Monday 22 August 2011

The Gayest Games in Ancient Greece - Day 6

I must admit I was looking forward to Day 6 of the Great Panathenaean Games. Compared to the previous days not much happened today, but its what happened that makes it more gayer, even camp, in comparison.

Unlike the games so far, Day 6 begins the Athenian-only games that last for the rest of the festival, and it switches from individual to team events. Competitors were now representing their local area, and the competition between the 10 demes of Athens (areas like town boroughs) was intense. Day 6’s events were at the core of their Greater Panathenaean festival, and everything was done as an act of devotion to Athena. Because of this there was an extra incentive to win, especially the first contest where the winners of the 3 age groups (12-15, 16-20, and over 20s) were to lead the big religious procession the next day.

It was a beauty contest. Not so much Miss World as Mr. Athens. Each deme chose up to 24 men in each age group who were the tallest, most graceful, well-proportioned and most drop-dead gorgeous. As well as overall beauty and physique the contestants were judged on their performance of graceful movements and agility based on combat techniques. Sounds a bit like t’ai chi. The winner of the 12-16 age group appears to have been decided on looks alone, as at that age the boys wouldn’t have done as much training as the older men and not have acquired the necessary muscle structure. One change from previous events was that contestants weren’t naked – which I would have thought defeated the object. Anyway, records say that they were dressed in the best festive garments – all dragged up, you could say.

The next contest also involved combat techniques. Teams of up to 24 men, again, from each deme, this time with helmet and shield, performed synchronised moves to music, but it was far from a military march. Just like a row of Tiller Girls the soldiers would hop and skip in unison, wave spears and shields, and posture as if about to attack the enemy. I wouldn’t say that its as camp as the rows of the high-kicking Canadian Mounties at the closing ceremony of last year’s Vancouver Winter Olympics, but it’s pretty close I imagine.

Interestingly enough, as well as male beauty contests still being held today, they still have “dancing soldier” displays today in the Balkans, especially Albania.

The first prize for both contests was a bull to be sacrificed the next day. Money was also awarded, to be shared around the deme.

During the rest of Day 6 people would be gathering at the city gate and along a specific route through the city. Athens is going to provide its citizens and visitors perhaps the most magical spectacle to be seen in the ancient Greek world, and it wouldn’t give them much time to sleep.

Even if the Athenians didn’t get much sleep, I will. I’ll tell you about the special night-time contest tomorrow.

If you’d like to know more about the Greater Panathenaean Games – the Gayest Games in Ancient Greece – go to

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