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Hermes & the Euexia: A Note on Nudity, Youth & Divinity in the Gymnasium

Benjamin Coseo Perriello

Résumé

Pendant la fête annuelle des Hermaia, des jeunes gens participaient, dans le gymnase, à l’euexia, un concours de beauté et de forme du corps nu. Dans le cadre de cette fête d’Hermès, l’euexia célèbre les aspects et des caractéristiques qui sont importants aussi bien pour le gymnase que pour son patron divin. Tout comme le corps sain et beau est un signe de vertu civique, le processus par lequel il est atteint est inspiré par Hermès : pendant le temps éphémère de la jeunesse, les athlètes cherchent la reconnaissance dans les concours du gymnase. Euexia ou la bonne constitution physique est étroitement liée à l’idée de l’effort physique, à l’image mythique d’Hermès constituée par les actions, les aspects et les attributs du dieu, opérant dans d’autres domaines.

During the annual festival of the Hermaia, participants in the gymnasium competed in the euexia, a contest judging the beauty and form of the naked body. As part of the annual festival to Hermes, the euexia celebrated aspects and attributes important both to the gymnasium and to its patron deity. Just as the fit and beautiful body was a sign of civic virtue, the process by which it was attained was inspired by Hermes: in the evanescent period of youth, gymnasts strove for recognition in the contests of the gymnasium. Euexia or physical fitness was closely bound with the idea of exertion and physical effort, mirroring the mythic strivings of Hermes as expressed in a set of actions, aspects, and attributes of the god at work in other fields.

Entrées d'index

Mots clés :

Hermès, euexia, nudité, jeunesse, gymnase

Keywords :

Hermes, euexia, nudity, youth, gymnasium

Texte intégral

Do you mean to say that you do not approve of Homer, who said that youth has its highest grace in him whose beard is appearing, as now in the case of Alcibiades?
Plato, Protagoras 309a

1During the annual festival of the Hermaia, participants in the gymnasium competed in the euexia, a contest judging the beauty and form of the naked body. As part of the annual festival to Hermes, the euexia celebrated aspects and attributes important both to the gymnasium and to its patron deity. Just as the fit and beautiful body was a sign of civic virtue, the process by which it was attained was inspired by Hermes: in the evanescent period of youth, gymnasts strove for recognition in the contests of the gymnasium. Euexia or physical fitness was closely bound with the idea of exertion and physical effort, mirroring the mythic strivings of Hermes as expressed in a set of actions, aspects, and attributes of the god at work in other fields.

  • 1 Pausanias 10.4.1
  • 2 Stephen L. Glass, «The Greek Gymnasium: Some Problems», in The Archaeology of the Olympics, Wendy J (...)
  • 3 Larissa Bonfante first presented this concept in «Nudity as Costume in Classical Art», American Jou (...)
  • 4 Supplementum epigraphicum Graecum 27.261.47. For the ubiquity of the euexia, see Nigel Crowther, «M (...)
  • 5 Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 27.261.46 states that the Hermaia took place in the month of Hype (...)

2Without a gymnasium, there was no city, for together with the theatre, magistracy, and agora, it completed the sphere of institutions necessary for the function of polis life.1 As a civic institution, the gymnasium was dedicated to the training of the citizen warrior, where euexia, nudity, and civic values went hand in hand. Formed from the prefix eu and echō, euexia signified the vigor and good condition of the body, as well as the event in the Hermaia in which these qualities were judged. Participants in the gymnasium exercised naked, gymnos, as the etymology of the name suggests, developing their bodies to endure the rigors of military service. Military equipment was awarded to victors in the euexia.2 The condition of the exposed body (euexia) bore the marks of a civic nudity,3 judged during the Hermaia, the most important and ubiquitous4 festival of the gymnasium, held at the end of each calendar year.5

  • 6 Aristotle, Ethica Nichomachea 1129a19.

3The fit citizen was a prepared warrior—the care for his body reflected a commitment to the polis and its protection. These included not only external enemies but internal ones as well, such as sloth, vice, overindulgence and other forms of hubris. Euexia was constructed around a series of contrasts:6 in his attack against Timarchus, Aeschines argued that the body carried all the signs of ethical habits, as opposed to that which did not.

  • 7 Aeschines 1.189.

Who among you does not know the beastly conduct of Timarchus? For just as you know by seeing their fit condition (euexia) those who exercise (gymnazomenos) without even seeing them in the gymnasium, so you can recognize those who prostitute themselves, without having to catch them in the act.7

  • 8 Cf. Plato, Republic 559a; Plato, Gorgias 450a; Plato, Protagoras 354a-b; Aristotle, Topica 105a31; (...)

