Kyniska and Gender Identity in Athletic Epigram
The 396 B.C. Olympic victory of the Spartan princess Kyniska, and the victory monument with epigram which she erected (CEG 820), offer a provocative challenge to the inherent masculinity of athletic verse. In light of Day’s argument that athletic epigram and epinician both originate from a common source – the angelia or herald’s proclamation (2010) – along with the fact that the Stephanitic Games were generally restricted to males, the embryo of athletic verse must be understood as gendered. In fact, I interpret its nucleus as a continuum of masculine entities nested within one another: the victorious male, his father, and the patriarchal polis.
While Xenophon and Plutarch frame Kyniska’s story as a rhetorical game of the Spartan King Agesilaos (Xen. Ages. 9.6; Plut. Vit. Ages. 20.1), and Pausanias situates Kyniska as a Spartan royal and hero (3.8.1-2, 15.1) and as the first in a series of female athletic victors (5.12.5, 6.1.6), the epigram that celebrates her victory, contrary to historiographical tradition, is the typically boastful epigram of a Greek aristocrat. I prioritize her epigram as the primary source for her victory, and thus indicate its troubling of the assumed gender of the athlete, and the destabilizing, and implicitly subversive, effect of a female victor on the masculine genre of athletic encomium.
Pindar, Palamas, and the Poetics of Olympism
The 1896 Athens Olympic Games epitomized the ideology of revival of ancient Greek athletics while supporting the notion of continuity between ancient and modern Greece. In this spirit, the International Olympic Committee asked the distinguished Greek poet Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) to compose the lyrics for the anthem of the 1896 Games.
As an enthusiast and translator of Pindar’s Olympian Odes, Palamas incorporated in his “Olympic Hymn” a poetic dialogue between ancient and modern Olympism. This paper examines the 1896 Olympic anthem in its historical and literary context; my discussion will focus on Palamas’ discourse on Hellenism, his reception of Pindar, and the statement on modern Greek language and poetry made by his “Olympic Hymn.”
Beaton, R. 1999. An Introduction to Modern Greek Literature. Clarendon Press: Oxford, pages 84-92.
Kitroeff, A. 2004. Wrestling with the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics. Greekworks.com: New York, pages 5-52.
Smith, M. L. 2004. The Invention of the Modern Olympic Games. London: Profile Books, pages 154-67.
Stavrou, T. G. 1985. Kostis Palamas: A Portrait and an Apprieciation. Minneapolis, Minn.: Nostos Books, pages 1-27.
The Image of the Athlete: Erotics and Politics
How are images of elite athletes used outside of the context of athletic festivals or sport competitions? What meaning is ascribed to these images in the popular imagination? This will be an examination of how athletic scenes, when viewed on the vessels used during the ancient Greek drinking party known as the symposium, could have a didactic meaning and prescribe behavioral norms for the young men attending the symposium with their mentors. A major part of this social education was the eroticization of athletic images, as the young athlete was the ideal of the perfect eromenos, the beloved of the paederastic pair. I suggest that the viewing of athletes, and the fetishization of their images was central to not only the development of the young athlete, but to the ideal stability of the polis. Sexualizing the image of the young athlete was a way of expressing one’s hope for the future of the polis and participating in a civic responsibility. The athlete-eromenos was the epitome of this hope, and the eroticization of their images was therefore culturally reinforcing. “Make the polis your eromenos”, as Thucydides’ Perikles said.
As an interesting contrast to the way these popular images of young male athletes were sexualized during the symposium in ancient Athens, we can consider how popular images of athletes are viewed today. In recent years, there has been a fair amount of criticism of the sexualization of female athletes in particular. Although there has been pushback against the tendency to portray female athletes in terms of their physical attractiveness, we might stop to consider what purpose this serves in our culture, and also unpack how we view elite athletes and their relationship to their sports and society. There seems to be a proclivity in modern popular culture to want to see athletics as a somehow culturally pure, a universal endeavor, divorced from politics or social issues. The objectification of the athletic body, although performed in a very widespread way in various media, is at the same time seen as diluting or even polluting this idealized vision of athletics. The sexualization of athletes in society today is commonly seen as driven by advertising, but we can also ask why this should be especially effective. Perhaps a discussion of how these issues fit together in Classical Greek society can shed some light on our problematic approach to the imagery of athletes in today’s world.
