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How relevant is to mention a modern clothing-optional event like World Naked Bike Ride in connection with Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival (see my previous post [1]; also [2-3])? If we agree with the point of view that “phenomena of the Classical Age” are not “only extremely complex but utterly alien to us”, then we should refrain from labelling them “with modern catchwords like Socialism, Impressionism, Capitalism, Clericalism” [4] (and Naturism, or Nudism as well). However, are the practices of the Greco-Roman culture indeed “immeasurably alien and distant” from “our inner selves”?

‘Culture’ can be defined “as a learned pattern of behavior”, which is a way how people live their lives [5]. It is considered “as a complex combination of actions and mechanisms produced by continuous social interactions, generating processes of sense making and reformulation of the process of reality” [6].

Cultures distributed in time and space around the world are different. But, there are some things that all cultures have in common [7]. It is not surprising, because we “see no evidence that our brains and personalities have changes much since” “modern humans, who looked just like us, emerged from Africa more than 100,000 years ago”. Our “wants, dreams, personalities, and desires have probably not changed much in 100,000 years” [8].

The practices universally available across all cultural traditions include “the events and activities” of days of special significance called ‘feasts’, ‘festivals’ or ‘holidays’ [9]. “Feasting is certainly a widespread, almost universal behavior, and it has persisted for many thousands of years” [10]. “Feasts and festivals, whether religious or secular, national or local, serve to meet specific social and psychological needs and provide cohesiveness to social institutions”. Feasts and festivals “have flourished in both ancient and modern civilizations” [9].

It is believed that “most secular holidays … have some relationship – in terms of origin – with religious feasts and festivals”. Even the modern “practice of vacations … is derived from the ancient Roman religious calendar” [9].

Lupercalia. Based on painting by Annibale Carracci in Palazzo Magnani in Bologna; printmaker: anonymous (ca. 1677)

Of course, the World Naked Bike Ride can be hardly viewed as a successor of an ancient Roman festival, but there is a symbolic correspondence between them. The very abandonment of clothing takes the participants of such events to a reality different from that of everyday life. This, in turn, may sow the seeds of a new common vision of decency, propriety, and obscenity, and give rise to the reality of a society with a more open and tolerant attitude towards nudity.

World Naked Bike Ride Philadelphia 2016

The current list of clothing-optional events in Wikipedia [11] includes Burning Man‎ and naked cycling events‎ (not limited to World Naked Bike Ride), together with 25 others of different kind. Nudist festivals have been gaining popularity. More and more people are discovering that “normal, everyday activities could be made more interesting without clothes on” [12].

References
[1] Lupercalia as an ancient clothing-optional event – Vadimage Blog
https://vadimage.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/lupercalia/
[2] Lupercalia – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupercalia
[3] World Naked Bike Ride – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Naked_Bike_Ride
[4] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West: The Complete Edition – Internet Archive
https://archive.org/details/Decline-Of-The-West-Oswald-Spengler/page/n1/mode/2up
[5] Richard Ibuh, The Kayans, Partridge Publishing Singapore, 2014
https://books.google.com/books?id=K3-IBAAAQBAJ
[6] Emanuele Schember et al., The internal structure of the social representation of culture: an empirical contribution, IJASOS – International E-Journal of Advances in Social Sciences, Vol. I, Issue 2, August 2015
http://ijasos.ocerintjournals.org/tr/download/article-file/89504
[7] Do Different Cultures Have Things in Common? – Anthropology 4U – Medium
https://medium.com/@anthropology4u/do-different-cultures-have-things-in-common-ffd4135d31e4
[8] Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, Penguin, 2011
https://books.google.com/books?id=MLkHa1KZF4wC
[9] Feast – Encyclopædia Britannica
https://www.britannica.com/topic/feast-religion
[10] Brian Hayden, The Power of Feasts, Cambridge University Press, 2014
https://books.google.com/books?id=gLhUBAAAQBAJ
[11] Category:Clothing-optional events – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Clothing-optional_events
[12] Dillon DuBois, Clothing-Optional Festivals Around the World – The Vacation Rental Experts
https://www.alltherooms.com/blog/clothing-optional-festivals-around-the-world/

In the month of February, Ancient Rome celebrated the festival of the Lupercalia. It was “the last publicly tolerated remnant of the heathen faith” [1]. According to Ferdinand Gregorovius [2], a historian who specialized in the medieval history of Rome, the festival was “centred round the sanctuary of the Lupercal or the wolf-averting Abolition Pan”. It was the oldest of all the Roman sanctuaries, “a dark cave at the foot of the Palatine”. The feast “was celebrated every year on February 15, and was followed on the 18th by the Februatio, or purifying of the city from the influence of demons”. The Lupercal was able to survive when all other ancient festivals “had yielded to the influence of Christianity”. So great “being the reverence of the Romans for this, the most ancient of their national customs, that even as Christians they could not renounce it” and “to the horror of the Bishop it was still celebrated” even after nearly five hundred years “passed since Paul preached the gospel in Rome” [1].

