Beauty is in the eye of the judge


“Oh, wow! You look like a Greek god!” – that, right there, is one of the best compliments a guy could ever hope to receive at any given period throughout history. Of course, five or ten years down the road, his once doe-eyed sweetheart would probably change her mind to something like “Oh, my! You look like a goddamn Greek!”, but that’s a whole different story.

Since the dawn of time Greeks have been obsessed with two things: beauty and competitions. 

Statues, pottery, jewelry, even architecture itself, strove to capture that furtive essence of the divine which the ancient Greeks considered to be manifest in all things of beauty and subtle refinement – their own looks included. 

At the same time, Greeks absolutely loved to compete with one another. Most people today are familiar with the celebrated athletic competitions of antiquity, such as the Olympic, the Delphic or the Nemean games. Yet there were competitions for pretty much everything, from song and music to painting and poetry composition. Even war was a kind of contest between the city states of classical antiquity. Indeed, it makes one wonder how the very same people who dismantled the mighty Persian empire in only three key-battles when they put their mind to it insisted on fighting amongst themselves for twenty-seven years during the Peloponnesian war. My best guess is they were having such blast they didn’t really want it to end.

With that in mind, it is no wonder that the first beauty contests recorded in history were instituted in Greece.

The earliest account comes from the poetic license of mythology when Paris, the bow-fiddling prince who couldn’t keep it in his tunic and his lust for Helen started the whole Trojan War mess, is appointed by Hermes as the sole judge in a mini beauty pageant where Athena, Aphrodite and Hera compete. Of course, Aphrodite wins. Because all men are pigs and we know with which of their two heads they do their thinking, I guess?

Moving on to actual history, the first beauty contest was held as early as the 7th century BC. by the tyrant Cypselus, in Arcadia. There, the young women in the bloom of their beauty would compete to determine who was “the fairest of them all” and bore the dignified appellation of “chrysophori”, literally meaning “gold-bearers” or “gold-adorned”. This could either be an allusion to the gold jewelry of the women taking part in the event or, if understood in a more poetic sense, a comparison of the contestants’ rare beauty to the preciousness and divine provenance of gold. 

Quite incidentally, the first ever crown winner amongst the gold-bearers was Cypselus’ own wife, Herodice. Because, I suppose, there is a perilous, thin red line in every marriage that not even a tyrant would dare to cross. 

Athenaeus of Naucratis, the grammarian who relates this story, also informs us that this competition was still going on in his own time, in the 3rd century AD. (Athen. XIII, 89).

The same writer also tells us that the women of Lesbos had their own beauty contest in the sanctuary of Hera as part of a religious festival in honor of the goddess, complete with a designated prize for the winner. This festival was known as the “callisteia” (“beauty feast”) and even today, in modern Greece, all beauty competitions are generally referred to by that very name.

Men too had their own beauty contests. In fact, if extant ancient sources paint an adequately truthful picture of what went on, there were more beauty contests for men than there were for women.

Adolescents, young men and even the elderly would take part in competitions, separate and distinct for each age group, in order to determine who “excelled in beauty”.

At Tanagra, the winner of the adolescent beauty pageant held in honor of Hermes the Ram-bearer would carry a ram on his shoulders around the walls of the city (Paus. 9.22.1). At Elis, the victor of what was called “the beauty games” (in honor of the goddess Athena) was proclaimed after “careful deliberation” as Athenaeus tell us (Athen. XIII, 609f-610a). He received weapons as prizes, he was crowned in myrtle and his friends carried him on their shoulders in a procession to the temple, probably singing the ancient Greek equivalent to “for he’s a nice and jolly good fellow”.

The “euandria”, literally translated to “festival of good or beautiful men”, was a competition inserted in various religious festivals in the city state of Athens. Xenophon, in his “Memorabilia” (3.3.13), tells us that the contestants were judged based on their physical size and strength. 

Considering the Greeks’ love for competition, it wouldn’t be too absurd to assume that there might have been those who trained and prepared beforehand for such events – people whom, today, we’d call bodybuilders. 

And before you rush to think “things were purer, back then; it wasn’t all done for the sake of sponsors and some cheap thrill-peddling spectacle” let me tell you that there was even a contest for the “sweetest kiss”, if we are to take literally the bucolic poet Theocritus (3rd century BC). In his 12th idyll, he writes: “Around his [Diocles’] gravestone with the first spring-breeze, flock the girls all, to win the kissing prize; and whoso sweetest lip to lip applies goes crown-clad home to her mother. Blest is he who in such a strife is named the referee” (translated by Charles Stuart Calverley, London, 1869). 

If history can teach us anything it’s that everything changes with the passage of the eons. Everything but the people and their inherent craving for beauty. 

Article Published: Thursday, 14 July 2016