While in today’s society the naked body is often seen as something to be ashamed of, in the ancient world nudity was seen simply as a part of everyday life. For the Ancient Greeks, the human body was a sacred thing that was meant to be celebrated in both art and everyday life.
Nude bull leaping
In Minoan culture, while complete nudity was not as prevalent as in other parts of Greece, the Minoan believed in equality for both genders in regards to being bare-chested. A popular sporting event at the time involved young adults, both men and women, who displayed their gymnastic skills by leaping through the horns of a charging bull. For practical purposes, the competitors would wear only a small, thin loincloth to ensure that they had freedom of movement and to avoid any hindrance due to clothing (getting caught up with a bra strap while facing a charging bull is one wardrobe malfunction you definitely don’t want to have).
The Minoan culture
Outside of the sporting arena, women still bared their chests alongside men in everyday life. Traditional Minoan dresses were cut down to the mid-waist leaving the breasts exposed; a stark contrast to today where in many parts of society women will be criticized just for breastfeeding a baby in public.
In other parts of Greece, nudity played in an even larger role in life, especially in athletics. For the Greeks, nudity and athleticism were inseparable as evidenced by the fact that the Greek word “Gymnasium” means “a place to train naked”. In the Greek mind, the purest form of athletics was practiced naked. I can imagine that if the Ancient Greeks saw today’s obsession with designer shoes and sportswear they would shake their heads and just laugh at us.
The origins of nudity in Greek sports remains unclear as there are several legends as to how it began. It is widely believed that the Ancient Spartans would train and run naked wearing only helmets and shields in competitions meant to train them for war. Another claim is that a man named Orsippos of Megara won a foot race at Olympia after stripping off his loincloth and running nude while his competitors ran in loincloths as was the tradition at the time. After that, everyone decided that ditching the loincloth was the only way to go (Nike definitely would not have fared very well back in Ancient Greece). Finally, the Athenians have their own legend on how everyone started running around naked. It is believed that one time a runner stumbled in a field due to his loincloth falling down and tripping him. After that accident, it was decreed that all athletes must exercise nude to prevent further unnecessary wardrobe malfunctions.
Nudity in Ancient Greece
Whatever the origins of nudity in athletics, is it clear that Greeks were quick to adopt nude public sports. Boxing, wrestling, an ancient form of mixed fighting called Pankration, running, and more were all practiced naked (For the combat sports especially, being nude was an advantage since it made it harder for your opponent to get a grip on you). Outside of sports too, nudity was a part of everyday life in the bathhouses as well as for working and dancing when it was often considered easier to just strip off your robes then trying to deal with them getting in the way.
Perhaps we could learn something from the Ancient Greeks about athletics and leave our workout clothes at home next time we go to the gym. Feel free to leave comments, I would love to hear your thoughts on naked sports!