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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

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

References
[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

According to the art historian Michael Camille, the traces of direct physical attacks can be seen “in hundreds if not thousands” of “medieval illuminated manuscripts” [1] (see also [2]). Specific texts, images, or parts of images were found offensive and destroyed by “the owners, guardians, or users of these books”.

It is believed that images acted more powerfully upon the viewers in the Middle Ages than today. It can be explained by some aspects of “medieval theories of vision itself, which gave an active role to the eye in the process of perception. Vision entailed the eye’s actually taking an imprint of the thing seen” [1]. Medieval scholars have thought that either the eye is sending out rays to see the object or the object is sending rays to the eye. Vision was active, dangerous and “prone to sin”. Pregnant women were not allowed to look at “very disgusting animals” (like apes or monkeys) in the face, because they could give birth to children “similar in appearance”.

It seems interesting that “thirteenth- and fourteenth-century illuminators were not worried about” depicting human genitals. The earlier medieval period, “certainly up to the fourteenth century”, might be described as a time when images of naked human bodies were rife, and “when no danger was seen to exist in explicit representations of bodies” [1].

It all began to change at the very end of the Middle Ages, “not before the fifteenth century” [1] (compare [3]) . The medieval church established a control over public decency. In 1402 Jean Gerson, bishop of Paris, wrote a treatise on the corruption of youth, “which urged the secular and ecclesiastical authorities to introduce laws against the exhibition and sale of obscene pictures”. As a result, “postclassical” pornography was invented “at around the same time”.

Starting from the later Middle Ages, the numerous images of male and female genitals were erased from manuscripts. It continued up to Victorian times, when some collectors of manuscripts took a hand in the process in order “to prevent the penis being seen by wife and children” [1].

Scenes showing naked female characters were often erased from books. “The majority of excised female figures in medieval manuscripts suggests the work of later male clerics” [1]. There was a solid theoretical background for it. In Gemma Ecclesiastica by Gerald of Wales [4] one can find a chapter entitled ‘On not staring at women’. A medieval clergyman wrote: “Just as one should avoid the company of women, so too should one avoid staring at them or being stared at by them” [5]. He quoted St. Augustine: “Even if your eyes should fall upon a woman, you must never fix your gaze”.

Michael Camille wrote at the end of his essay [1]: “The fact that male and female genitals are still blocked in television representations of the body makes us heirs to a tradition that began in the later Middle Ages, when those heirs scratching out offensive and dangerous things from the beautifully illuminated books they inherited, or making representation itself the veil that covers rather than reveals, saw the obscene for the first time”.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

Image: Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) (From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository)

References
1. Michael Camille, Obscenity Under Erasure, in Obscenity: Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages / ed. by Jan M. Ziolkowski, Leiden, Brill, 1998.
2. Art Historian Michael Camille, 1958-2002
3. Vadimage Blog: History of one delusion
4. Gerald of Wales – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
5. Suzannah Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002