The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101 is a series of articles which opens a major project dedicated to analysing perceptions of body in different civilisations, cultures and societies.
This broad-brush study of this issue draws a prospect of a large-scale work, since the visual, performative and the literary traditions from ancient times to this day have left an immense amount of research material for us. The relevance of addressing this subject seems to be permanent, because it will always be attributable to the problems of a particular period and society. The real and the illusory social pressure that dictates rules of self-presentation is being actively comprehended and discussed at the moment, and it is a topic of acute importance. Also, the almost universal identification of people with their bodies easily leads to the fallacy that if an individual belongs to a society, their body belongs to this society too. Further, depending on the circumstances, rules are dictated, often endangering both mental and physical health of individuals or whole social groups.
The series is divided into the following chapters:
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Culture of the Greek Bronze Age
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Archaic Period
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Art of the Classical Period
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Philosophy
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Athletic Body in Classical Athens
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Art of the Hellenistic Period
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Mythology
The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Culture of Late Antiquity
Female statues of the Spedos variety, Early Cycladic II - Syros Phase, 2800 - 2300 BCE (Doumas, 1983)
The Body in the Culture of the Greek Bronze Age
The Bronze Age was a period in history characterized by emergent use of bronze, the flourishing of trade relations and urban culture, and the origin of writing in some regions. The culture of the Bronze Age that existed in the territory of modern Greece in c. 3200-1050 BCE, uniting several civilizations (Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean) are collectively called the Aegean civilization. However, despite the contacts and influences between these civilizations, they all had characteristic features and left unique historical and artistic evidence of their existence.
There were distinctive models of perception of the human body in the cultural traditions of these civilizations, having both common features and individual characteristics due to the prevailing circumstances of the formation of these traditions at a certain stage of history, in a certain geographical area, and as a result of certain contacts.
The ancient cultures in general can be characterised by special attitude towards the female body, identifying it with the fertile soil by the ability to give life. The goddess of the earth, the mother of other gods and people, was among the most important objects of worship and, accordingly, of religious art in almost all the ancient traditions (Behjati-Ardakani, Akhondi, Mahmoodzadeh & Hosseini, 2016).
Symbolic images of the female body and reproductive organs are found in ancient ornaments; ritual plastic art is replete with images, as a rule, of emphatically fertile female figures. The period of history, covering the Stone and partly Bronze Ages (until the final formation of urban and commercial culture), associated with the absolute dependence of society on productivity of soil, was arguably the highest stage of concentration of creative attention on the female image in the history of mankind (Gimbutas, 1991; Motz, 1997).
The earth inhabited by chthonic creatures was also a source of not quite known, mystical, danger, therefore, traits of horror were often mixed with the tremulously submissive attitude towards it, which was also reflected in the interpretation of some female images.
Snake Goddesses, late neo-palatial period of Minoan civilization, c. 1650-1550 BCE (Sakellarakis, 2003)
The marvelous artistic heritage of the Cycladic civilization is the subject of a great deal of controversy for archaeologists and historians (Thimme, 1965; Vermuele, 1972). We do not know the exact meaning and purpose of the objects of Cycladic art. However, in the context of this study, it is of great importance that the central theme of Cycladic art was the human body.
Cycladic civilization existed on the territory of the Cyclades archipelago for more than two thousand years, с. 3200-1050 BCE. The Early Cycladic culture, which left the largest number of unique works of art, flourished during three phases, from about 3200 to 2300 BCE, before the ascendency of Minoan, culture in the territory of the Aegean world (Papathanasopoulos, 1981).
Cycladic violin-shaped figurine, c. 3200-2800 BCE (Doumas, 1983)
The figurines, most of which are small, have been found primarily in burial sites (Marangou, 1990). In most cases, these are images of women with schematically marked features such as hands folded on their chests and sexual characteristics. Only the noses protrude on their faces. These early examples of female figurines and statues, samples of an earlier period, depicted female figures even more roughly, as violin-shaped plates, most laconically denoting stereotypical signs of femininity - breasts, waist and hips sharply differing in volumes.
One of the most famous depiction of a male in Cycladic art is the figurine of a harpist found on the island of Keros.
The Harp Player from the island of Keros, c. 2800-2300 BCE (The National Archaeological Museum, 1999)
The connection of the Cycladic plastic art with the burial tradition, obvious from the origin of the finds, gives rise to several interpretations regarding the perception of the body and corporality among the representatives of this civilization (Thimme, 1965; Nikolakopoulou, 2010). Whether it was a sense of self as a participant in the cycle of natural rebirth or it was a belief in an afterlife in which the body will continue to exist, questions of the place of the physical incarnation of a human were of apparent importance for the Cycladic model of the world.
Since the lack of information does not allow us to restore the nature of the religion and ritual traditions of the Cycladic civilization, at the moment all the controversy around these issues is based on assumptions and comparisons of the material heritage of the Cycladic culture with the examples of other cultures, about which more information had been preserved (Vermuele, 1972).
Most likely, there was a cult or several similar cults of the already mentioned mother goddess on the territory of the Aegean world.
The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations left much more information regarding their religious and ritual tradition. Idols, religious objects, frescoes, the remains of temples and altars, as well as burials, allow us to trace the development of a cult culture that influenced the subsequent formation of the Greek religion (Warburton, 2013).
