[lit-ideas] Gumnasia -- from Akanthos to Orsippos and Back

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 17 Dec 2007 13:00:19 EST

Thucydides said it was the Spartans who started practising sports in  the 
nude. Pausanias, to refute him, thinks it was the Megarian Orsippos.  
Philostratos agrees rather with Thucydides and mentions one Acanthus, a  
Lakedaimonian as 
the first to strip off.
The problem with Pausanias is that he writes (1.44.1) that Orsippos _won_  
the foot race, because "he realized that the testicle-cover was more of an  
impediment than an enhancement to good running". However, the Scholia ad Iliad  
online source, "The origin of nudity in Greek athletics" -- mentions that  
Orsippos actually found his testicle-cover falling, he trippled, and died -- 
 thus lost his race.

One problem with the Iliad scholia is that Pausanias said that Orsippos  grew 
to become a famous general. And how could he have done that if he  died while 
running a silly race at 15?
We are also considering the root of sport.
D. K. Helm thinks it's the hunting instinct, and war drive.
I would think it's the eroticisation of the male body: the pleasure you  
derive by OILING it, and run about totally _naked_. For that you need:
(*) The Greek climate -- or "hellenic" weather, if R. Paul would  prefer.
        Thus, the Vikings, and the  Angles, and the New Englanders for that 
matter are famous
        for 'bundling it up'. They  cannot enjoy GYMNASIA in the open because 
they live 
        in what the Greeks would call  'God-forsaken corners of the boreal 
(*) et Cetera.
Then there's _Homo ludens_. This Huizinga thought was a primeval spirit of  
_game_. As in Dionysiac but also Apollonian rites. The idea of 'game' for game  
sake. That's why I was being careful in using the adjective 'religious' to  
qualifies these activities.
One learns for example that the old Mexicans -- of all people -- did  
practice some kind of 'baseball'; but while the rite originated as a 'secular'  
it was soon found to be good for the 'opium of the people', and acquired a  
'religious meaning'. I would think that much of Greek bullshit has the same  
Just because the witch of the tribe (in the tripartite Indo-European model:  
warrior/witch/farmer) could not bear the sight of ephebes playing around in 
the  nude and the open, he had to think that they were doing it _for_ Apollo. 
Blast  Apollo if you ask me!
It's only in the new Masculinities studies that this side of Greek sport is  
coming to light. The Romans for example, objected to "Hellenistic" practices  
like the pallestra or the gymnasion in general, and the obsession of the 
Greeks  to do 'gymnasia' -- by definition naked -- as Pausanias first 
the  'ephebe' who found his 'ball-coverer' otiose, and an impediment 'to run in 
an  easier way'. 
Then in this Gymastica (Loeb Library) advice is given to Greek coaches as  to 
how to anoint the ephebe with 'yellow dust' -- which I dislike. "It makes  a  
nice body in good shape get a glisten, and it is like a soft  down".

These quotes come from this book, "Arete", which is about the Greek  male 
nude, the gymnasia, and other matters. Pretty technical.
--- I don't object to the idea that training for war is important too. The  
Romans objected to the Greek gymnasia _not_ involving _weapons training_. While 
 the javalin and the discus could be thought of as substitutes, I'm not sure 
how  much javalin throwing or discus throwing you can practice in a gymnasion 
in the  middle of downtown Athens -- or Sparta.
Short distance running and a few leaps and a good bath in the thermae seems  
a better option. Then wrestling yes, provided you don't hit the beautiful  
One should also analyse the etym. of 'athlete'. I'm sure that 'gymnastes'  
leaves no doubt about it, but we would like to distinguish between 
 and the non-fit 'gymnastes' (in the modern sense of 'nudist') whichis not an 
 athlete. The fact that in Greek a gymnastes is necessarily understood to be 
an  athlete is neither here nor there -- but in Attica.
Oddly, the "Argentine football" team I support is a local one which is  
called "Club Atletico de Gimnasia y esgrima". This combination is popular in  
various athetic clubs. The shirt is one dark blue over a white background. 
---- No nonsense about it, like "The Lions", or "The Dolphins". Plain  
"Gymnastics Club"! But then it was a Mussolini creation, almost!
We should also consider Greek games in their individualistic and  competitive 
aspects. In any of the agonias (or fights) in the pentathlon there  is room 
for a victory -- and it is indeed monothematic with Helm's discussion --  that 
the word for 'victory' in war and game (and love?) is always 'nike'. 
Modern gymnasts want to say, "It's the playing that matters, not the  
winning" which is bullshit.
"Chariots of Fire" develops this idea, with the Presbyterean player not  
wanting to play on the Sabbath -- and bringing a bit of conflict over the 
and the Jews who could care less. 
I would think that for the Greeks it was almost always an 'individualistic'  
thing -- no such things as The Spartans vs. The Athenians. It was always 
"Master  Theophilos versus Master Pankreotikos", of Athens and Sparta 
There were no team sports -- other than perhaps 'rowing'? 
---- Aristotle talks a lot about sport representations in his Physics. He  
mentions Polykleitus as not a sculptor (R. Paul is right) but an 'andriopoios', 
statue maker. Andrias being statue -- (even for Venus of Milo?), and the  
material was bronze.
Polykleitus wrote a book which he called Doruphoros, and translates as  
Spear-Bearer, a soldier, and not Javelin-Bearer. But Myron, some 100 years  
obtained fame with his Discobolus -- no Grenade-Thrower.
I would think that while the Spear-Bearer is bearing a spear, there is no  
reflection on his face of the tension that a war or battle would create. He  
rather looks like a person about to compete in the javelin on the field -- just 
before joining for the 4 remaining 'agonias' on track and field.
J. L. Speranza
    Historian of Sports, etc.
        Buenos Aires, Argentina

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