4The civic duties of euexia even found their way into the philosophical discourse of the fourth century. Both Plato and Aristotle envisioned the fit body (euexia) as a metaphor for a healthy state, following the logic that one led to another.8 A fit body was a model of restraint as opposed to excess, connected to the logic of opposition and separation. For example, Athenaeus records that Agesilaus, a military commander, encouraged his men by exhibiting for sale a host of captured barbarians in the nude so that:

  • 9 Athenaeus 12.550e.

The allies would know that while the stakes were high, the contest stood against inferior men, thus instilling in their souls the courage to charge against the enemies.9

5The highly coordinated maneuvers and heavy equipment of hoplite warriors required a fit and flexible soldier, ready to endure heat, thirst, and exhaustion. Lucian, in his dialogue set in the gymnasium, pairs Solon with Anacharsis, the epitomes of Greek and barbarian respectively. Solon explains why nudity was important in the gymnasium to the perplexed Anacharsis.

  • 10 Lucian, Anacharsis 25.

It’s likely that such men will have weapons in hand even if naked (or unarmed— gymnous), putting fear into their enemies. They do not display idle flabbiness, or the white and overly thin bodies of women quivering in the shade... these young men, their bodies reddened, are darkened by the sun, and bearing masculine faces they reveal great vitality, fire, and courage. They are aglow with such splendid condition (euexias).10

  • 11 Αristotle, Ethica Nichomachea 1129a20.

6Dark as opposed to white, firm not flabby,11 masculine and not feminine, free and not a slave: these characteristics of nudity separated and distinguished those who exercised nude in the gymnasium from those who did not. Both as a concept and contest, euexia was the formative ideal marking the naked body of the young and budding citizen.

  • 12 Aeschines 1.11.

7A well-trained youth was useful to city as a future citizen, and by the Hellenistic period, the contests in the Hermaia were a means to measure the citizens-to-be.12 Although the euexia was a measures of civic discipline, divine inspiration fueled and organized an otherwise social ideal. During the Hermaia, sacrifice and feast, competition and reward evoked Hermes at the same time as they emphasized the importance of strength, obedience, and physical fitness, as if these things belonged to the god himself. Along with the euexia, there was a contest in the Hermaia called the eutaxia, a measure of discipline. The objects of youth, the instruments of exercise and gymnastics, the tools of euexia were offered to Hermes. One epigram reads:

  • 13 Anthologia Graeca 6.282

Hermes, to you Calliteles hung his hat of carded wool, his fibula, strigil, the unstrung bow, and his sweat-stained cloak, his arrows, and oft-tossed ball. Friend of youth (kourophilos), please accept these gifts of a well-ordered (eutaktos) adolescence.13

8Hermes’kinship with youth stemmed from his own position as a young god, enticing him into the gymnasium and other places haunted by the young.

9Pausanias reports that the city of Tanagra celebrated a festival, a Hermaia, in honor of Hermes Kriophoros and Hermes Promachos. The first commemorated the god who warded off a plague by bearing a ram on his shoulders and circling the city walls; the second, as Pausanias explains, when Hermes routed an invading army with a host of youths from the gymnasium, armed with their strigils.

  • 14 Pausanias 9.22.1.

Whoever of the youths is judged to be most beautiful in form, processes in the festival of Hermes around the walls of the city, carrying a ram on his shoulders. When the Eretrians sailed from Euboia to Tanagra, Hermes Promachos, himself in the form of a youth, led the youths into battle armed with strigils and succeeded in routing the Euboeans.14

  • 15 See Dominique Jaillard, Configurations d’Hermès, Liège, 2007, in particular, p. 48-9.

10The Tanagran festival of Hermes Kriophoros actively connected youth with civic service:15 like the victor of the euexia chosen for his outstanding form, the Tanagrans chose a beautiful young man to lead the procession in honor of Hermes’service to the city. He then played a role as an exemplary gymnast, embodying the civic responsibility of the young citizen warrior on the cusp of his entrance into the community of citizens.

11The identification between Hermes and the young gymnasts may be traced to the representations of Hermes. Hermes’principle entrances in the Homeric epics explicitly describe him as youth, pairing this aspect of the god with his service to both deity and man.

  • 16 Homer, Iliad 24.347-8.

He went along in the form of a young lord with the first signs of a beard, whose youth is most delightful.16

12Again, in the Odyssey:

  • 17 Homer, Odyssey 10.274-280.

