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Undressed for Success? Contradictions of Early Greek Nudity in Text and Image

Sarah C. Murray

University of Toronto

This paper posits an explanation for the contrast between the respective valences of male nudity in early Greek epic poetry and contemporary visual culture. While the topic of nudity in ancient Greek history (Burzachini 2001; Christesen 2002; David 2010; Soares 2014), athletics (Arieti 1975; Thuillier 1988; McDonnell 1991; Scanlon 2005), literature (MacCary 1982, 152–154; Block, 1985; Bassi 1995; Ready 2005; Holmes 2010), and material culture (Müller 1906; Bonfante 1989; Himmelmann 1990; Osborne 1997; Daehner 2005; Stähli 2006) has attracted much attention from scholars, one aspect of early Greek nudity that has thus far gone unnoticed is the dissonance in its treatment across different categories of evidence. It is clear, however, that nudity functions differently in Greek literature and narrative art from the very beginnings of these respective traditions. This paper argues that literary and artistic presentations of nudity in the early Greek world contain complexities and inherent contradictions that demand explanation beyond the limited treatments published to date.

I begin by summarizing extant scenes dealing with male nudity in early Greek epic poetry. This review demonstrates that the state of being γυμνός in early Greek poetry uniformly inspires shame or evokes weakness. In the Homeric poems, being unclothed in public and especially being unarmored in battle, are indications of an undesirable state of weakness and vulnerability. More acutely, the heroes of the Homeric poems seem to be defined by external accessories (Yamagata 2005; van Wees 2010). To be γυμνός in the Homeric poems is to be without the thing that marks one out in the world as an individual of substance in a manner recognizable to other members of the community. Having lost his armor, Achilles is no longer a warrior (Il. 17.711). Without armor, Hektor is unrecognizable as a man (Il. 22.124).

While Homeric nudity seems to be a purely negative attribute, nudity in Greek art has different connotations. Although a few early nudes in Geometric art represent corpses or vulnerable individuals in a fashion consistent with nudity in Greek poetry, figures of all kinds–from horse-leaders to worshippers, gods to warriors–appear nude in the corpus of early Greek figural art. Early nude figurines from Protogeometric and Geometric Greece are characterized by gestures that are attributed to divinities throughout nearly the entire history of the prehistoric Mediterranean (Byrne 1993, 120-121). Nudity is also a characteristic of figurines making gestures that are typical of worshippers, like the pose in which one hand is raised to the head and one placed over the genitals, or in which both arms rest on the torso. Other figures that are nude are clearly heroic warriors, or seem to be participating in sport, playing music, or dancing. A plurality of bronze and terracotta figurines and vase-paintings depict naked males of all kinds, but only rarely does this nudity imply vulnerability.

I present two possible explanations for this contradiction between the demeanor of nudity in art and text. First, the attitude expressed in early Greek poetry may be a remnant of conventions about nudity originating before the 8th century BCE and preserved in the metrical amber of the epic tradition despite being no longer socially relevant and thus unrelated to contemporary figural art. Second, different sectors of society may have viewed the relationship of clothing and status differently in the Geometric period, creating an ideological contradiction between epic poetry meant for elite audiences and visual/material culture, including votive dedications that may have belonged to individuals of lesser status. The predominance of nude males in art in west Greece in particular, and the likely central/east Greek roots of extant epic poems lends support to the latter solution.

Session/Panel Title

The Body and its Travails

Session/Paper Number

82.4

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