Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Gayest Games in Ancient Greece - Day 2

Day 2 of the Greater Panathenaean Games was a continuation of the song and  poetry contests from Day 1 – each song and poem lasting several hours each, with at least 6 contests to go though.

I mentioned several days ago that each gym had an altar to the god Eros, known to the Romans as Cupid. I was a bit sceptical about this when I first read it, but it’s true.

Forget the sickeningly sweet Cupid of St. Valentine’s Day. The original Eros was as macho as any other male god even though he was shown younger than, say, Apollo or Ares. Statues (like the one on the left) and pictures of him on pottery show him much like that of Anteros in Piccadilly Circus.

Eros’s name translates literally as “intimate love”. This love meant more than just sex. It was customary for Ancient Greek youths over the age of 13 to have an older mentor, whether in the gym or other learning establishment, who would help with the education. The relationship was always sexual and meant more to the couple than any they would have with a woman, even in marriage. Understandably, Eros because associated with male couples.

A lot of what we know about their erotic desires comes from pottery made during the reign of Peisistratus, whose dynasty I mentioned 2 days ago. Many pots show sexual encounters, and a study of them shows 30 pots of men and women together, and 528 of men with men. Eros himself appears on many of the pots to highlight the erotic nature of the relationships, but only pots depicting 2 men. So erotic feelings between men and women were not considered normal. I wonder what straight blokes today would say if you told them that they could only have erotic thoughts about other men!

At the entrance to every gym there was an altar and statue of Eros. On entering and leaving the gym each athlete would stop to give prayers, offerings or thanks to Eros. In the gyms relationships became more significant because of the shared desire to develop the body and strength of a Greek god and to make them ready for battle. There was nothing unusual in seeing 2 bronzed, ripped athletes being openly affectionate as they trained with the other athletes (sex was a more private affair).

As they advanced through their teenage years athletes would choose a new young trainee to mentor in the same way. By the time they were 30, though, they were expected to be married. This situation is best illustrated in the relationships I mentioned 2 days ago. Athenian ruler Peisistratus was mentor/partner to Charmus, who later on was mentor/partner to Hippias.

On Charmus’s death either Peisistratus or Hippias built an altar to Eros outside the city walls and dedicated it to both the god and Charmus, and naked athletics. This altar was an important location in the “Gayest Games” in that it was the starting point for one of the most popular contests in the games, the torch relay on Day 7.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s Day 3 tomorrow and the athletics contests begin.

If you want to know more about the games go to

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