Re: Hey prot, Why greek gods are represented as naked?
I got the titular question in an email. I copy my reply.
First off, your question assumes a state that is not necessarily true: they are not always naked. But I will not dwell on this point, as it is the kind of technicality that will take us on a tangent. Let’s say that the gods are only shown naked. Why is that?
It is because they are depicted as humans. The natural form of a human is without clothes and accessories. Gods are not part of humankind though. They are poetic archetypes, such as Athena being the embodiment of wisdom or Apollon the symbol for harmony.
The culture which produced those gods had a need to make them relatable: gods were created in the image of the ancient Greeks and necessarily codified their prevailing values. This means that the Greek gods were phenotypically Greek but also culturally Greek.
To the ancient Greeks, the body was nothing to be ashamed of. It was not the source of everything that is bad in the world (i.e. sin). Rather, the body was respected as part of a wider system which encompasses the soul of the given person. In modern parlance, we might replace “soul” with “mind”, but the gist is the same. While it may appear that they believed in what is known as dualism—a strict separation between the corporeal and incorporeal—I contend that the ancient Greek culture stood for the oneness of everything: one substance manifesting in multiple forms, levels, degrees; one that is transfigurable; a Cosmos everlasting. Read or watch my “Cosmos, Logos, and the living universe”: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-02-05-cosmos-logos-living-universe/.
The body was considered sacred and people were expected to treat it with the requisite respect. Keep a note of the term “sacred” as I will revisit it later. Today, we have TV, fashion or lifestyle magazines, pornography, and consumerism of all sorts influencing our attitudes towards the body. We are conditioned to see it as a toy for pleasure, a laboratory for experimentation, a resource for maximising profits, an expendable piece of meat. Put simply, in our incessant pursuit of the practical, we have lost sense of the mystical: we operate in terms of facts and logic, while blithely eschewing wisdom.
When we do not operate in accordance with wisdom we fail to recognise the wider context in which a phenomenon unfolds. We might observe a system, but don’t think twice about how it is a subsystem of a supersystem and, conversely, how it stands as a supersystem relative to other subsystems. Instead, we default to a mode of acting and thinking that assumes mental constructs as having a corresponding standalone presence. Think, for example, of extreme views that show a lack of understanding of emergence such as “society does not exist; only the individual exists”, or equally pernicious behaviours that are underpinned by anthropocentric (human-centric) fancies, such as the wanton destruction of the planet in the name of economic growth. These are all reducible to instances where we fail to recognise how a factor does, in fact, exist in a certain relationship with other factors, and how their interplay engenders states of affairs that are discernible as discrete patterns in an otherwise Cosmic continuum.
Back to the body. There is no such thing as the human body in its own right. Our existence is informed, framed, conditioned, or otherwise determined by an environment. Put differently, the human organism, which is a system of systems, is part of a wider system. All are interconnected. It would then be self-contradicting for a culture that revered nature as sacrosanct to think of the body—a natural condition—as worthy of only contempt. The ancient Greek culture respected the body in the same way it respected the trees, the animals, the weather: all are part of nature.
This is not a mere stylistic consideration. People were expected to take care of their body while also cultivating the aesthetic, intellectual, and mystical (of knowing) facets of their being. This was about leading a well-rounded life where you recognise your actuality as a human being: you are not purely rational, you are not just bodily, you are not merely emotional, and you cannot be simply spiritual. As a human, you are a bit of everything. To insist otherwise is to fool yourself.
Athletes at the Olympic Games would compete naked. Why? To show that they had nothing to hide from the Olympic Gods or the spectators, meaning that they recognised that the body is part of nature. Sculptors would carve nude statues out of marble to deliver the same message. People would learn that it is okay to normalise the body and societies would echo that sentiment from one generation to the next through art and the holiest of their festivals (the Olympic Games were not a business, as they are nowadays).
What you asked can be extended to similar themes. Such as why are there male and female gods? The divine has no gender. Archetypes are not human. The twelve Olympic Gods—with twelve being a sacred number that represents harmony and infinity—are divided into groups of six to teach the ancient folks that gender is not a matter of stratification: all gods are equal regardless of gender.
The people needed to think of the gods in human terms to better understand the narratives around them. The philosopher can wrestle with abstractions, but that requires a lot of work. Those who do not have time to go through the rigours of training need something tangible: symbols, stories, representations that have mnemonic value and can impress them.
