High Priestess Aleka Katselli: She Sparked the Sacred Flame that Travelled Through Asia to Tokyo in 1964

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Aleka Katselli creating the sacred flame, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Service

Aleka Katselli was 12 when she was handpicked to be a priestess of the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece. She was with the High Priestess, Koula Prastika, who lit the first sacred flame for the Olympics in 1936, which then travelled by torch to Berlin, where it was used to light the Olympic cauldron – the first time this ceremony had taken place.

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Katselli holding the sacred flame aloft, from the magazine Orimpiku Tokyo Taikai Tokushyuu, No. 2, by Tokyo Shimbun

As a child in 1936, Katselli remembers little. But in 1956, Katselli was 28 when she became high priestess, and was responsible for generating a flame from the sun, and making sure this sacred flame was passed to the long line of torch bearers who would transport the gift of Prometheus to a land that would embark on world peace through sport.

For Katselli, when she created the flame for the 1956 Melbourne Games, she viscerally understood how sacred the moment was, and how she felt the presence of Zeus, who ruled as king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Katselli in fact felt that at that moment, her body had transubstantiated, and that even before lighting the torch, she was glowing both in body and soul.

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From the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency

Katselli also created the sacred flame that travelled throughout EurAsia to Tokyo in 1964, and was invited by the Tokyo organizing committee to attend the Tokyo Games. As she explained to The Mainichi Daily News in an article from October 15, 1964:

Lighting the Olympic flame is one of the most sacred moments of my life. What is important is to believe, to believe in the bottom of your heart that what I do at this moment is very sacred. You must believe. Especially here in Japan, when they say the flame is sacred, they really believe it as I believe it.

She told The Mainichi Daily News that the ceremony in Olympia is “not just a dance. It is a solemn walk which must be choreographed with the utmost dignity, grace and precision. Participants begin rehearsing the steps one week before the actual ceremony.”

It is likely that Katselli appeared that she truly believed the flame to be sacred. High Priestesses are often from the acting profession so that they can display a regal bearing worthy of channeling spirits from the beginning of time.

In fact, Katselli was a prominent actress in Greece, starring in the film of the 1962 Greek Tragedy, Electra, written by Euripedes, which could be considered base material for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Katselli portrayed Queen Klytemnestra, who conspired with King Aegisthos to murder her previous husband, King Agamemnon.

Katselli also had a role in the 1960 film, Never on Sunday, which many Olympians at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics would have been familiar with. Produced for the film of the same name, “Never on Sunday”, would win an Oscar for Best Original Song, the first ever for a foreign-language film, and would go on to become a pop classic covered by Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Doris Day and Andy Williams among many others. Enjoy the version below by Connie Francis.