Socio-political Themes in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia
In the modern world specific images are associated with the Olympic Games, the most obvious of which is the five interlinked rings. In antiquity other kinds of images presented themselves to the visitor to the sanctuary at Olympia. The sculptures of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, once perceived as merely a decorative rendering of mythology, has gradually been revealed through sensitive interpretation as symbolic of the fundamental ideas associated with the sanctuary and the Games: the race of Pelops and Oinomaos in the East pediment and the fight between Lapiths and centaurs in the West both evoke the struggle of competition. Pelops is also traditionally one of the supposed founders of the Games; the other founder, Herakles, a known hero for athletes in the historical period, performs his labours in the metopes.
The viewer might reasonably expect other parts of the sculptural scheme to convey similar ideological statements. But I suggest that the pediments, in particular, are concerned not only with conflict, but with conflict resolution; and that in this context marriage symbolizes optimism for concord and unity among the Greek poleis. There are a number of reasons why the idea of marriage may have been a particularly apposite choice at Olympia as a metaphor for Greek unity.
The sculpture will be examined in relation to other cultural themes and ideas in the years in which the temple of Zeus was built (470-457). I shall deal first with the literary evidence, which from Homer onwards reveals the employment of a consistent body of imagery to convey the idea of peace. Then I shall address the sculpture of the Temple and contemporary artistic trends, which inter alia reveal the reinterpretation of traditional myths to support political ideology.
Training the Body Politic: Competing Modes of Hellenism Past and Present
For Pierre de Coubertin, the modern Olympic movement was meant to take on the status of a religion, not in the traditional sense, but rather it was to become a political religion. Coubertin states, “By chiseling his body through exercise as a sculptor does a statue, the ancient athlete ‘honored the gods.’ In doing likewise, the modern athlete honors his country, his race, and his flag” (Müller 2000, 580). Coubertin’s appeal to antiquity, however, was based on more than mere metaphor. Coubertin promoted Hellenism as the foundation for this new political religion of the modern era. Yet Coubertin’s philhellenism was not necessarily Panhellenic.
Upon closer inspection, Coubertin’s view of Hellenism and its political-athletic function was distinctly Athenocentric, or at least anti-Spartan. In an early letter on physical education, Coubertin praised the Athenian gymnasion, as the training grounds for freedom and democracy, while simultaneously condemning Sparta as an “anti-Greek-state.” Coubertin claimed that the Spartans “cultivated gymnastics for their bodily military, and disciplinary utility” whereas the rest of Greece “perceived in sport a mark of nobility….”(MacAloon 2013, 161). In Coubertin’s distinction between Athenian and Spartan modes of physical education, therefore, we find a more general distinction which sports sociologists make between horizontal and vertical sport. Horizontal sport is understood to be associated with egalitarian democratic societies, promoting peace and cooperation. Vertical sport on the other hand, is a highly disciplinary practice associated with authoritarianism, where physical training is understood as preparation for war (Christesen 2012).
Yet the choice to define Hellenism in terms of Athenian versus Spartan modes of physical education constitutes an ideological discourse that is not limited to Coubertin’s renewal of the Olympic games. Rather, this discourse has a history, which is rooted in the ancient past and continues well into the present. In antiquity, the debates between Athenian versus Spartan modes of athleticism runs from Herodotus’ Histories in the Classical era through to the Roman Imperial period with Philostratus’ Gymnasticus. The same ideological divide expressed specifically through sport and physical education has also come to define the history of political struggles in the modern Olympics, well after Coubertin.
In promoting the modern Olympic movement, Coubertin’s faith in the positive work achieved by Hellenism was absolute. Yet a brief history on the more complicated ideological debates over Hellenism and athletics, between Athens and Sparta, from antiquity to the present, would suggest that the very notion of Hellenism itself has and will continue to be an object of contention.
Christesen, Paul. Sport and Democracy in the Ancient and Modern Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
MacAloon, John J. This Great Symbol: Pierre De Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Müller, Nobert. Olympism: Selected Writings. Lausanne: International Olympic Committee, 2000.