“Shameful Things”

Since several previous posts were dedicated to the attitude towards nudity in ancient Greeks, a few words should be said about the evolution of these ideas. Ruth Barcan writes in “Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy” that the Greek ideal of nudity developed gradually, and was only ever a mainland phenomenon. She quotes Larissa Bonfante (“Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art”) who claims that the Greek word for sexual organs, aidoia (“shameful things”), and the Latin pudenda (“shameful”) indicate that nudity was not always accepted. In the ancient Near East, nakedness was a sign of wretchedness, shame and defeat, as it was in the Old Testament, while the first indications of respectable relation to nudity came in Athenian Geometric art and with Homer.

Shame is an emotion inherent in human beings. The archetypal feeling of shame is often associated with the unveiling of physical nakedness. It was mentioned that in many societies, naked exposure was used to punish adulterers. Punishment of adultery with shaming exposure of the “aidoia” is based on an ancient tradition of humiliating and disgracing the opponent through the exposure. At the same time, psychologists admit that each individual has a unique developmental history of shame. And nudity in the light of the day and heat of the sun is usually far less erotic than, for example, a striptease show with the lights turned low. (“Shame and the origins of self-esteem: a Jungian approach” by Mario Jacoby)

Ruth Barcan uses the two very broad groupings of symbolic meanings of nakedness: those associated with presence (authenticity, truth, origins, nature, simplicity) and those with absence (deprivation, degradation, vulnerability, exposure, punishment). One may conclude that, depending on the context,

nudity can symbolize many different things – including quite precisely opposing terms (e.g. innocence and the lack of innocence; order or the threat of disorder), or similar qualities, valued differently according to context (e.g. nakedness as both naturalness and savagery).

It’s trivial to say that many human motivations are rooted in cultural and historic stereotypes. Greek society was able to pass the gap between the abject admission of “shameful things” and the celebration of the inherent aesthetic beauty of the human form. Is modern globalized society vigorous enough to achieve something similar?

Shame by Joseph Orsillo on Flickr

Shame by Joseph Orsillo on Flickr

  1. Strandloper said:

    This posting gives a false portrayal of the Old Testament view of nudity. It is no surprise, however, since the Church has traditionally interpreted Leviticus 18 (a catalogue of “thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of . . .”) as referring to nudity itself, when it is in fact a condemnation of incest.
    Prisoners of war were shamed by being marched buck-naked to their places of exile.
    But when Isiaiah foretold this by travelling around Israel in the nude (no loin-cloth), he was not sinning, nor was he seen as being lewd. He was obeying a Divine command, and was therefore not himself shamed.
    In Genesis we read that God, having created the Earth and all living things in it (including a naked man and woman) saw that it was “very good”.
    When Adam and Eve hid in the garden, God did not tell them that their nudity was a sin. He asked: “Who told you that you were naked?” – pointing back to the snake.
    When He expelled them from the garden, He provided them with animal skins for clothing (in place of their attempts to cobble together garments from leaves) – not because their naked bodies were shameful, but for protection against the elements.
    Note that the clothing was taken from animals that had been alive. This has something to say about blood sacrifice.
    A favourite story with those who condemn nakedness is that of David and Bathsheba. But who sinned here?
    Bathsheba was bathing because it was a ritual requirement.
    David’s mere sighting of her naked was not sinful – it was his lust for her that was the root of the sin he committed with her. Her sin began when she acquiesced in David’s seduction.
    David’s sin then got completely out of hand, ending not only in his having Uriah murdered, but in the death of the child he had conceived with Bathsheba.
    Bear in mind too that when the prophet Nathan went to David and pointed out his sin, the king was remorseful.
    It is clear that God had forgiven him when we realise that it was Bathsheba’s next child by David, namely Solomon, who succeeded to the throne.

    • Thank you for your well-grounded comment. But, with your permission, I’d like to point out that giving a portrayal of the Old Testament view on anything was not my intention. I’ve tried to write about nudity and shame, about the differences and the similarities between the ancient Greeks and us. By no means, I don’t consider myself as a specialist in the Old Testament. In this post I’ve cited a few researchers of standing reputation, such as Prof. Larissa Bonfante and Dr. Ruth Barcan. I formed the conviction that it was an established fact that Hebrew tradition was “fundamentally opposed to the institution of Greek athletic nudity” (Bonfante). I notice that “scholars have traditionally assumed that biblical usage of the Greek word gymnos usually implies some form of clothing”. R. Barcan mentions that The New Catholic Encycopedia cites only two possible moments when a biblical description of nakedness seems likely to mean total nakedness (Mark 14:52 and Acts 19:6) and also directs reader’s attention to the Old Testament book of Nahum in order to illustrate that in the Old Testament nudity can appear as a metaphor for divine punishment: “Behold, I am against thee, saith the Lord of hosts; and I will discover thy skirts upon thy face, and I will shew the nations thy nakedness, and the kingdoms thy shame” (Nahum 3:5). Anyway, the use of the term “nakedness” in the Bible is hotly debated and I’m thankful to you that you have presented your point of view on the subject.

  2. Alan K said:

    Great blog, love the artwork, very evocative. I just happen to reading Jacoby’s book right now. I was doing some searches related to references contained in the book and ended up here.

    • Thank you for kind words. I was really glad when I found this photo by Joseph Orsillo on Flickr. And I have to confess, I didn’t finish reading “a Jungian approach” by Mario Jacoby at the moment.

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