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Nonfiction in Brief

THE ARCHEOLOGY OF THE OLYMPICS The Olympics and Other Festivals in Antiquity edited by Wendy J. Raschke (University of Wisconsin: $17.50)

September 18, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

There are many nuggets of information in these pages for those interested in the ancient origins and changing meanings of the games that began yesterday, but to find them, curious readers will themselves have to play the role of archeologist, digging through prose that often masks mundane statements in academic jargon (e.g.--"Games . . . are competitive; they respond to a need for the assertion of pre-eminence"). Readers who persevere will be reassured that contrary to popular conception, ancient Greece did not have a strong religious, spiritual and political culture that makes our own pale in comparison; the Olympic games were an attempt to create unity, says Colin Renfrew in one of these essays, not a reflection of the prevailing spirit. The ancient games were, however, more religious than their modern counterparts: Winning a contest could get you on the fast track to upward social mobility, Daniel Harmon writes--so upward, in fact, that you were often "guaranteed" immortality. All in all, this is an intriguing primer for lay Olympic historians, even though it's unlikely to rival the games themselves for excitement, for unlike popular historians who often take the liberty of spinning yarns to hold the reader's attention, archeologists are burdened with the responsibility of actually proving their theories.

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