Then Hermes appeared to me
As I came towards the house (of Circe).
Golden wand in hand, he came like a young man
with the first signs of a beard, whose youth is most delightful.
17

  • 18 For Hermes eriounios, cf. Iliad 24.679-681.
  • 19 Geoffrey S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. II, 1985, p. 308.

13Appearing as a young god in the first blush of youth (prōton hupēnētēi), this characteristic places Hermes in the same age group as the participants in the gymnasium. More specifically, the role of this young god in each of the Homeric scenes is linked to his role as helper (akakēsios, eriounios)18. In the Iliad, Hermes appears as a young man to help the aged Priam on his dangerous mission to reclaim the body of Hector, his most beloved son. The moving exchange between Hermes and Priam displays the former’s tact, as well as his sense of duty,19 the reasons for which he was chosen by Zeus to conduct this mission:

  • 20 Iliad 24.334-336.

Hermes, go now, since you are the most beloved
companion to men, attend to him,
and conduct Priam to the hollow ships of the Achaeans.
20

  • 21 Ibid. 5.385-391.
  • 22 Ibid. 8.362-369. An interesting aside, some accounts (Herodorus apud Schol. Ap. Rhod. 2.353-6b) hav (...)

14Beloved of men, the youthful Hermes helped the elder Priam, and appeared to Odysseus, providing the means to evade the charms of Circe. And it was Hermes who liberated Ares from his imprisonment in an earthen jar,21 and Hermes who helped Herakles retrieve Cerberus from the underworld.22 In short, Hermes’mythic representations present a model of heroic service, identifying him with the age group of the gymnasts, creating a configuration of youth, exercise, and the gods that marked a space of civic and political importance in the Greek polis.

  • 23 See p. 178-192 in Gabriella Pironti, Entre ciel et guerre: figures d’Aphrodite en Grèce ancienne, L (...)

15Greek polytheism is full of young gods, or rather, full of different aspects of youth. Hermes’youth was not about the immortal beauty or its seductive charms; this was left to Aphrodite. With her came the evanascence of life, desire, beauty and seduction, vegetal moisture, pleasant odor, and the erotic.23 But Hermes’youth is not the leimon of early spring flowers, bound to wither, but the open space on the sands of the palaestra, where instead of seduction, strength and cunning prevail. Desire was important in the gymnasium but the relations constructed around this expression of eros were communal, not personally intimate, social bonds strong enough to withstand the stress of battle and competition. Hermes’youth was not about the wedding of one to another, but a marriage to the values of the polis.

  • 24 Marcel Detienne, Apollon le couteau à la main, Paris, 1998, p. 30.
  • 25 Hom. Hymn to Apollo 2.
  • 26 Hom. Hymn to Hermes 172-175.
  • 27 Ibid. 375-376.

16Nor was Hermes’youth that of pride and power, reserved for Apollo the kouros, stiff and upright, buttocks high and chest strong. Although Apollo is equally precocious in his early days, the god «on the march» takes the straight path of unbridled confidence.24 His unsettling entrance into the audience of the gods intimates violence, hubris, and the gods tremble at his approach.25 In comparison, the presence of Hermes sounds more sophomoric than menacing when sounding a familiar refrain of young men everywhere: «I am going after what is mine by right, the same as Apollo. And if my father does not permit, then I will set out — because I can — to be the leader of thieves.»26 Hermes is a god of movement and passage, striving against the anonymity of youth. In his own words, he acknowledged his junior position when trying to exculpate himself before Zeus: «He (Apollo) has the delicate bloom of youth of his glorious prime, while I was born yesterday.»27 Born yesterday, perhaps; but not in our sense of the phrase. Young and hungry, not content to stay in the obscure confines of a cave, he sought his share of the divine apportionment, his geras — the driving appetite of the young god.

17Unlike the steady stride of his older brother, Hermes moves by leaps and bounds. Hermes’youth lies in his sudden, springing strength. In the Homeric Hymn, the vital, springing energy of the god is visibly connected to youth – the youth of the god himself, or the actions of youth men. Before he discovers the turtle, the body for his first great invention, the lyre, Hermes rushes out of his crib and into the world.

  • 28 Ibid. 20-23.

