On many naturist web sites and forums, you can find sections discussing “what if nudity were accepted in our society”, “could you work naked” and so on. Of course, it would be great, if the modern society embraced one more freedom – body acceptance, or body freedom – but many people, even naturists think it would be too difficult to change the majority’s prudishness. However, in the history of the European civilization and in many tropical areas till nowadays there have been and are some societies where nudity, at least occasional, was/is a norm.
Probably the most known and notable example is Ancient Greece, where the human body epitomized divine and human excellence. For whatever reason, the Greek goddesses were relatively rarely depicted completely unclad,
but many of the male divinities were on contrary almost always nude, and their athletic features embodied their manly virtues such as power, craft and bravery.
So strong was the association between these moral and physical ideals, that often historically important figures were depicted naked too. For example, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who assassinated an Athenian tyrant in 6th century BC and thus helped establishing the democratic ruling in the city, were the preeminent symbol of democracy to ancient Athenians, and of course this symbol had to be visualized and preserved for the following generations in a form of the statues.
Also, when a person was deified, he was almost certainly to be depicted naked, like Hadrian’s lover Antinous.
Many Roman emperors also ordered nude statues of themselves, often emphasizing their nudity by hanging their robes on a shoulder.
Some researchers suggested that such nudity was purely symbolical, though still it would mean that ancient greeks and romans not only thought nudity was not immoral, but on contrary was rather a symbol of goodness.
An interesting example of the so-called heroized nudity comes from a frieze from Parthenon depicting the battle between noble (and nude) greeks and savage (and clothed) amazons.
Many legendary heroes were often depicted nude, e.g. Heracles (Hercules) and his twelve labors:
and Theseus and his deeds,
fighting stark naked with various creatures from Minotaur to
to the Marathonian Bull, which was actually the same bull that was once caught on Crete (and therefore known as Cretan Bull at the time) by Hercules but later released near Athens…
Was it all just a myth?
There is more than enough evidence showing that nudity was not uncommon even in every day life of ancient greeks: at work, parties or sport events.
It seems many farmers worked in the buff, as there are pictures depicting naked men ploughing and sowing,
collecting olives and grapes…
Of course, why would you sweat in clothes in the field?
And even such skilled workers as sculpture craftsmen, worked naked (and judging by this vase painting they could use themselves as models).
Ancient Egyptians practically never showed their deities nude, but there are some small sculptures of men and women naked.
Again, there are many example of Ancient Egyptians going about their daily lives in the buff.
It seems that many kinds of work dealing with water were done nude:
hunting (on the banks of the Nile River),
and this is probably a scene of a battle on water.
Just like in modern times, ancient Greeks liked good partying, but back then a couple of thousands years ago, they after partied naked or clothed very lightly at most.
Music and dance accompanied many events, and were an important part of life.
This is a figure with the legendary singer Orpheus singing to warriors.
Ancient Greek symposiums included not only wine drinking (enormous feasting was rather a Roman tradition) but intellectual conversations and dances as well.
And even drinking wine was often turned into some kind of fun activity, like balancing in a difficult pose while drinking or dancing while holding a couple of glasses.
For some, however, there was too much wine and too little dancing :D
Symposiums were mostly male-only events, but women did attend those too.
However, it seems that even when women joined dances, they often kept their clothes on; but then there are depictions of naked women participating even in the drinking game of kottabos.
On contrary, at Ancient Egyptian parties, it was rather professional female dancers who danced without clothes.
Nowadays there are also some societies where people know no “shame” of the human body and may live their whole lives stark naked. Of course, their culture and lifestyle are under threat from the omnipresent Western civilization and other intruding cultures. Now, many of the indigenous people that got in contact with the outside world wear shorts and T-shirts. I used to think that the reason why missionaries and colonizers brought the Western clothes to them was because they thought they were doing a “noble” act of culture transmission. But I found an interesting citation at iNaked:
“Russell Nansen records that “Henry Morton Stanley, the rescuer of David Livingstone in the Belgian Congo… from 1847 to 1877… wandered across Africa suffering every hardship but when he went back to England he made a notable speech to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. He explained to the audience how many natives there were in the Congo, and the fact that they lived naked. He told the audience that their duty as Christians was to convert these misguided naked savages to Christianity and to the wearing of clothes. And when this missionary work had progressed sufficiently to convince the natives of the need for wearing clothes on Sunday, that would mean three hundred and twenty million yards of Manchester cotton cloth yearly. Instantly the audience rose to its feet and cheered him.”
