentes Pulos may resonate with amanitas pileos (Amanita pileus), the epithet "sandy" plays upon the "sand-flecked" appearance of the universal veil as it disperses over the pileus of this mushroom. As the Olympic Games were held on the sandy banks of the river Alpheos, it is plausible that Sandy Pylos was the Mycenaean name for Olumpia.

Artemesian Zeus or Poseidon statue
Artemesion Zeus (or Poseidon) as Dorubolos

Dorubolos (spear throw)
With the diskos representing a tossing of a mushroom pileus, the spear throw may signify the launching of the stipe, where the overall leader in both of these events may have been granted a special flying-fungus award. In the famous bronze statue titled Artemesion Zeus (or Poseidon), the stance of the bearded (fungus-faced) spear-thrower (dorubolos) mimics the T-shape of a mature mushroom, where the extended arms and long slender spear outline an opened pileus, while the lower body represents the stipe. Unlike modern rigid javelins, long slender spears can droop significantly under their own weight. A short length of cord, that was often coiled around the rear end of a spear to improve its throw, may have a parallel in the attachment of the partial veil (or hymen of the mushroom) to the waist of the stipe, that becomes visible when the pileus opens, but then usually only for a short while thereafter. The distance between the fingertips of fully outstretched arms, as posed by a spear thrower or a crucified person, was called orguia by the ancient Greeks. Measuring six Greek feet or about one fathom, there were one hundred orguiai to the stadia.

Dromos (foot race)
While fungi represent one of the fastest growing life-forms, whose fruit can extend 200mm or more in less than a day, the sprint would decide the fastest athlete. At the end of a race, athletes may have been forced to throw their arms up and out to the sides, not unlike the opening of a mushroom pileus, in order to bring themselves to a rapid halt before the auditorium. The gesture of simultaneously raising both arms over one's head in victory could also be deemed to emulate the opening of a mushroom pileus.

In ancient Greek myth, one of the most famous footraces involved the Arkadian-born heroine Atalanta, the only woman to have sailed aboard the Argo. Atalanta promised to marry the man that could beat her in a footrace, which was finally achieved by an Arkadian named Melanion (Apple-Cider?) using three golden apples (mela) supplied to him by Aphrodite. [Apollodoros.3.9.2] In describing the appearance of Atalanta in this race, Ovid says the girlish whiteness of her skin was flushed as when a scarlet awning, drawn over gleaming white marble columns, stains them a colour not their own. [Ovid.10.594]

A variant of the sprint was the shield and helmet race, where athletes wore a military helmet and carried a large round shield. The helmet and shield were both made of polished bronze, whose shape, colour and lustre compares closely with that of the pileus in the Amanita muscaria at its pre-open and mature stages of growth. To help protect their heads, contestants may have worn a padded cap pileon) under their helmets.

Jumping weights
Rusty iron jump weights

Altis/Alsis (jump)
The third event in the Pentathlon was the jump, which was performed by athletes carrying a weight in each hand. The individual weights (alteres) were semi-circular in shape but hollowed along the chord to provide a grip. Joined together, the diameter of the weights corresponds closely with that of a diskos and the fully extended pileus of an Amanita muscaria. When held in the hand, the weights may have signified the arching pileus of a mushroom, while the forearm represented the stipe. Upon jumping, the weights may have been thrust forward and upwards, thus perhaps imitating the rising growth (alsis) of a mushroom, and then perhaps thrust violently downwards mid-flight to gain even greater altitude. The trajectory of a long jump could also trace the arc of the pileus. Frog-like leaping may have alluded to the age-old association of frogs with fungi, especially since mushrooms are often referred to as toadstools.

Palais (wrestling)
The ancient Greek words for wrestling, palais and epalaise, provides scope for several linguistic and physical plays upon the Greek word for the mushroom pileus, pileos. Such may have been the case with Atalanta, mentioned above, who defeated Peleos, father of Axilles, in a wrestling match (epalaise) at the funeral games held in honour of Pelias, uncle of Argonaut Iason (Jason), upon the slopes of mount Peleon. [Apollodoros 3.9.2] At the start of each wrestling match, contestants would grip the upper arms of their opponent and in so doing angle their torsos towards one another. Such a stance outlines an adolescent mushroom, as also occurs in the famous Lion Gate at Mukenai, where a huge triangular slab raised over the main entrance was carved in relief as an opposing pair of standing lions whose bodies were angled upwards about a central pillar. In one of his many labours for king Evrutheos of Mukenai, Erakles had to wrestle the hide off the indefatigable Nemean lion, which he brought back to Mukanai draped around his shoulders. As mentioned in the Introduction, the ancient Greeks deemed Mukenai to have been named after the mushroom mukes by Perseus, who was also credited with having invented the diskos.

Pugmaxia (boxing)
The sport of boxing contains many allusions to the Amanita muscaria. With the swollen red (if not bloodied) fists and faces of combatants comparing to the puffy red pileus of the mushroom, a clenched fist (pugme), whether or not bound in red leather straps (imantes) or gloves, at the end of an upheld forearm (pugon) also resembles the shape of the juvenile mushroom. The red and white appearance of bare knuckles in a tightly clenched fist also plays upon the red and white-spotted pileus of the Amanita muscaria. The opening of a clenched fist can also imitate the opening of a mushroom pileus, and splayed fingers parallel the gills radiating around the underside of the pileus.

In the Argonavtika (Voyage of Argo), Poludevkes from Amuklai (near Sparta in the Peloponnese) punched the life out of king Amukos of Bithunia, whose kingdom lay along the south coast of the Ellespontos (Hellespont = "Greek Sea"). [Argonavtika 2.001f] With the names Amuklai and Amukos both playing upon the Greek mushroom word mukes, the name Poludevkes (Much-Punch? - if it is not a corruption of Polup-pevkes = Pine-Polyp), may reference two Amanitas mushrooms joined at the volva like Siamese twins. In Roman Imperial times, Bithunia was famous for mushrooms called in Latin suilli (hog-fungi), which were renowned for removing spots from the faces of women. [Pliny, Natural Histories 22.98]

As wrestling and boxing both tend to be bloody sports, they may have served a ritual purpose in staining the sandy white surface of a stadion red, especially since the scarlet skin of the Amanita muscaria pileus can closely resemble a drop of freshly spilled blood. While it is not clear where the boxing and wrestling events were held within a stadion, within the semi-circular hub of the auditorion would have been an appropriate location.

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