When he sprung from his mother’s immortal legs
he did not lie long in his holy cradle,
but he leaping up he sought the cattle of Apollo,
crossing over the threshold of the lofty cavern.
28

18In a sense, this passages marks the most important moment in the Hymn: The young god, the incorrigible infant, the precocious scamp springs, rises up, and seeks the cattle of Apollo — his acknowledged older brother. The Hymn represents the struggle for all young men who live in a society defined by the achievements of their elders, like the youth in the gymnasium, striving to gain recognition. How distant is this from the young competitors of the gymnasia, who through the competitions of the Hermaia, are equally anxious to shuff off the coil of obscurity as they cross the threshold of adulthood? The qualities of youth, the energy and upward mobility of Hermes marks his effort to rise and assume his rightful place in the divine hierarchy.

19We need only look to the god himself to understand why Hermes took his place in the gymnasium. From the outset, he is eager to begin, ready to set out and find his place among the gods. His physical form was young, perfectly matched to the age of the gymnasts, a period of youth formed in opposition to that of Apollo. His actions evoke the struggle re-enacted in euexia of the Hermaia. Yet if we look carefully, Apollo and Hermes were not separated so much by a physical age, impossible for the gods, but the rank and accomplishment. Hermes, with the first signs of beard was older than the early pubscent age of many contestants. Instead, he marks the aspect of youth becoming and striving for the qualities and form (euexia) of manhood.

20At the beginning of Protagoras, Socrates is chided for his attentions to Alcibiades, now past the «appropriate» age for the amorous attentions of an older man. Socrates defends his affections by invoking Homer: the description of the young and beautiful man with the first «blush of a beard» is none other than the god Hermes.

Notes

1 Pausanias 10.4.1

2 Stephen L. Glass, «The Greek Gymnasium: Some Problems», in The Archaeology of the Olympics, Wendy J. Rashke (ed.), 1988, p. 155-173, offers a concise yet nuanced discussion of its role as a place for military training. For prizes, cf. Nigel Crowther, «Euexia, Eutaxia, Philoponia: Three Contests of the Greek Gymnasium», Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 85, 1991, p. 301-304.

3 Larissa Bonfante first presented this concept in «Nudity as Costume in Classical Art», American Journal of Archaeology 93, 1989, p. 543-570.

4 Supplementum epigraphicum Graecum 27.261.47. For the ubiquity of the euexia, see Nigel Crowther, «Male Beauty Contest in Greece: The Euandria and Euexia», L’Antiquité classique 54, 1985, p. 285-291.

5 Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 27.261.46 states that the Hermaia took place in the month of Hyperberetaios, presumably September, the last month of the official calendar. That this practice was widespread, see Gauthier-Hatzopoulos, «La loi gymnasiarchique de Beroia», Meletemata 16, 1993, in particular, p. 93.

6 Aristotle, Ethica Nichomachea 1129a19.

7 Aeschines 1.189.

8 Cf. Plato, Republic 559a; Plato, Gorgias 450a; Plato, Protagoras 354a-b; Aristotle, Topica 105a31; Aristotle, Politica 1335b6; for a larger discussion on the anthropology of state and body, cf. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 1966

9 Athenaeus 12.550e.

10 Lucian, Anacharsis 25.

11 Αristotle, Ethica Nichomachea 1129a20.

12 Aeschines 1.11.

13 Anthologia Graeca 6.282

14 Pausanias 9.22.1.

15 See Dominique Jaillard, Configurations d’Hermès, Liège, 2007, in particular, p. 48-9.

16 Homer, Iliad 24.347-8.

17 Homer, Odyssey 10.274-280.

18 For Hermes eriounios, cf. Iliad 24.679-681.

19 Geoffrey S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. II, 1985, p. 308.

20 Iliad 24.334-336.

21 Ibid. 5.385-391.

22 Ibid. 8.362-369. An interesting aside, some accounts (Herodorus apud Schol. Ap. Rhod. 2.353-6b) have it that Hermes administered to Cerberus a sedative, aconitum, commonly know as Wolfsbane, in order to capture the beast. On aconitum, cf. Theophrastus, Historia Plantarum 9.16.4, Dioscurides 4.76, Gallenus 11.820. See also a black-figure image known as the Painter S Vase, Beazley, ABV 260, 11; LIMC Hermes, n° 515b and Herakles, n° 2599.

23 See p. 178-192 in Gabriella Pironti, Entre ciel et guerre: figures d’Aphrodite en Grèce ancienne, Liège, 2007.

24 Marcel Detienne, Apollon le couteau à la main, Paris, 1998, p. 30.

25 Hom. Hymn to Apollo 2.

26 Hom. Hymn to Hermes 172-175.

27 Ibid. 375-376.

28 Ibid. 20-23.

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The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2009

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