The Pentathlon: Crown Jewel of Grade Five in a Waldorf School! June 19 2023

May is the month of new life, of spring, dancing, and tag sales in upstate New York, Waldorf Publications’s home. In Waldorf Schools around the world, it is the month of the Pentathlon, a poetic re-rendering of an athletic ritual from ancient Greece. It is a rite of passage significant in the lives of eleven-year-olds lucky enough to attend a Waldorf school.

Human Development
“Eleven years old” holds great significance in human development. It can be called the last breath of real childhood before puberty comes roaring down the path of a child’s life, changing everything. This is, of course, a generalization, and each human being develops at a unique rate. Some youngsters mature at age fifteen and, more and more frequently, some begin maturing as young at age nine or ten.

At age eleven the human being (generally) attains the adult proportion of heart rate to breathing: 4:1, breath to heartbeat. With this settling of breath and heart rate comes a new stamina and new capacities of understanding. Students begin to compete with themselves to prove that “they can do it.” Memorization often becomes easier, and students might ask to be tested, “Name a state in the United States and I will tell you the capitol,” for example.

The beauty of childhood descends on a young human being in lissome balance at this age. At last, the young human being has, for the most part, “landed” in control and skill in the physical body, with a reflected joy and balance in mood, capacities, and skill.

The Place of the Study of Greece in a Traditional Waldorf Curriculum
In the traditional Waldorf curriculum, the literature, mythology, and history of Western civilization converge and shift from storytelling to recorded history through the known stories of ancient India, ancient Persia, Babylon/Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. By the end of fifth grade, the stories shift to recorded history with, for example, the Peloponnesian Wars. One goal is to build to a mood of the Golden Age of Greece. The panoply of gods and goddesses, patrons of different aspects of life on earth: love, war, mechanics, the seas, the underworld, the heavens, the forest, the waterways, etc.

Students hear the stories of Greek mythology and learn through these the many foibles of these gods and how these foibles are often reflected in each of us. Each child has a favorite god or goddess. As the stories continue, so does practice in the athletic skills of Spartan warriors, men and women who trained rigorously to be prepared to defend their homeland. Annual athletic competitions marked this Golden Age of Greece.

Athletic and Inward Preparation to Experience the Mood of Greece
Waldorf fifth graders practice these same skills to compete together to try their best to accomplish not only the longest long jump, the fastest running, the strongest wrestling, the highest and farthest javelin throw, or the most powerful discus toss, but also to accomplish all of this with grace and balance in form. This last celebrates the glory and ability of all human form. The effort of practice toward the annual, Waldorf school Pentathlon brings measurable prowess out of balanced and beautiful form.

Artistic skills of song, music, and recitation are practiced as well. Some teachers have the children write an ode of request to their favorite god or goddess ahead of time to ask for help in succeeding on this day.

The Day and the Form of the Pentathlon
If you can imagine a host of eleven-year-olds all dressed in white, all bursting with the anticipation of this day of trying practiced skills alongside a host of other youngsters of the same age. It is always a dazzling sight!

Two to five Waldorf schools gather fifth graders together to test this practice of Greek skills at a hosting. Sometimes an Olympic fire is lit. With luck, the sun shines and the games begin.

All the different schools of fifth graders are divided up in mixed groups and named for five of the different city-states of ancient Greece: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Syracuse, and Thebes, for example, from the hundreds of original city-states in ancient Greece.

Each newly formed group then proceeds to participate in the five arenas of athletic skill: discus toss; javelin throw; Greek wrestling; the long jump; and running. This last is then demonstrated in a relay race in which all five city-states race within their team to finish first as a group, if possible.

Each segment of competition is measured by grace of form as well as by distance or strength. Wrestling, for instance, is done, two competitors at a time, inside an inscribed circle. Clasping hands, each twosome pushes and pulls the other, giving and receiving impulses, until one or the other steps outside of the circle. Often the wrestle is declared a draw by the presiding judge of this segment of the Pentathlon.

When the relay race is done, all Greek City-States assemble to receive awards.  Every participant receives an Olympic-like gold medal worn around the neck on a ribbon. Laurel crowns are awarded to those City-States whose overall achievement is commendable. Laurel crowns go to those individuals who achieved excellence in graceful, correct form in their actions, or to any other outstanding accomplishment shown by an individual. Artistic offerings are given by different classes, and a song is sung. In the English-speaking world, this song is “Glorious Apollo,” written by Brian Masters, in three-part harmony.

The event is one that weaves into the memory a day of joy and merit. The beauty of young people at this golden age of childhood, about to enter puberty, is a celebration. The striving of the clusters of young athletes, the remarkable social skills evidenced in the city-states assembled from different schools and the instant collaboration of these groups moves all toward success.

It is a singular day in the eight years of school for these participants. Pentathlon creates a childhood memory that will be remembered well into the adulthood, nourishing the lives of these youngsters, and giving them a warm fondness for themselves and their fellow athletes — a happy thought of being a child!