Gymnopaedia

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The Gymnopaedia, in ancient Sparta, was a yearly celebration during which naked youths displayed their athletic and martial skills through the medium of war dancing. The custom was introduced in 668 BC,[1] concurrently with the introduction of naked athletics, oiling the body for exercise so as to highlight its beauty.

Corybantian dance, the type of dance most likely danced on Gymnopedia festivals (image from Smith's Dictionary of Antiquities).

Etymology[edit]

Gymnopaedia derives from the ancient Greek Γυμνοπαιδίαι. The word Gymnopaedia is composed of γυμνός (gymnos, "naked" or "unarmed") and παιδιά "game" from παῖς (pais, "child, youth"). In Greek the plural form, Γυμνοπαιδίαι, appears most often.[2]

Apart from "Gymnopaedia", modern transliterations/adaptations include "Gymnopaidiai" (mostly older translations of Greek texts, maintaining a plural form for the word), "Gymnopaidiae" (Latinized plural form), "gymnopedia", "Gymnopaedie" (in German), and "gymnopédie" (in French, or when referring to the Erik Satie compositions).

Gymnopaedia in ancient Greece[edit]

The Gymnopaedia festival[edit]

The term appears in texts of Herodotus, and several authors in the Attic and Koiné periods. While for the earliest of these authors the meaning of Gymnopaedia appears predominantly as a festival (including several dances, sports, etc.), in the later periods of antiquity gymnopaedia is referred to as a particular dance.

The festival, celebrated in the summertime, was dedicated to Apollo (and/or, according to Plutarch, to Athena). Plato praises gymnopaedia-like exercises and performances in The Laws as an excellent medium of education: by dancing strenuously in the summer heat, Spartan youth were trained in both musical grace and warrior grit at the same time.

The Gymnopaedia was also held in memory of Sparta's defeat by Argos at Hysiai in 669 or 668 BC. By recognizing their defeat the Spartans hoped to appease the gods and prevent a recurrence of this defeat. The military style of dancing reinforces the emphasis on military success and support in military campaign (to prevent defeat such as at Hysiai) in Spartan society.

In ancient Greece, as a general rule, sports were reserved for men, and would be performed "gymnos" - naked. Men were the only spectators when such sports were performed publicly. See also Gymnasium (ancient Greece). In Sparta, sources such as Aristophanes' plays suggest that women also exercised publicly and in the nude. Some modern opinion, therefore, suggests that this festival included the dancing of young women for reasons of showing their strength and worthiness to give birth to strong men, and also as a way to promote eugenic marriage and population growth (with which Sparta would later struggle).

Public performance of such sports generally took place in a ceremonial setting, i.e. for the occasion of a religious feast. While not all ceremonial sports were competitive, some included an element of competition for the most beautiful movement, or for speed or strength. Many of the sport categories of those days resembled dance more than modern track and field events.

Roman era[edit]

Some eight centuries after the first gymnopaedia had been presented, it still survived in Lacedaemonia. According to Lucian of Samosata (in his dialogue Of Pantomime), it retained some connection to martial arts, as the youths would engage in gymnopaidia immediately after their daily military training. On the other hand, he describes the gymnopaedia as "yet another dance", neither involving nudity, nor exclusivity for men.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Paul Cartledge, Spartan Reflections p.102
  2. ^ Singular: see Plutarch, Moralia 208d.

References[edit]

External links[edit]