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The Ancient Game Keepers

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In August of 1953, a series of tremors shook the Greek island of Kefalonia-- [onscreen] The Legend of The Ancient Game Keepers With Historian Eli Hunt --revealing an ancient stone chamber that had been buried beneath the slopes of the Paliki Mountains. [camera zooms in on a map of Greece] For less than a single day, the chamber was open to the world until another quake leveled the entire island, burying the chamber again under thousands of tons of earth. In the hours between its discovery and its disappearance, locals from the island were able to explore the hidden room. Today, all that remains are their reports and the few things they took from it. Who built the room and what was its purpose? I'm Eli Hunt, and this is the legend of the ancient game keepers. Last year, I traveled to Kefalonia to try to find some of the survivors of the 1953 quakes. I hoped to speak with those who had seen the chamber firsthand. In the village of Lixouri, I met a grandmother named Abbelina who claimed that she and her sister were the first to stumble upon the chamber. She remembered it as a small circular room about 7 feet in diameter with a low ceiling made from a single slab of granite. Within the room, she reported seeing a number of shattered urns, tablets, and decorative plates. "On the ceiling", she told me, "a single sentence was etched." "Theon paignia anthropoi." - "Men are the playthings of the Gods." "But the most striking detail", Abbelina told me, "was a single word carved over and over again on the walls and floor." The word was Enosîchthôn. Which translates as "the great earth-shaker." "The words scared us," Abbelina told me "and we left without taking anything with us." The next day, I went to the home of a retired fisherman by the name of Alexander. He told me, over a glass of ouzo, that he had ridden his motorcycle to the site of the chamber as soon as he'd heard about it, hoping to find valuable artifacts that he could then sell. But as soon as he'd set foot inside, he recalled, the earth began to rattle with an aftershock. "I grasped for something, anything I could take with me," he said. Alexander took his treasure but later, when the chamber was buried again, he decided it would be bad luck to sell. After a few more glasses of ouzo, I convinced him to show me what he had found. It was a painted plate, depicting a group of six men dressed in long purple robes. I immediately recognized the significance of the purple robes. They were the special garments, worn by ancient Olympic caretakers known as agonothetai - the “game keepers." The agonothetai trained the Olympic athletes, organized the events, and refereed the competitions. The ancient Olympics were originally designed as a religious ritual. And so the most sacred duty of the agonothetai, according to histories written at the time, was to make sure the Gods were entertained by the Olympians' spectacular feats of athletic skill. Suddenly, the phrase on the ceiling made sense to me. "Men are the playthings of Gods." Could the Paliki chamber have been a meeting room for the ancient game keepers? Before I left the island, I was able to find one more clue to the purpose of the secret chamber. I befriended one more survivor of the 1953 earthquakes, an artist named Costas who claimed to have taken charcoal rubbings of tablets in the Paliki chamber. Costas told me that he had sold many to tourists over the years but that he still had one of the rubbings, and he was happy to show it to me. The rubbing was of a tablet addressed "to the agonothetai of the first year of the 160th Olympiad" or, 136 BC. No one is quite sure why the change occurred, but no historian has ever found a reference to agonothetai at the Olympics after 480 BC. Clearly then, the rubbing was a fake. Was the entire story of the chamber a lie? One fact kept me from dismissing the rubbing as a fraud. The truth is, no one knows why the Greeks abandoned the agonothetai in favor of the hellanodikai. It remains an unsolved puzzle to this day. Sitting with Costas on the island of Kefalonia, I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps this tablet was a major clue as to why the change had been made, and evidence that not everyone had been willing to go along with it. My artist friend had never had the rest of the tablet's text translated, so I did my best to read it on the spot. I was able to make out that it was a list of six attributes that defined an Olympic athlete. I had seen such ancient tablets created for game keepers before. Usually they listed characteristics like strength, speed, and endurance but strangely, none of the attributes on this tablet related directly to athletic performance. Instead, it listed sofia, or wisdom; thumos, or courage; chariton, or charm; dikaiosune, or leadership; sophrosune, or temperance; and mythopoeia, or storytelling. What kind of Olympic games were these mysterious agonothetai running to replace speed with charm, endurance with storytelling? Is it possible that the agonothetai continued their work hundreds of years after we thought, perhaps unbeknownst even to their fellow ancient Greeks? If so, that would explain the unusual clues found in the Paliki chamber: the references to earth-shaking, the strange sacred duty written on the plate, and the list of "athletic" attributes on the tablet - none of which match anything else we know about the ancient game keepers. Did the agonothetai go underground? If so, why? Today, the Paliki chamber exists only in the memories of the few people who saw it. But their stories and souvenirs suggest that the agonothetai remained deeply involved in the ancient Olympics in ways that history has never recorded, and which we today may only begin to be able to understand. www.TheLostGames.com

Video Details

Duration: 7 minutes and 29 seconds
Country: UK
Language: English
Producer: Eli Hunt
Director: Eli Hunt
Views: 4,398
Posted by: ehunt on Feb 27, 2008

In August of 1953, a series of tremors shook the Greek island of Kefalonia, revealing an ancient stone chamber for less than a single day.

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