Funny and sad in the same time… But I am glad to have dug up some excellent images: at least there is some documented evidence of the cultures which do not have a concept of body shame, and I hope at least some of these cultures will survive. In the globalized world it becomes more and more difficult (and maybe indeed often not necessary?) to maintain local traditions, but it is important to keep the track of them and evaluate how the disappearing customs and lifestyles could actually contribute to the development of the whole civilization. Judging by the words of Leni Riefenstahl, we could perhaps learn from them how to appreciate simple earthly joys.
Many tribes in Africa, South America and some in Polynesia are majorly clothes-free societies; but even among those who do wear clothes, it is common for women to go topless.
It is quite amusing to think that our modern Western society puts so much efforts into gender equality, but in terms of topless freedom, we still need to catch upon zulu, for example, who have never even had such an issue.
It is just bizarre to hear that only during the last decade or so breastfeeding in public has become legal in most of the USA.
It looks like it wasn’t a problem in Ancient Egypt, and isn’t in the Amazon
or many African tribes nowdays either.
How this innocent and essential for life act might be considered indecent in some modern Western societies, we can only wonder.
Although most of the tribes in Southern Africa wear clothes and zulus may be considered as real prudes as even boys wear aprons of goat skin,
skinny dipping seem to be fine.
Also, some rites connected to the initiation (transfer from boyhood to manhood) include complete nudity.
Xhosa boys, for example, cover themselves with ash and fix their foreskin with a thread before circumcision – the only thing they wear.
Some Ancient Greeks also used similar devices called kynodesme;
it was a thin leather strip tightly tied around the part of the foreskin that extended beyond the glans. The kynodesme could then either be attached to a waist band to expose the scrotum, or tied to the base of the penis so that the penis appeared to curl upwards. Why some ancient Greek men used kynodesme is not really clear. In some Amazon tribes (e.g. Matis and Galdu, on the photos below), a similar tradition is practiced by all men (their ‘kynodesme’ is attached to another thread bound around the waist).
Some tribes in Papua New Guinea are famous for wearing nothing but penis sheath gourds.
It does not look like they intended to cover up because of modesty though.
Similar traditions exist also in Western and Central Africa.
In Eastern and Central Africa and the Amazon region, many people [used to] wear nothing at all and perform both their daily activities and special festivities like that. Among Southern African peoples, this is more rare,
but some tribes in Kalahari do not use clothing either.
These are the photos of Karimojong people in Uganda.
They make their living mostly by farming.
One of the favorite pastimes is this kind of board game.
Some other tribes in Uganda live of salt mining,
And these are Nuba people of Southern Sudan.
They live in small cozy houses equipped with showers, though the entrance may require some acrobatic skills.
They also lead pastoral lifestyle.
Their cattle is very important to them.
Doing groceries? It’s not only in Cap d’Agde that you can go shopping nude!
Music and dance are very important to Nuba people.
Here, two young Nuba men train their musical skills playing on lyres in their inner yard.
And these are Kirdi people from Mandara mountains in Cameron at work building their houses.
Dinka people of Southern Ethiopia seem to be fearless hunters.
Well, almost fearless! But by well coordinated strategies and with the help of spears they hunt for the biggest land animals like elephants and giraffes.
Also many people in the Amazon region live from hunting. Suruwaha, for example, use bow and arrows for big animals and blowgun for smaller game,
while their children play trying to catch as many wooden rings with the long rigid sticks.
They also cultivate some plants and clear small patches of the forest for it.
Other Amazon people use bow and arrows for catching fish.
And this is a relaxing scene from Yanomami settlement.
Mursi, in Southern Ethiopia, are sedentary herdsmen and fishermen.
Children go fishing too.
However, Mursi are better known for their women wearing plates in the lower lips.
Other people use less obtrusive ways to decorate their bodies – there is no limit in their fantasy in body art.
These are Surma people (Mursi is their close ethnic group).
They even decorate their cattle in a similar manner.
And these are Massai.
Many Amazon tribes also love body art, like this Matses woman.
(See some examples above in this post.)
But perhaps the most artistic of them all are Nuba people from the Kau tribe.
Each “mask” and “costume” are individual.
Interestingly, some tribes like Massai and Mursi have strong traditions of elaborated clothes but are also absolutely fine with complete nudity, it seems you are free to choose what to wear or not to wear anything at all.
Combination of clothes and body art as a decoration seem to be typical for Massai.
Also, in Benin Empire in West-Africa (15-19th c.), the King’s pages served naked, despite that in general it was common to wear rich clothing.