Monday, 24 June 2019

A Kiss is Just a Kiss

A man kisses his young male lover, depicted on a drinking cup from the 6th century BC.
I’ve not written anything on sport lately, apart from an update of my lgbt Olympian list, so let’s get physical with another one of those ancient Greek festivals which I mentioned at the beginning of the month in my list of Queer Facts – the Diolceia.

Okay, I admit it. The part of the Diocleia I mentioned isn’t actually sport – it’s a kissing contest. I actually mentioned the Diocleia way back in 2011 in relation to the Greater Panathenaic Games. I wanted to have a more detailed look into this festival and this famous kissing contest in particular.

Let’s have some background information first. Sporting festivals in ancient Greece were always acts of religious worship. Even the ancient Olympics were about worshipping Zeus and being actively involved in the various rituals. You were banned if you didn’t. I can’t imagine any the modern Olympian going to compulsory daily church services and Holy Mass before they competed, can you? Sport was seen as an act of devotion in which the athlete, specifically male athletes, honoured the gods by showing off their own god-like bodies which they developed during their military and athletic training in the gym. This idea is developed in more detail in one of my articles from 2013, “The Body of a God”.

A lot of the local sporting festivals, such as the Hyakinthia, were created to honour some hero who had died and were often celebrated around his tomb. This is the case with Diocles of Megara, the hero to whom the Diocleian festival and games were devoted. The idea of having sporting events at a funeral may seem strange to us today, but in both Greece and Rome it was common. The hero Achilles held funeral games to honour his lover Patroklus who was killed in the Trojan War.

The kissing contest held during the annual Diocleian games is probably unique. I can’t find any reference to a similar contest being held annually (there were male “beauty” contests, as listed in “The Body of a God” article, but not kissing). If there’s any classical scholar out there who knows of another one please leave a message in the comments.

We don’t really know much more about the actual Diocleian kissing contest other than what I’ve written in the earlier articles. Let’s look at several of the elements of the contest to get a better idea of what it was all about.

First of all, what is our source for this contest? The main ancient source is the poet Theocritus of Syracuse (c.300 BC-c. 260 BC). He wrote about it in his Idyll 12. Below is a translation. Nisaea is the name of the port at Megara. The “Lydian stone” mentioned towards the end refers to the touchstone used to test the purity of gold. This translation is by the Victorian writer and early gay rights campaigner Edward Carpenter (1844-1929).

“And the Megarians, at Nisaea dwelling,
Expert at rowing, mariners excelling,
Be happy ever, for with honours due
The Athenian Diocles, of friendship true
You celebrate. With the first blush of Spring
The youth surround his tomb: there who shall bring
The sweetest kiss, whose lip is purest found,
Goes back to his mother with garlands crowned.
Nice touch the arbiter must have indeed,
And must, methinks, blue-eyed Ganymede
Invoke with many prayers – a mouth to own
True to the touch of lips, as Lydian stone,
To proof of gold – which test will instant show
The pure or base, as money-changers know.”

An early commentator of Theocritus’s poems, probably Theon of Alexandria writing 200 years after Theocritus’s death, seems to be well aware of the Diocleian festival. He gives the earliest mention of it being named after Diocles, an Athenian soldier who fled to Megara and died protecting his young lover in battle.

The second question I wanted to answer was “who was Diocles and when did he live?” (yes, that’s 2 questions but I want to answer then together). From the mention by Theocritus it is clear that Diocles lived long before his own death in 260 BC. We might be able to go even further back. In a comic play by Aristophanes called “The Acharnians” a character simply called “a Megarian” issues the oath “By Diocles!” This may be the same Diocles the Megarians celebrated with their kissing contest, though scholars are debating the theory. “The Acharnians” was written in about 422 BC, so Diocles was known to them before that. The fact that Aristophanes included the oath in his play must mean that even non-Megarian Greeks were well aware who Diocles was.

We don’t know why Diocles was exiled from Athens, or when, as there were many times before 422 BC when this could have been possible. What we can say for sure is that this Diocles is not the same one that some modern writers (e.g. Thomas F. Scanlon in “Eros and Greek Athletics”, 2002) claim was Olympic champion in 728 BC, because he was buried in Thebes next to his male lover. However, it is more than likely that, as an Athenian, our Diocles could have competed in the Greater Panathenaic Games. But as for the real identity and dates our Diocles of Megara, they may never be discovered.

The third question is why is there a kissing contest at all? Other fallen heroes had sport, poetry or song contests created in their honour. The Diocleia festival may also have had these. Like a lot of other things we do today kissing has different meanings and connotations depending on who is doing it and why. Perhaps we can guess why the Megarians decided a kissing contest was appropriate.

The manner of Diocles’ death is probably the answer. He gave his life to save that of his lover. Other festivals to heroes like Diocles were, more often than not, to commemorate their death or victory in battle. It is the circumstances of his death which may have given rise to the kissing contest. It is unlikely that this would have been created if Diocles was just a regular casualty of war, one of the many soldiers who were killed alongside their comrades. It could be that the act of being killed while protecting his lover is the reason. A simple lover’s kiss is something we see around us all the time today, as partners meet, and say their goodbyes. What could be more appropriate to celebrate the life and sacrifice of Diocles than with a contest that symbolised love.

The contests itself was open only to youths. Specifically in ancient Greece this referred to boys between the ages of 12 and 20, the ages at which they were expected to become the regular partner (called an eromenos) to an older man in the gymnasium (called an erastes). The relationship was sexual until the youth reached the age of 20 when he was expected to find his own eromenos. The bond of friendship lasted a lifetime.

The contest judges (we don’t know how many) were likely to have been even older, probably in their 30s or above, the age by which men were expected to have taken a wife. The kiss given by the youth to the judges has usually been translated as the “sweetest” kiss. We can only guess what the ancient Greeks regarded as a “sweet” kiss, but I doubt it would be a slobbering French kiss so favoured by popular film and television drama. Whichever youth was deemed to have given the “sweetest” kiss was rewarded with a garland of flowers, a common prize at Greek festivals.

Very little academic research has been done on Diocles and the Diocleia. I can’t even find any reference to archaeological excavations at Megara which indicate where Diocles’ tomb might be located. Perhaps we could know more if other ancient writings are discovered giving more details about this man and his un-named young lover.

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