Tag Archives: greek

No one knows exactly when people invented clothes. Usually, the origin of clothing is dated back to 100,000 years ago. According to archaeological research, “prehistoric hunters may have worn the skins of bears or reindeer in order to keep warm or a sign of personal skill, bravery, and strength” [1]. The needle was invented by the end of the Old Stone Age – about 25,000 years ago. At about the same time, people started to make yarn from plants or from the fur or hair of animals. They had begun to raise plants and started to herd “wood-producing” animals like sheep.

Of course, clothes have a very important biological function, but it appears that “even in cold climates, some people seem more interested in decorating their bodies than in protecting them. In the 1830s the British biologist Charles Darwin (1809-82) travelled to the island of Tierra del Fuego off the southern tip of South America. There he saw people who wore only a little paint and a small cloak made of animal skin, in spite of the cold rain and the sleet. Darwin gave the people scarlet cloth; they took it and wrapped it around their necks, instead of wearing it around the lower body for warmth. Despite the cold weather, the people wore clothing not for protective reasons, but primarily for decorating their bodies and making them appear attractive” [1].

Humans “have used clothing to define our kind (especially to differentiate ourselves from animals), and to differentiate ourselves from each other” [2]. In all societies and cultures, “dress characterizes group membership and beliefs”. “Shamans … have always worn special clothing to identify themselves. … Motorcycle gang members … wear leather jackets, boots, and various items such as brass knuckles to convey toughness and group identity” [1].

It is not a great discovery that “what makes nudity appealing … is the absence of clothing”. “Nudity is the oppositional counterpart to clothing”. Clothing and nudity “constitute a single system of meaning” [1].

So what does nudity mean? There is a simple answer: “nudity is associated with sex because … one usually becomes nude in order to engage in sex” [3]. Despite the fact that one may find this explanation exhaustive, there’s another point of view on nudity.

It was noticed that “in a clothed society, … nakedness is special, and can be used as a “costume” [4]. In other words, nudity can be “imagined as a form of clothing” [2]. If so, when was it appropriate to wear this “costume”, in historical perspective?

“In anthropology, for example, nudity-as-clothing can appear as the category of “ritual nudity”, in which the theorist analyses the way nudity can function as a kind of costume in ritual or magic” [2]. “In Greece the remarkable innovation of athletic male nudity, which surely originated in a ritual, religious context, developed a special social and civic meaning. It became a costume, a uniform: exercising together in the gymnasia marked men’s status as citizens of the polis and as Greeks”. Men “attended the gymnasium, and proudly wore the “costume” that was appropriate for this place”. “Nudity as a costume was fashionable” [4].

“Throughout the sixth century B.C., black-figure Attic vases regularly show athletes competing in the nude, as well as nude gods, heroes, mortals, revelers, etc.” [4]. “In the convention of heroic nudity, gods and heroes were shown naked, while ordinary mortals were less likely to be so, though athletes and warriors in combat were often depicted nude” [5].

In this context, the “modern” attitude towards nudity seems disappointingly primitive. Nudity, a “costume” related to magic and heroes, has lost most of its meanings. It’s time to find them again.

Isaac Newton by William Blake

Isaac Newton by William Blake – Wikimedia Commons

[1] Marcel Danesi, The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice, University of Toronto Press, 2007
[2] Ruth Barcan, Nudity a Cultural Anatomy, Berg, 2004
[3] Yahoo Answers: Why most peoples always associated nudity with sexual?
[4] Larissa Bonfante, Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 4, 1989
[5] Nude (art) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Are nudity and shame inseparably linked?

Some scientists believe that “it is archetypal aspect of human nature to obscure the sex organs – called “shame-parts” in many languages”. According to the biologist J. Illies “if one were to put children by themselves on a solitary island in order to allow them to grow up according to the nature of their species, free from all repressive influences of society, they would reinvent the loincloth at the age of five” [1].

Another point of view is that “shame is not congenital, but the reason why people are ashamed does have a universal, biological background. At its base lies the genetically indiced man-female relationship”. There are “naked women in the Amazon region who feel ashamed when they don’t wear any bands around their arms or ankles. Shame emerges when there is a deviation from the clothing standard, which is applied differently in every culture” [2].

