Nudity in Greek Athletics, Part II: Guarded from Many Evils

In my previous post on the subject I’ve already mentioned that the traditional dating of the origin of nudity in Greek athletics to the 8th century B.C. is questioned by some historians. John Mouratidis from the University of Thrace, Komotini, Greece believes that nudity in Greek athletics has a much longer history. It had “its roots in prehistoric Greece and was connected with the warrior-athlete whose training and competition in the games was at the same time his preparation for war“. From this point of view an attempt made in Athens at the close of the 6th century B.C. to introduce loincloths into athletic competitions “was not an attempt to “reintroduce” but rather to introduce loincloths in the games because … there is nothing in Greek art to indicate the existence of loincloths in athletics“.

According to the widespread point of view “the early Greeks believed that there was in nudity something heroic and sacred. The Greek warrior-athletes … used their nudity to either inspire fear or horrify their adversaries. Apparently the Greeks believed that the naked body of the warrior-athlete was an object upon which the adversary looked with fear and panic.” Larissa Bonfante (Etruscan Dress. Updated edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) writes that

Greek reaction to nudity in art and language is unique … The Greeks felt so strongly about nudity that it was thought to have a magical effect …. Their athletes were thought to be protected in some way by their nudity.

J. Mouratidis points out that “the importance of the human body and its symbolism as an incarnation of energy and power has been emphasized by many writers” and quotes Kenneth Clark (The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art. London, 1957) who notes that

it was the Greeks, by their idealization of man, who turned the human body into an incarnation of energy….
The Greeks discovered in the nude two embodiments of energy, which lived on throughout European art almost until our own day. They are the athlete and the hero; and from the beginning they were closely connected with one another.

J. Mouratidis concludes that “it is probable that the early Greek warrior-athlete or hero-athlete believed that his nudity acted as a screen which guarded him from many evils and at the same time provided him with power and energy for his duties“.

The nude warrior-athlete was symbolized by Heracles, the most popular hero of the Greeks, “who alone comes nude into the presence of Zeus and the other gods” (see Evelyn Harrison, “Athena and Athens in East Pediment of Parthenon” (1967)). One may assume that “since Heracles was the hero in whose honour the Olympic Games were possibly held, then his protégées, the athletes, were trying to imitate the nudity as well as some other characteristics of their patron“.

Nudity survived in Greek athletics because it was supported by heroic tradition and religion“.

Nude Warrior with Spear by Théodore Géricault (1816)

Nude Warrior with Spear by Théodore Géricault (1816)

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