On Bare Breasts in Ancient Greece

In the wake of the Kate Middleton thing, Slate magazine wonders when bare breastedness became taboo in ‘the west’ (for want of a better term) … here’s a bit:


A French judge ordered the magazine Closer to turn over topless photos of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, on Tuesday. Attorneys for the magazine argued unsuccessfully that the photographs were not an invasion of privacy because bare breasts are no longer taboo in Europe. When did bare breasts become taboo in Western civilization?

Probably around 3,000 years ago. Women are displayed with exposed breasts in Minoan artwork from 1500 B.C. Some historians believe that these ancient women went topless only during religious rituals—bare-breasted, buxom goddesses have been worshipped since the dawn of civilization—but some of the artworks depict everyday activities, suggesting that bare breasts may have been commonplace. Just across the Mediterranean, ancient Egyptian women sported elaborate dresses that could either cover the breasts or leave them exposed, depending on the whim of the designer. Over the next few centuries, however, breasts become strictly private parts. Ancient Athenian women were wearing flowing, multilayered robes that concealed the shape of the bosom by the middle of the first millennium B.C. Spartan attire was more risqué, exposing the female thigh, but breasts were always covered.

A series of sculptures suggests that even Greek goddesses became more bashful about their breasts during this period. Aphrodite of Cnidus, sculpted by Praxiteles of Athens in the fourth century B.C., depicts the nude goddess covering her genitals but leaving her bosom exposed. In copycat statues sculpted over the next several centuries, however, the goddess uses her other hand to cover a breast as well. The evolution of these Venus pudica sculptures strongly suggests that the ancients had come to feel that modesty required covering the breasts.

It’s not entirely clear why bare breasts became verboten in ancient Greece, but some historians think it had to do with the changing roles of women. As the centuries progressed, ancient Athens became an increasingly patriarchal society. Women retreated into the home, rarely emerging in public, and lived under the dominion of their fathers or husbands. Because the breast had long been a symbol of feminine fertility, it had to be kept from view. […]

This (Minoan bare-breastedness) is one of those things which, I think, has been blown out of proportion  over the past couple of generations especially for various reasons. Near as I can tell, the Minoans were an anomaly, fashion-wise,  if their art portrays daily reality and to read into the general milieu of the ‘west’ the fashion sense of the Minoans seems a bit extreme. One will note, e.g., that in Minoan frescoes, men are topless too. Now if we flash forward (pun intended) a few hundred years to mainland Greece, sure, we’ll see plenty of naked statuary of males and females, but that doesn’t mean folks — male or female — were wandering about the Agora that way and I highly doubt they did so on the mainland while the Minoans were frescoing about on Crete and environs …

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