Thursday 15 July 2021

Dancing With the Spartans

Not long to go now before the Tokyo Olympics, so I thought I’d take a look at another of the many ancient Greek competitive festivals that I write about now and again.

Our modern period of late June and early July was the first month of the Spartan year. As such it was regarded as something special and the Spartans celebrated with a festival called Gymnopaedia. It was one of their most important festivals and, like the others, was marked with contests of physical prowess.

The Gymnopaedia is thought to have originated in about the year 668 BC. It was held in honour of the god Apollo (whose love affair with the Spartan Prince Hyakinthos gave rise to the Hyakinthia festival), as well as Artemis (goddess of the hunt and Apollo’s sister) and Leto (their mother).

Just a few years before the Gymnopaedia began, perhaps only a generation of two, Sparta had introduced pederasty – boy-love – as a social norm in their society. There’s a danger of confusing Spartan and Greek pederasty with the modern concept of homosexuality. For the Spartans, and the other Greek cultures that adopted it later, pederasty was part of a boy’s rite of passage into adulthood. Once a man (usually a soldier or athlete) had chosen one boy to mentor and assist in his progression through puberty and into adulthood with regular sex, the emotional bond of friendship that was formed would (or should) remain for the rest of their lives.

The very name Gymnopaedia probably illustrates its sexual nature. The name comes from the two Greek words “gymnos”, meaning naked, and “paedia”, meaning youth. Literally, “naked youth”. As was common in the festivals across Greece, contestants competed naked. Some historians have speculated that the Gymnopaedia became the most popular means by which Spartan men chose who was to be their boy-lovers. Another theory about the name is that contestants competed without arms or weapons.

To regard the Gymnopaedia as a sports festival like the modern Olympics will be only half correct. Originally there were no athletic contests – running, wrestling, chariot racing, that sort of thing. The focus was on choreographed war dances and songs. If a comparison has to be made, think of these performances as the ancient equivalent of rhythmic gymnastics, ironically, a sport (with synchronised swimming) in which there is no equivalent competition in the modern Olympics for men. Men are banned from these sports, yet women are banned from none – proof that the IOC’s claim of gender equality is hypocrisy.

The main dances of the Gymnopaedia were performed by boys up to the age of about 15. These boys would have already undergone some military training for several years. Their movements would mimic military stances, like the action of throwing a spear or wielding a sword. The movements were designed specifically to show off the boy’s physical appearance and grace. The military songs that accompanied them would tell of the heroic deeds of their ancestors and the gods. At other venues around Sparta other dances were performed by older age groups and men. These were more of a celebratory nature and not as competitive as the boys’ dances.

A bas relief showing soldiers performing what is known as a pyrrhic dance, a dance similar to that performed at the Gymnopaedia. This relief dates from the 1st century BC but is based on one from the 4th century BC. It is currently on display in the Vatican Museum.

Over the centuries more music, dances and athletic contests were added and the whole festival began to stretch over a week long. It became increasingly popular, not only with the Spartans but with other Greeks who came to watch as well – men only, of course, because women weren’t allowed to watch or compete. There was another group who weren’t allowed to watch. These were the agamoi, unmarried men over the age of 30. You can find out why in this article I wrote last year about the Spartan harvest festival, the Karneia.

The competitors were divided into groups with each area of Sparta represented by a team. Even though all participants in the Gymnopaedia were naked the team leaders were allowed to wear something – a crown of palm leaves. This is said to have been in honour of the Spartan victory at the Battle of Thyrea in 546 BC, an event which was often praised during the war songs. Although it has no real lgbt connection, other than the Spartan combatants had boy-lovers, the story of the battle is quite interesting.

The battle is also known as the Battle of the 300 Champions. This may remind you of the famous film about Spartans called “300”. The connection is tenuous – the battle got its name because each side, the Spartans and the Argives, decided that only 300 of their best soldiers should fight to the death. The last man standing was the victor.

The battle began at around mid-day. By dusk two Argive soldiers stood on the battlefield, looking around them at the carnage of 598 bodies around them. They limped back to their camp and claimed victory. However, back on the battlefield, one severely wounded Spartan soldier was still alive. He managed to rise to his feet and stagger back to his camp. The Spartans then claimed victory. The Argives were very angry and refused to accept that their victory had been disputed. They attacked the Spartans, who thrashed the Argives and sent them back home. The Spartans celebrated with their usual victory games.

The film “300” was about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The Spartan leader was played by Gerard Butler. Let’s link “300” to the modern Olympics. On 13th March 2020, during the 2,500th anniversary year of the battle, Gerard Butler took part in the Olympic torch relay before it was stopped due to the covid pandemic. He ran with the torch into the centre of Sparta itself, lit the ceremonial cauldron and shouted his famous line “This is Sparta!” Sadly, he didn’t run naked like the ancient Greeks would have done in their various torch relays.

And with that I’ll leave ancient Greece and look forward to Tokyo 2020. Next Thursday I’ll preview the games with an overview of the known lgbt athletes who will be competing and a few comparisons to previous games. I’ll also look at the returning Olympians and how they stand in the all-time lgbt medal table. Two weeks after that I’ll look at the Tokyo results and see which of them rise and which of them fell in the table, and which Olympic newcomers made their mark.

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