But why was the Bishop so horrified?

Ferdinand Gregorovius described the main feature of the festival in a following way (the bold font is mine):

The Luperci (youths, members of the sacred college) uncovered themselves unabashed before the eyes of the people, and clad only with an apron of the skins of the goats slain in the sacrifice, ran from the Lupercal through the streets, swinging straps of leather, with which they hit the women strokes on the right hand, thereby to bestow the blessing of fruitfulness. [1]

Let’s turn to ancient sources. We have Plutarch’s record of this feast.

At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy. [3]

Another translation slightly smooths out the overall picture:

On this occasion many of the young nobles and magistrates run through the city without their toga… [4]

In order to clarify the character of the festival, I’ll refer to Ovid.

You ask, Why then do the Luperci run? and why do they strip themselves and bear their bodies naked, for so it is their wont to run? The god himself loves to scamper, fleet of foot, about the high mountains, and he himself takes suddenly to flight. The god himself is nude and bids his ministers go nude: besides, raiment sorted not well with running. [5]

Ovid believed the feast took us to ancient times when

there was as yet no use for horses, every man carried his own weight: the sheep went clothed in its own wool. Under the open sky they lived and went about naked, inured to heavy showers and rainy winds. Even to this day the unclad ministers recall the memory of the olden custom and attest what comforts the ancients knew. [5]

He also tells a “merry tale” “handed down from days of old” which explains why “betrayed by vesture, the god loves not garments which deceive the eye, and bids his worshippers come naked to his rites“. [5]

Study for Lupercalia by Annibale Carracci (16th century)

Study for Lupercalia by Annibale Carracci (16th century)

In the end, the bishops got what they wanted and put an end to the “horror”. Pope Gelasius, who was appointed in March 492, insisted that the Romans must understand that “they could not at the same time eat at the table of the Lord and at that of demons, nor drink from the chalice of God and that of the devil.” “It is probable that the zeal of the Pope succeeded in inducing the Senate to abolish the Lupercalia.” The Church “transformed the old festival of purification in the Lupercalia into the feast of the Purification of Mary”[1] (cp. [6]).

If we accept Ovid’s interpretation of the meaning of the feast, the abandonment of clothing will appear as part and parcel of the celebration. In ancient times, nudity often was considered as a means of ritual purification. Even in ancient Christianity, “the process of taking off clothes was an essential moment of the baptismal ceremony, as it was structured during the 4th century” [7]. Maybe these days we are witnessing the rebirth of the ancient attitude towards nudity. I have in mind, of course, the World Naked Bike Ride [8] and similar events. Who knows? Maybe they’ll become something big: new festivals of purification. The “garments” “deceive the eye”, after all.

Cambridge WNBR 2016

Cambridge WNBR 2016

References
[1] Ferdinand Gregorovius, History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 2010
https://books.google.com/books?id=3Twz72ZYW3YC
[2] Ferdinand Gregorovius – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Gregorovius
[3] Plutarch, The Parallel Lives. The Life of Julius Caesar, Vol. VII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1919
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html
[4] Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives Volume III, George Bell & Sons, 1892 – The Project Gutenberg
https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14140
[5] Ovid, Fasti. Book 2 – Theoi Project – Classical Texts Library
https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidFasti2.html
[6] According to another unverified hypothesis, the festival of Lupercalia was re-branded as “St. Valentine’s Day” (see Drew Miller, Ancient History of Valentine’s Day Reveals a Super Kinky Past
https://www.mic.com/articles/82391/ancient-history-of-valentine-s-day-reveals-a-super-kinky-past,
Valentine’s Day – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentine’s_Day)
[7] World Naked Bike Ride – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Naked_Bike_Ride
[8] Giovanni Filoramo, Baptismal Nudity as a Means of Ritual Purification in Ancient Christianity. In: Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions
https://brill.com/view/book/edcoll/9789004379084/B9789004379084_s026.xml
https://books.google.com/books?id=nSf5Sb5xdGAC

Within one-tenth of a second, people form a variety of opinions about each other based on what they see, and these opinions are not necessarily favorable to us.

Yesterday, while browsing my Google+ feed, I came across a link to my post “Is it a good idea to share your nude photographs, if you are a nudist?”  kindly reblogged and shared on Google+ by Paul K., author of the wonderful blog about nudism Zjuzdme.org. Someone on Google+ left a comment under my photo saying, let me quote, “so small dick u have”. It was definitely addressed to me, not Paul. So I thought that maybe it was not a good idea to share my nude photograph taken on a chilly day.

With a feeling of a little disappointment, I turned to the history of visual art.

When it comes to art, there are two popular questions: “Why does Michelangelo’s Adam have such a ridiculously small penis” and why does “the most famous of Greek statues, Michelangelo’s David”, depict “big muscles, but a tiny penis”?