I was reading about the attitude towards nudity in two cultures separated in time and space, both of which are important parts of our humanistic traditions. Some details seemed to be interesting to me.

1. In ancient Greece, it was nudity which separated the Greeks from barbarians, “from whom they wished to be distinguished”. In ancient athletics, bodies were “fully on display” and the “athlete’s naked body communicated important information about their culture and identity”. The nakedness “gave physical proof of discipline, strength, and endurance” [3].

One reads in Plato’s Republic that for most “barbarians”, it was “disgraceful and ridiculous” for a man to be seen naked. “And when the practice of athletics began, first with the Cretans and then with the Lacedaemonians, it was open to the wits of that time to make fun of these practices… But when … experience showed that it is better to strip than to veil all things of this sort, then the laughter of the eyes faded away before that which reason revealed to be best…” [4].

Herodotus confirms that “among the Lydians and most of the foreign peoples it is felt as a great shame that even a man be seen naked” [5].

But it appears that feelings of shame were not alien even to naked Greek athletes. “It was highly improper to allow glans of the penis to be seen; it had to be kept covered by the foreskin at all times. Men doing athletic exercises drew the foreskin over the glans and tied it with a string. To the Greeks, a short foreskin was a clear sign of a dissipated sexual life. Thus when Jews began to appear in the exercises, their circumcized penises became a source of deep embarrassment” [1].

2. In some sense, the period of the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) may serve as an opposite pole to the era of naked sportsmen and sportwomen. Even in ancient Greece, the nudity of the Spartan girls, who wore short chitons which “did not cover their thighs and both of their breasts” during the exercises, was considered as scandalous [1]. During the Victorian Era, women “were urged to cover their entire bodies. Any skin showing was seen as a women exhibiting herself”. Women “were not to advertise their bodies” to men, since a woman’s body was considered as the “property of her husband” [6].

There is a widespread myth that, at the height of the Victorian Era, it was “common to cover all “legs”, even those of pianos and tables, in order to prevent sexual arousal” [6,7].

Victorian attitudes to the body have provided “fertile territory for myth-making” [8]. On her first encounter with the cast of Michelangelo’s David  presented by a Duke of Tuscany, “Queen Victoria was so shocked by his nudity that a firm suggestion was made that something should be done. Consequently, the correctly proportioned fig leaf was created and stored in readiness for any visit Queen Victoria might make to the museum, for which occasions it was hung on the figure from two strategically implanted hooks” [8].

[1] Shame and the Origins of Self-esteem: A Jungian Approach. Psychology Press, 1996.
[2] Projet Nudité (Project Nudity)
[3] Anathea E. Portier-Young. Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014.
[4] Plato, translated by Paul Shorey. Republic. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1969. Book 5, sections 452c-452e
[5] Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1920. Book 1, chapter 10
[6] Denman Collins. Anomalistic History., 2011.
[7] Myth #23: Prudish Victorians “dressed” their naked furniture legs with fabric.
[8] The naked truth about Victorians – Telegraph

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

Livia, in the opinion of the wise, spoke like a great and sufficient Lady, such as she was, in saying that to a chaste woman a naked man is just a statue. (Essays of Michel de Montaigne)

Livia Drusilla was the wife of Octavian Augustus. The ancient sources generally portray her as a woman of proud and queenly attributes. In the quote above, Montaigne means the story recorded by Cassius Dio, a Roman consul and a historian:

Once, when some naked men met her (Livia) and were to be put to death in consequence, she saved their lives by saying that to chaste women such men are no whit different from statues.
(Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LVIII)

I don’t know whether historians are aware of the details of that case and why that men staked their lives and appeared naked in the presence of the wife of the Emperor.