The multitude of the gods serves as a metaphor of the human condition: what I mentioned above about not being purely rational and the like. The gods are abstractions, meaning that they represent analytical constructs. Analysis is the process of mentally treating a pattern as if it had a standalone presence (in order to understand it better). Take Apollon and Dionysos: the former is the god of harmony, but also the protector of art, and the representation of enlightenment, while the latter is the god of festivities (among many others). As humanity, we have a mixture of both elements: we do respond to music, for example, and do recognise pattern, structure, ratio (what we would put under the umbrella term of “harmony”), yet we also have moments where we celebrate, have fun, and let go of whatever pretences to intellectuality. Humanity cannot model itself after a single god, not Apollon, not Aphrodite, not Zeus, no-one. It necessarily exhibits features of all of them.
Again, back to the body. It is an artistic way of reminding us of who we are. It grounds us in our actuality, telling us not to lose sight of our basis. In this light, consider the seemingly innocuous fig leaf that covers the genitals of a nude statue. Are we supposed to pretend that we have no genitals? And why would we ever entertain such a lie? How can we find virtue through falsehoods when we make a habit out of not seeing things as they are?
By prompting us to admit facts, the artist keeps us honest. In doing so, we develop the right disposition towards the world, as we always want to learn the truth, not remain content with narratives that leave out important information or, worse, distort or obfuscate reality.
You will notice that ancient Greek nudes did not have exaggerated features. You will not find the equivalent of a Barbie doll: tiny waist combined with disproportionately large boobs. There is no counterpart to the modern bodybuilder: a caricature of muscle (and steroids). What we have are human bodies that are fit, but which simultaneously show us that fitness is not an end in itself—they are not super fit, patronisingly fit, disgustingly fit, as fitness is not the be-all-end-all. This links back to what I mentioned about being well-rounded as a human: we have body, emotions, reason, and we must take care of all of them. If you spend all day at the gym, you will have no energy to think, and/or no time to appreciate the subtlety of life such as the gradients of colour at dawn.
Why are the Greek gods represented as naked? Because they were made by people, for people. They are a cultural construct which embeds values and beliefs. The careless observer will not hesitate to comment how a culture of yore was wrong in this or that way. The more careful fellow will recognise the futility of casting the distant past in a contemporary mould, and will instead try to salvage any snippets of wisdom in what is passed down to us.
Here I should note that I am not religious. Not the ancient gods, nor the modern ones. I also am not an avid fan of “team ancient Greeks” and have no delusions that their culture was flawless. For example, I do not see the value in stories which represent Zeus as sexually promiscuous, or Athena as a virgin. There comes a point where the metaphor goes too far and you ultimately forget what the true meaning is. Such representations are counter-productive and show us how myth, as a medium of communication, can be both effective and ineffective depending on how it is employed. Read or watch my presentation on “Ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism”: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-02-16-ataraxia-moderation-mysticism/.
I mentioned earlier that I will expound on the notion of sanctity. This, too, is a human invention. We elevate something, such as a being or an event, to a special status in order to communicate a certain message. When we say that human life is sacred, and when we codify that principle in human rights, we do not do it for its own sake as it cannot be substantiated in a vacuum. We treat it and the concomitant legal-institutional arrangements as the conduit to—or an integral part of—a world where no human is controlled by another human; a world that is more just.
Just like myths that go too far with the metaphor only to lose sight of their purpose, sanctity is also subject to misunderstandings. Consider again the human right to life. Everyone is allowed to live, yet we recognise as justifiable certain cases where one’s life has to be forfeit: e.g. the police shooting down a terrorist who is on a killing spree, wields firearms, and is running amok. While the law will generally penalise killings, there are rare scenaria where those correctly go unpunished. We then realise that the sanctity of life is a useful convention that has to be interpreted in a certain context. We cannot be held hostage to our own beliefs.
By the same token, the fact that the ancient Greeks considered the body as sacred does not mean that they were afraid of it or were treating it as something greater than it is. They rather understood that there had to be some way of nudging people to do the right thing even without them bothering to think about its propriety. Remember that not everyone has the time to contemplate abstractions or study the particulars in pursuit of deeper insights. The intent was to standardise the belief that one ought to respect their body. This belief has practical applications, such as staying healthy.
Culture, art, religion is for humans, not gods. Those must be formulated in a way that is usable by humans and useful for humans. Depictions of deities are part of a nexus of representations, values, and narratives. Why are the gods naked? Because they are rendered in our likeness so that the target audience—humans—can make sense of them. Why are they naked though? Because in the milieu of the ancient Greek tradition, it made sense to show them that way and to thus connect the dots between their teachings.