A late Minoan painted larnax, c. 1400-1200 BCE (Galerie Heidi Vollmoeller, 1987)
Rich burials, as a rule, were made in tombs in clay vessels or chests (larnaxes) and were accompanied by valuable gifts. This tradition, associated with the belief in an afterlife, is common to many ancient cultures. Thus, the buried body was “equipped” in the afterlife with objects corresponding to the earthly social status of its possessor (Konstantinidi-Syvridi & Paschalidis, 2015).
Minoan art stands out markedly from the art of other civilizations of the Greek Bronze Age in the quantity and nature of the legacy left behind. Leaving an extensive material from works of art and architecture, as well as significantly influencing the development of creative thought around the Aegean world, Minoan art is characterized, perhaps, by separating a group of aesthetic qualities of works from the comprehensive religious authority (Alberti, 2002).
The Minoan civilization was one of the civilizations of the Aegean world with its main cultural centres on the islands of Crete and Thera. This culture existed in с. 3500 - 1050 BCE, reaching its apogee by around 2000 BCE, when the first so-called “palaces” were built in Crete (Dickinson, 1994).
The famous, exquisite frescoes of the Minoan civilization go beyond both purely decorative function and cult significance, documenting the spiritual, secular and daily life of the era with great artistic skill.
Saffron gatherer in fresco from Akrotiri, c. 1600-1500 BCE (Walberg, 1992)
The artistic heritage of the Minoan culture was arguably predetermined by its complex origin, associated with the mixture of traditions that existed in Crete with likely Anatolian influence brought by settlers (Lazaridis et al, 2017), as well as the subsequent extensive trade ties that made it possible to create the most socially and culturally influential civilization of the Aegean world in the Bronze Age (Roberts, 2019).
Figures in Minoan fresco paintings and plastic art acquire dynamic tension, together with tendency to depict lifelike movement. What is also interesting and can be seen as an indication of a peculiar understanding of realistic depiction is the division of the figures by skin colour, probably referring to the difference in the daily activities characteristic to the models: women are portrayed with fair skin, men with more darker and tanned tones. Another distinguishing feature of the Minoan culture is the evidence of either ritual or conventional fashion to wear dresses that would expose female breasts. This tradition set them apart from later societies in the Aegean. (Alberti, 2002)
Ritual scenes with acrobats jumping over bulls have unprecedented dynamics and a potential to achieve the maximum naturalness of the viewer's impression. The incorporation of the fresco paintings into the complex and multi-level schemes of Minoan traditional architecture must have made great effect on contemporaries, especially those who arrived from foreign territories (Vasilakis, 2000). This is confirmed by the existence of later myths about the skillful architect Daedalus, the Cretan labyrinth and the Minotaur. The dynamics of visual perception could not but influence the self-perception of witnesses of the heyday of the Minoan civilization.
Bronze group of an acrobat somersaulting over a bull's head, c. 1600-1450 BCE (McGregor, 2010)
There is a certain, of course, comparative and appropriate to its time, a humanistic orientation in Minoan art. Human and their bodies in Minoan artworks look strong and take part in the weaving of the thread of their destiny, providing due reverence to the gods, but also having their own power over the course of events.
A certain life-affirming message was preserved in Mycenaean art, which largely adopted the Minoan tradition (Burns, 2010). However, the strength and will of man in this art still demonstrates great subordination in relation to religious tradition.
Marching soldiers on the Warrior Vase, c. 1200 BCE (Vermeule & Karageorghis, 1982)
The male warrior becomes the central figure of art in Mycenaean culture, which had its rise in c. 1600-1050 BCE (Warren & Hankey, 1989). The interpretation of the body and physicality is characterized by laconicism, the absence of prominent features, which also seems to be an expression of a different worldview that puts the individual in a certain place at the bottom of the cult hierarchy.
As a rule, such a worldview forms a culture centered around funeral traditions, since the transition to the afterlife is some kind of approaching of eternity, the patrimony of the divine (Giffen, 2021). Trembling and uncertainty of the results of the transfer of the body to the disposal of the higher powers made it necessary to organize burials with distinctive care. In this regard, the richest heritage of the Mycenaean culture has been left to us by burials.
The so-called "Agamemnon mask", c. 1600-1500 BCE (Whitley, 2001)
This hierarchical worldview resulted in the formation of a tradition to accompany the body with a death mask, as if highlighting its significance against the background of others who were less deserving of such honour (Warburton, 2013). What is interesting in this regard is the emerging idea of the importance of the face as an instrument of external expression of individuality in this tradition.
Summing up this brief study of the artistic and cultural heritage of the Aegean civilizations, the following common features of these traditions can be distinguished:
Despite separate precedents for the development of a more humanistic perception of the human body, the culture of the Aegean civilization did not go beyond the characteristic thought model of their time. This culture was focused mainly on ritual activities and on caring for the existence of the body in the afterlife, on its submission and belonging to higher powers. From an ideological perception, the body acted largely as an instrument of religious service.
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Behjati-Ardakani, Z.; Akhondi, M.M.; Mahmoodzadeh, H.; Hosseini, Sh. (2016). "An Evaluation of the Historical Importance of Fertility and Its Reflection in Ancient Mythology". Journal of Reproduction & Infertility. Jan-Mar: Vol.17 (1), pp. 2-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4769851/
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"Cycladic Culture: Naxos in the 3rd Millennium BC". Edited by Marangou, L. (1990). Athens : Nicholas P. Goulandris Foundation, Museum of Cycladic Art.
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