Tuesday, 4 August 2020

The Spartan Harvest and the Naked Chase

Even though our attention should have been on the Olympics at the moment we should remember that there were other festivals in ancient Greece. I’ve covered several of these festivals with sporting connection in some of my early articles.

In the first months of my blog I wrote about the Greater Panathenean Games. Just before the London Olympics I wrote about the Hyakinthia festival. This was the second of the three main festivals held in Sparta. The first was the Gymnopedia. The third was held during the last month of the Spartan calendar, just around now, and was called the Karneia. It is this festival about which I write today.

All three festivals were held in honour of the patron god of Sparta, Apollo, whose part in a gay love triangle formed the origin myth of the Hyakinthia. Even though all three festivals eventually included some sport the main emphasis, as in the Olympics, was on the cult of the patron god. To understand the involvement of the main participants in the Karneia we will look at who was excluded from the other two.

The responsibilities of Spartan men was to fight for the state, and marry and father the next generation of Spartan soldiers. There were several groups in the community who were considered to be un-Spartan, inferior and were denied rights and respect. These groups included men who dropped out of education (dominated by military training) before completion, freed slaves and their children, non-Spartans living in Sparta and their children, men who had shown cowardice in battle, and unmarried men over the age of 30 with no children. This last group is known as the agamoi.

It seems there was a change in attitude towards the agamoi over the centuries. The historian Plutarch writing at the turn of the 1st century says that the Spartans wouldn’t allow the agamoi to participate in or attend the Gymnopedia festival games. The reason he gave was that the Spartans believed the sight of so many athletic young men would be too much of a temptation for the agamoi. This seems at odds with the acceptance of the boy-adult same-sex relationships (up to the age of about 30) common to Greek culture at the time. These agamoi may be the nearest we can get in ancient Greece to men closest to our present definition of gay – same-sex relationships that remained physical past the age of 30.

The agamoi were, however, allowed to compete in their own games – in the middle of winter where even in Sparta the temperature could go below zero. And they were expected to compete naked just like the athletes in the summer games. In addition they had to perform dances and songs that ridiculed their status. During other events the agamoi were expected to give up their seats to anyone on demand (never by request). Another task enforced upon the agamoi was the financing and organising of the Karneia festival.

We know less about the Karneia than we do about the Hyakinthia and Gymnopedia. It may have begun as a harvest celebration, as it was held during the harvest season. There are several origin myths, including being based on the foundation of Sparta, or the commemoration of the assassination of a local seer. A fourth origin story involves the worship of an ancient ram god called Karneios.

Whatever it’s origin the Karneia festival became scared to Apollo who became known as Apollo Karneia. In this incarnation he was depicted with ram’s horns, as shown in the ancient coin below.
Although Plutarch wrote that the agamoi were ridiculed it seems that at other times they were respected within the community. Some of the earliest agamoi appear to have been servants to the priests in the temple of Apollo Karneios. Five agamoi from each of the Spartans tribes were selected by lot to organise the Karneia festival, and they held this post for four years.

Like other festivals, there was of truce. This was not for a desire for peace but, as in the Olympic truce, a chance for soldiers to participate in their sacred games without the enemy attacking. Attack during the games and you are attacking the gods. This is the reason the Spartans arrived late to the Battle of Marathon – they were at the Karneia and would not fight.

The main element of the Karneia was a race, more of a chase really. It had the long name of staphylodromoi. Split the word into two and you get an indication of the harvest aspect of the earliest Karneia – staphylo (grape), dromoi (runner). One agamoi was chosen as “bait” and garlanded with a ribbon. Running naked through the streets of Sparta he would pray to Apollo Karneia to bestow good fortune on the city. Running a little behind him, also naked, were a group of other agamoi (or, in some sources, unmarried younger men in their 20s) who had to catch the “bait”. If they did, the prayers of the “bait” would be answered. As the name of the race suggests, the original “bait” runners had bunches of grapes rather than a ribbon that the others had to snatch.

One part common to most festivals were song and dance contests. Not Fred Astaire-type songs and dances but ritual lyric poems with or without musical accompaniment, and rhythmic movement. Hellanikos of Lesbos, a writer from the 5th century BC, compiled a list of winners of the song contest.

What appears to be a later addition to the Karneia is a more military component. Nine military tents were erected near the temple and nine agamoi, again selected by lot, were served a meal in each of them.

The Karneia lasted for nine days, though how those days were filled is uncertain. The staphylodromoi was probably held on the first day. There could have been different types of song and dance contests most of the other days. The military tents may have been towards the end. Undoubtedly there would have been animal sacrifices made by the priests and the king, and the non-agamoi Spartans would have feasted and worshipped every day.

So, there seems to be two different attitudes to unmarried men over the age of 30 in Sparta. Or perhaps the agamoi were ridiculed and despised throughout the year, banned from the Gymnopedia and forced to play sport naked in the middle of winter, but at the Karneia they were tolerated and respected because they were providing a sacred service to the community. I know which I would rather have taken part in.

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