Most brides won in races in Greek myth are won in footraces, but Hippodameia is won in a chariot race. Does it make any difference? I argue that footraces and chariot pursuits have systematically different but complementary meanings, and that understanding these patterns sheds light both on the descriptions of races and abductions in early Greek poetry and also on the peculiarities of the famous myth about Pelops and Hippodameia. In analyzing this myth I build on the work of Kakridis, Burkert, Nagy, and Hansen but also gain interpretive ground by considering the race of Pelops vis-à-vis footraces, in particular the myth of Atalanta.
In myth, footraces are staged by willing fathers seeking husbands for their daughters. Examples include Danaos (Pythian 9.111-116, Pausanias 3.12.1) Antaios (Pythian 9.117-120), Ikarios (Pausanias 3.20.10-11), Skhoineus (Hesiod fr. 76 MW, Apollodorus 3.9.2) and even Cleisthenes (Herodotus 6.126-127). While the race of Atalanta's suitors is not only for but also against her, the speed of the suitor's feet still makes the difference between losing and winning, and, in the case of Atalanta's suitors, life and death.
The speed of the suitor's horses can also make this difference but in an entirely different way. Chariots are used for abductions, and fathers whose daughters ride in chariots oppose their marriages and give chase, even if the daughters are willing to marry. Examples include the chariot race for Hippodameia (e.g. Pindar, Olympian 1.23-89, Pherecydes FGH 3 F37a-b), Idas' abduction of Marpessa (Apollodorus 3.10.3), the abduction of Cyrene in Pindar's Pythian 9.1-6a, and Penelope in Pausanias' narrative (3.20.10-11).
The opposition and complementarity of chariot abductions and footraces can be illustrated in Pindar's Pythian 9, which celebrates the victory of Telesikrates of Cyrene in the race in armor. The ode begins with the abduction of Cyrene by Apollo in a chariot. The bride is willing, but her father's disapproval is hinted at. When the ode returns to the laudandus, Cyrene welcomes Telesikrates "to her land of beautiful women" and as these women look at him each of them wishes to have him for a husband. Telesikrates' victory is presented as one in a race for a bride. Pindar concludes with the story of Alexidamos, ancestor of Telesikrates, who won his own bride, the daughter of Antaios, in a footrace. In Pythian 9, a divine chariot abduction is juxtaposed with a human footraces for brides.
This pattern can be applied to the complicated myth about Pelops and Oinomaos. Pelops wins his bride in a race, but Oinomaos has no intention of giving Hippodameia away and the race is staged as an abduction: Hippodameia is in Pelops' chariot with Oinomaos in pursuit. Pausanias' description of this race depicted on the chest of Kypselos (5.17.5) resembles Apollodorus' description of Marpessa's abduction by Idas (Apollodorus 3.10.3). In both cases the bride is with an abductor who has a winged chariot or horses from Poseidon. She is willing, but her father gives chase, fails, and dies. The difference is that Marpessa's abduction is typical, but that of Hippodameia is actually a race.
This hybrid myth, I suggest, is a suitable combined aition simultaneously for the footrace and for the chariot race at the Olympia. In myth, Hippodameia never waits at the finish line like the brides won in footraces, but her statue did wait at the turning post of the chariot track at Olympia, holding a ribbon to crown Pelops for his victory (Pausanias 6.20.19). Further, Hippodameia was said to have founded the footraces for girls at the Heraia in gratitude for Pelops' victory (Pausanias 6.20.7), races that have been interpreted in conjunction with myths of "flight and pursuit," such as that of Atalanta (Scanlon 98-120).
The contrast and complementarity between the footrace and the chariot abduction exemplified in Pythian 9 shed light on the ideology of footraces and of chariots, the unusual myth of Pelops and Oinomaos, and the aetiology of the Olympic games.
Charioteering and Footracing in the Greek Imaginary