Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Nakedness (of men) in Ancient Greece

At a reading of The Boy with Two Heads yesterday, in Wigton Library, I showed pictures of vase paintings of (male) naked athletes. 

These three boys of differing body types are at an Athenian gymnasium where middle and upper class men and boys trained almost every day. The word 'gymnasium' comes from the Greek for naked, gymnos (spelled gamma, ipsilon, mi, ni, omicron, sigma - there are no Greek fonts for this blog!) 

My audience of year 6 students asked, "Why were they naked?" If I remember correctly, my answer was along the lines that 
1)  it was only the men and boys, and they did not see why not
2)  the weather was often hot
3)  they had no problem showing off their physical beauty. 

Concerning point 1, I think they did not see "why not" because their religion did not suggest they should cover their bodies. The Christian Bible was written many centuries later. Genesis chapter 3 vividly describes how Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and realised they were naked. They made aprons of fig leaves to cover themselves, but God ejected them from the Garden of Eden anyway. For Christians this has resulted in a belief through the centuries that we need to be ashamed of the parts of our bodies to do with reproduction. I don't know the Q'ran or other religions' bibles, but perhaps there are similar stories. In Ancient Greece (and some other religions, even now), such parts of the body were often seen as the sacred means of continuing the family and the tribe. There was no shame or guilt attached to them.

Concerning point 2, the weather in Greece, especially in July and August when athletics competitions were mainly held, can be very hot (at least 35 degrees C in the shade). So any clothes can feel unnecessary.
Men's 'chiton' or robe

Ionian Women's 'chiton'
And Ancient Greek clothes were mainly just pieces of cloth attached to the body by belts and/or brooches. This made them impractical when it came to sport. There's a story in Pausanias (I think, or it might be Homer. I can't find it again, of course!) that in the very early days, the runners wore loincloths. During one race, one runner's loincloth came off as he ran and he won! So it became the norm for athletes to train and compete without any clothes at all to impede them.

the Discobolos of Myron
This leads into point 3 above. Being naked was a way of showing off an athlete's perfect physique. The body-perfect was a theme for aspiration, discussion and artistic debate even more then, it seems, than it is now! Larissa Bonfante has written about 'nudity as a costume' in classical times.

So in the right circumstances, nakedness could be not only acceptable but desirable. However, on this blustery, damp day in early winter in northern England, those circumstances seem a long way away and a long time ago!

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