The name of this month means simply “seventh”, and so suggests to us neither god nor hero. We find, however, that there were several festivals held in the month, and not the least important of these was one held on the second of the month, and known as the Actian Games. On this day, in the year 31 B.C., was fought the great sea battle, off Actium in Greece, in which Augustus defeated Marcus Antonius and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. On the promontory of Actium stood a temple to Apollo, and from that time onward games in honour of Apollo were held on each anniversary of the victory. It was a common custom among the Greeks and Romans to hold games or sports in honour of a god, and the most famous of all, the Olympic Games were held every four years in Greece in honour of Zeus, the Roman Jupiter. These games lasted for five days, and consisted of foot-races, chariot-races, wrestling, boxing, throwing the quoit and the javelin. The first prize was usually a wreath made from the laurel tree, the favourite tree of Apollo. A story says that Apollo fell in love with Daphne, a beautiful wood-nymph and daughter of a river-god. Daphne, however, did not return Apollo’s love, and on one occasion ran away from him. The sun-god pursued her, calling to her that he meant no harm, but just as he was within reach of her she prayed to her father for help. She at once became rooted to the ground, and found that her limbs were rapidly changing into branches and her hair into leaves. When Apollo stretched out his hands to catch her, he found nothing in his grasp but the trunk of a tree. The river-god had changed his daughter into a laurel. From that time onward Apollo took the laurel for his favourite tree, and said that prizes given to poets and musicians–for Apollo was also god of music and poetry–should be wreaths made from the leaves of that tree. Thus the laurel wreath came to be more eagerly sought after than gold or silver.
The Olympic Games which we have mentioned are the origin of the Olympic Games which have been held in Europe and America every fourth year for some years past. They are held at the capital of each of the great countries in turn, and they were held in London at the Shepherd’s Bush Exhibition in 1908. The chief event is the Marathon Race, which in 1908 was run from Windsor to the Stadium at the Exhibition, a distance of 25 miles. This race has its origin in an historical event of the year 490 B.C. In that year was fought the great battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the invading Persians. In spite of the far greater numbers of the Persian army, the Greeks won a glorious victory. Now, in the ranks of the Greek army was a famous runner named Pheidippides, who had won many a prize in the Games. When the Persians had been put to flight, the Greek general sent for Pheidippides and bade him run with the news of the victory to Athens (the capital of Greece), distant nearly 25 miles, where all those unable to fight were awaiting anxiously the result of the battle. Pheidippides, although tired by his share in the battle, at once set off on his long journey. In time the strain of the task began to tell upon him, and it was only by a great effort that he was able to continue his course. At last, with aching limbs and faltering step, he came in sight of the city. The Athenians, seeing him in the distance, ran eagerly to meet him; falling into the arms of the foremost of them, the runner with his last breath gasped, “Rejoice, we conquer”. Even as the joyful words left his lips, Pheidippides sank lifeless in the arms that held him, and his brave spirit went forth on its last journey to meet the Heroes of the Past.
“So, when Persia was dust, all cried, ‘To Akropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
“Athens is saved, thank Pan,” go shout!’ He flung down his shield
Ran like fire once more: and the space ‘twixt the Fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: ‘Rejoice, we conquer!’ Like wine through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died–the bliss!”
Famous among the very old stories of the Greeks is that of the swift-footed Atalanta, the daughter of the King of Arcadia. This king had longed for a son who might succeed him, and on the birth of Atalanta was filled with anger and disappointment. He ordered her to be taken away while she was still a baby, and left on a mountain top at the mercy of the wild beasts. Here she was found by some hunters, who took pity on her and carried her to their home. As she grew up, they taught her to hunt, and in time she became more skilled in running and in the chase than they all. She took part with some of the great heroes in a famous hunt for a wild boar, which she finally helped to kill. Her father, hearing of her skill, welcomed her back, and since he still had no son, urged her to marry one of the many suitors who came to the court. Atalanta, however, had no desire to marry, and knowing that she could run more swiftly than any of those who sought her hand in marriage, she declared that she would only marry the man who could outrun her. She also decreed that every one who failed to win should pay for his defeat with his life. In spite of these cruel conditions, many eager youths tried to win her, but she outran them all, and their heads were exposed on the race-course in order to frighten others who might wish to marry her.
At last there came to the court of the King of Arcadia a young man named Milanion, who was determined to win Atalanta for his wife. He had previously sought the help and protection of Venus, and in answer to his prayer the goddess had given him three golden apples. The proud Atalanta accepted Milanion’s challenge, and once again the course was thronged with people eager to see the daring youth. The signal was given, and the runners darted forward. Atalanta soon passed Milanion, who then threw at her feet one of his golden apples. She paused a moment, tempted by the glittering object, then stooping, she quickly snatched it up and raced after Milanion, who was by this time ahead of her. She soon overtook him, when he throw down a second golden apple, and again she stopped to pick it up. A third time the swift maiden passed the youth, once more to be tempted by the golden fruit. Sure of her skill, she paused to seize the third golden apple, but before she could overtake Milanion he had reached the goal. Atalanta, bound by her promise, consented to marry the victorious Milanion, and their wedding was celebrated amid great rejoicing.
The Old-English name for September was “Gerstmonath”, which means “barley month”, since during September the barley crop was usually harvested.