Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Body of a God - Part 1

At this time of year there are millions of people on beaches across the northern hemisphere wishing they had the toned, fit body of the person sunbathing next to them, with a personal resolution to hit the gym themselves before the next summer. The image of a well-proportioned muscular body as an indicator of health and fitness (and desire) has been around for centuries. As I mentioned in this month’s introduction I’d be writing about the perfect body and bodybuilding. What I don’t want to do is just give a list of lgbt bodybuilders and champions (though some will be mentioned next time), but look at the ideas behind achieving the perfect body. This 2-part article will give a short history of why (mostly) men have striven to acquire the body of a god, and how the image of a firm, toned body has affected society and the lgbt community.

First of all, congratulations to Chris Olwage of New Zealand, who was crowned Mr. Gay World last Sunday during the Antwerp World Outgames.

There is a continuity throughout history of the desire of men to develop the body of a god since Ancient Greece. It was there, about 2,500 years ago, that the first free-standing statues of the human body are found – statues of naked muscular men. These statues have the generic name of kouros (plural kouri) and may have originally represented Apollo. Some kouri were of specific athletes, or given as trophies to athletes at one of the many sacred games they held.

Apollo was considered to have the most perfect body of any god, even Zeus. It was the mission of young Greek men to emulate Apollo’s body in a type of muscle worship which led to the creation of gymnasia, where male soldiers and athletes trained naked. Ever since them the phrase “the body of Greek god” has become synonymous with a perfect male body, and with it the idea that it represents of the most healthy of men. One of the most famous bodybuilding contests in the world today, Mr. Olympia, is even named after the home of the ancient Olympic games. Even though sculptural styles changed to show the more muscular body we would class a bodybuilders today (e.g. statues of Hercules), the ideal was still for a sleaker, toned, body as seen in athletes, such as the famous statue of a discus thrower represented here. This is the body-type which is seen in contests like Mr. Gay World.
Even in Ancient Greece they had male “beauty” contests.  There were several different contests, just like we have different types of contest today – Mr. Universe or Mr Gay World. They were called the euandria, euexia and kallisteia. Exact details of the way in which each contest was held and what the contestants were required to do to win are very patchy. From various academic sources I have come up with the following descriptions.

1) KALLISTEIA. This contest seems to have been the most sacred of the 3. It was held in the sacred precincts of temples and was purely a beauty contest. Both men and women had kallisteia contests, and the winner/winners were required to take part in a particularly sacred part of the festival or ceremony for which it was held. One well documented female kallisteia contest took place on the island of Lesbos. The winners of this contest were referred to as the Lesbiades who sang and danced in chorus in the sacred precincts. Among them, apparently, was one Sappho, the famous Lesbian poet noted for her poems of female love. There is little information about male kallisteia contests, though it is probable that they were not part of the sporting festivals like the Olympic or Panathenaea Games and had little or no relevance in the gymnasia, unlike the next two contests.

2) EUANDRIA. Like the following euexia contest, this was organised by the gymnasiarch, the organiser of the training sessions, or coach, and were usually held during the major sacred sport festivals and probably held in the gymnasia itself. In Athens at the Panathenaean Games each of the city’s clans/boroughs chose 24 of their most handsome men. These would compete against a couple of other clans/boroughs for the right to take a leading part in the ceremonial procession. The main judging criteria for the euandria was physique, athletic prowess and grace. The athletic abilities may have varied between city states and seem to have been competitive displays of synchronised gymnastic movements. In Athens there were several euandria contests – one for the 13-30 age group, one for the over 30’s called the thallophori, and another for the under 13’s called the euoplia. The euandria is perhaps the nearest of the 3 contests that most resembles Mr Gay World in that it represented the best in “manly beauty and excellence”.

3) EUEXIA. Perhaps this is the closest we get to an Ancient Greek bodybuilding contest. It didn’t feature the huge, bulked-up bodies we see today, but the euexia was judged on muscle tone, definition, symmetry of form, and a display of fitness. Some kind of “athlete of the year” element was included. Being judged by the gymnasiarch, the euexia was held annually at the end of each year, in some cities it was held monthly. There doesn’t seem to be any religious or sacred significance to the euexia, so it was a contest held purely for athletes and gyms.

So that’s the ancient world’s view of male beauty and body image and it’s legacy in the present world. Next month I’ll move into the Renaissance and modern times and look at the history and development of bodybuilding.

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