Michelangelo Buonarroti - Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo Buonarroti – Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo learned the philosophy and art of ancient Greece and admired the Greeks’ attempt to capture ideal beauty in their statues. According to Larissa Bonfantethere were “two concurrent strains of nudity in Greek art: one reflecting a magical or apotropaic function (herms, satyrs, etc.), characterized by the erect phallus; another, developing from athletic nudity, a more empirical interest in the naked, athletic male body (kouroi, athletes and male figures in black- and red-figure vase painting), where the sex organs themselves are less obtrusive”.

Statue of kouros - Wikimedia Commons

Statue of kouros – Wikimedia Commons

“Satyrs, animal-like human figures with horses’ tails, were represented full of vitality, naked, with exaggerated huge phalli (or phalluses)”. Actors who represented satyrs in the theater in the 5th century B.C. “wore animal-skin loincloths with a large phallus sewn on”. The herms the Athenians encountered daily in the streets of their city, from ca. 540 B.C. on, “consisted of a male head sculptured on a pillar, on which was carved an erect phallus, serving as a reminder of the powerful magic residing in the alerted male member”.

On the kouros, Greek sculpture representing a nude young man, “the sex was simply uncovered; while the phallus was emphasized on satyrs and herms, and on the stage”. “The kouros type fits the concept of the sacred quality of nudity: its nakedness represented a feature of initiation ritual. It referred to those religious dances and rituals that called for the candidate’s nakedness as a special costume or habit”. The ideal of youthful male beauty “included the small penis of a younger man”. “Youth was an essential aspect of the nudity of the kouros. Old men and ugly slaves have longer penises”.

“In contrast to the large, erect phallus of the magic, apotropaic figure, a beautiful young man was characterized by a small penis. For women, too, whether they were represented naked or dressed, in art, literature, and life, depilation and small breasts were part of the ideal of youthful beauty”.

Of course, each time has its own aesthetic values. I’ll bear it in mind when choosing the images for my blog. The photo below is very similar to the one I’ve used to illustrate the post about sharing nude photographs.

Self-portrait 08/09/13 by t-maker on DeviantArt

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

The Ancient Greeks considered their custom of athletic nudity as a marker of their own civilization – one that distinguished them from their own ancestors and from the “barbarians” (Ruth Barcan). The Greeks came to understand the practice of athletic nudity as a “civilized” one:

For among the Lydians, and indeed among the barbarians generally, it is reckoned a deep disgrace, even to a man, to be seen naked. (The History of Herodotus, Book 1).

But it is wrong to idealize the Greek relation to nudity. Ruth Barcan (her Nudity : a cultural anatomy is my main source today) quotes Margaret Walters (The Male Nude: A New Perspective) who points out that “it is simply that their taboos [around nudity] differ from ours and are therefore harder for us to recognize.” Namely, the Greek ideal was not open to all bodies.

First of allfemale nakedness, in everyday life, but also in representation, was able to shock. In Greek art only Aphrodite appears naked and it was rare before the fourth century BC. The total nakedness of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite was considered a scandalous innovation (Marina Warner,  Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form):

The Cyprian said when she saw the Cyprian of Cnidus, “Alas where did Praxiteles see me naked?”
(Greek Anthology. Book I Chapter IV Part IV. On the Cnidian Venus of Praxiteles. From J. W. Mackail)

However, in Book Five of Plato’s Republic, in the section on the status of women, Socrates argues that women should be trained like men, and hence should exercise naked in the gymnasium:

Then let the wives of our guardians strip, for their virtue will be their robe, and let them share in the toils of war and the defence of their country; only in the distribution of labours the lighter are to be assigned to the women, who are the weaker natures, but in other respects their duties are to be the same. And as for the man who laughs at naked women exercising their bodies from the best of motives, in his laughter he is plucking

A fruit of unripe wisdom, and he himself is ignorant of what he is laughing at, or what he is about; –for that is, and ever will be, the best of sayings, That the useful is the noble and the hurtful is the base.

Very true.

Not long ago, as we shall remind them, the Hellenes were of the opinion, which is still generally received among the barbarians, that the sight of a naked man was ridiculous and improper; and when first the Cretans and then the Lacedaemonians introduced the custom, the wits of that day might equally have ridiculed the innovation.

No doubt.

But when experience showed that to let all things be uncovered was far better than to cover them up, and the ludicrous effect to the outward eye vanished before the better principle which reason asserted, then the man was perceived to be a fool who directs the shafts of his ridicule at any other sight but that of folly and vice, or seriously inclines to weigh the beautiful by any other standard but that of the good.
(The Republic By Plato. Book V)

And secondly, the Greeks were “acutely anxious about the aging bodies of either sex” (Margaret Walters). The expression of these ideas can be found in Plato’s Republic as well:

the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty, any more than the enthusiastic old men who in spite of wrinkles and ugliness continue to frequent the gymnasia.

Nevertheless, the importance of Greek attitudes towards nakedness for modern culture can scarcely be overestimated.

Penthesilea by mypixbox on Flickr

Penthesilea by mypixbox on Flickr