This historic anecdote illustrates the sharp distinction Romans made between nudity in life, and nudity in art. What was sometimes possible in art was utterly unacceptable in life. Here are two examples. In honour of the victory at Naulochus in 36 BC Octavian permitted himself to be represented nude (‘portrait in heroic costume’, according to researchers who consider nudity as a costume) in a colossal statue in the very centre of Rome. The ideal nude body of his gilded portrait shows Octavian as a superman, godlike, and invulnerable. However, when Octavian instituted the Actian Games in 27 BC to celebrate his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, he forbade women from attending them, apparently on account of the nudity of the athletes. (see The Roman nude: heroic portrait statuary 200 B.C.-A.D. 300 by Christopher H. Hallett)

Tusculum Octavian

Tusculum Octavian

Olga Desmond (1891 – 1964) was a German dancer and actress. She earned popularity due to her participation in “living pictures” in which she introduced the concept of total nudity and posed after the manner of ancient classical works of art. The shows called “Evenings of Beauty” (Schönheitsabende) were organized by the Association for Ideal Culture and prohibited on more than one occasion starting from 1908.

Olga Desmond became one of the first to promote nudity on the stage in St. Petersburg, Russia in the summer of 1908. In 1910 she produced a luxurious folio that featured narratively sequenced nude photos of her as she assumed statuesque, classic Greek poses of heroic character. She even treated her hair to give it a sculpted look.

For Desmond, nothing was more significant than nudity in calling attention to the problem of seeing the movement of the body itself. She was quoted to say,

I decided to break the centuries-old heavy chains, created by people themselves. When I go out on stage completely naked, I am not ashamed, I am not embarrassed, because I come out before the public just as I am, loving all that is beautiful and graceful. There was never a case when my appearance before the public evoked any cynical observations or dirty ideas.

Olga Desmond had a close connection to the nudist movement and was for a while the wife of the editor of the nudist magazine Die Schönheit.

The two images below are taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Olga Desmond posing nude in one of her "Evenings of Beauty"

Olga Desmond posing nude in one of her "Evenings of Beauty"

Olga Desmond

Olga Desmond

1. Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism by Karl Toepfer
2. Olga Desmond – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
3. Olga Desmond: Facts, Discussion Forum, and Encyclopedia Article
4. Ann van Poperingen’s Blog » » Olga Desmond

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

Naturist holidays shouldn’t start and end at the nudist beach. Browsing the German sites I’ve encountered a few interesting (and less common, at least for someone) options. I decided to make a note of them, just in case.

(1) Nude riding
Those impressed by the legend of Lady Godiva may try to ride naked in the meadows on the south of Bonn. Michael Zauels, who organizes the rides, is quoted to say

The meadows and roads where we ride are very isolated. Sometimes we meet walkers with their dogs, but we come across very favorably.

Rides take place from May to October. The tour may take up from a half to four hours.

coming at ya DSC_8602 by Rob Featonby on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

coming at ya DSC_8602 by Rob Featonby on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

(2) Nude Sailing
German company with its own charter yachts, own base and German skippers organizes one-week and ten-day trips through the Greek islands of the northern Sporades. Sailing experience is not necessary.

deck hand by mediorce on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

deck hand by mediorce on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

(3) Hiking in a birthday suit
Don’t you know that the origins of Nacktwanderns (Naked hiking) go back to the beginning of the last century, when the first pioneers dressed in a romantic understanding of nature started practicing nude walks? Nude hikers prefer small groups and less busy roads. Their website explains that

In random encounters with other hikers we meet occasionally with baffled, but consistently positive reactions.

The hiking tours in Sauerland and in the Taunus are scheduled for April. May will begin with the walk in the Harz. The registration form to participate in the events is provided.

Naked Hike (7772A) by Ron's Log on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Naked Hike (7772A) by Ron's Log on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

(4) Naked bike ride to the Baltic sea
The Udesom island on the Baltic sea was mentioned twice in my blog (on the occasion of the so called ‘Nudist war‘, see links below). Those German nudist who prefer cycling rather than riding may participate in a Nacktradeltour (Naked bike tour) from Berlin to Usedom. The tour is scheduled to be held from July 24 to August 8, 2010.

Naked and Active – Naked Horse Riding
Nackt reiten
FKK – Segeln in Griechenland
Nacktwandern – Auch was für Dich?
Die Nackten werden jetzt aktiv von Rudi Stallein
FKK-Urlaub: Die Nackten verlassen die Reservate von Rudi Stallein
Border conflict about nudism
Usedom: Addendum