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A Little Joséphin Péladan Sampler – Part II

Sâr Séraphin Peladan. A sculpture by Zacharie Astruc

in the collections of the Musée des Beaux-arts de Lyon.


In today’s sharing, from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, we journey further among quotations & excerpts from the works of Joséphin Péladan, here excerpted from the 1913 ‘’L’Athlétie et la Statuaire Antique’ (Of Athletics and the ancient statuary), published by Sansot in Paris. English working translation from the original French by Via-HYGEIA.

[Because this book is rare and has had no English translation done yet, we decided that we will translate it, in the near future, and make a bilingual edition of it available for a small fee, inaugurating a ‘Via-HYGEIA Classics’ E-book Bookshop]


‘The Athenian Republic was, in effect, an aristocracy, whose citizens were all rhetoricians and gymnasts, their main occupational concerns were their moral  and physical edification.’


‘The same men who invented tragedy, supreme mode of poetry, invented athletics, which is the highest manifestation of living beauty. The thing is so Greek that the word, also means combat, in evocation of this courage, attribute of divinity and also of the heroic humanity who affirmed its rulership over the animals-the former lords of the Earth, at the time of the supreme savagery.’


‘Pindar, the most perfect of all the poets, the most lyrical, because the rhythm of his odes remains still a mystery for the Hellenist, stupefy the rhetorician when he sees his masterpieces dedicated to a Psaumis, winner of the mule-towed chariots, to a Thieus, winner in wrestling, to a Phylacidas, winner in Pankration (ancient greek: παγκράτιον / pankrátion, close to what our mixed-martial arts are today).

We ought not to consider that the Theban poet was a singular man posterity only discovered his merits; he was always a winner for the poetry prizes; the Pythia, in the name of Apollo, gifted him half of the temples’ offerings; the Amphictyons (an association of neighboring states in ancient Greece to defend a common religious center) granted him the right of hospitality in all their cities in Greece; Thebes erected a statue in his honor, while he was still alive.

Well, this lyrical poet only sang athletes; besides a few religious hymns, he devoted his lyra exclusively to the Palaestra (A palaestra also palestra; Greek: παλαίστρα) was any site of an ancient Greek wrestling school) and his works’ division bears the names of the four places where Greece was celebrating its solemn games that all carried the epithet ‘sacred’. (Olympic, Pythian, Nemean and Istmian).


‘If we seek the theory of gymnastics, Plato will provide it to us; if we ask for explanations upon the different kinds of athletes, Aristotle will answer. We see, by these brief indications, that during the Hellenic era, though did not depreciate the flesh; that the human rag (according to the stupid expression of a false idealist) was held for what it was: the masterpiece of creation; and if we invoke the unmatched Sophocles, the inimitable genius who wrote ‘Oedipus-Rex’, how to forget that he sang and danced naked the Salamin victory Pean?

Even though the winner only receives a olive wreath for his glory to remain unstained of any monetary reward, he was induced into the status of  a quasi-demi-god. When he would eventually return home, he would not enter by any door: he would enter through a breach in the city walls made for this purpose; he would have the right to any honor seat in the public ceremonies, and, casually he was fed at the expense of the city-state.

According to Plutarch, one did not distinguish the wining athlete from the courageous warrior: and the Olympic laurel wreaths were as valuable as those earned in combat. Finally, their statues were erected in the premises of the temples. The Olympian Altis (temple complexes devoted to the Olympian games) counted hundred at the time of the Roman conquest. They were called ‘Olympianics’ (Olympian portraits). How many of our museum’s gods are only athletes; how many runners are called ‘Hermes’ in the catalogs, how many pugilists are called ‘Héraclès’ ! What makes this misunderstanding conceivable is that before the fourth century B.C.E., the Greek chisel does not seek the likeliness of the face, especially in the ‘Olympianic’, where the interest lies solely upon the chiseled proportions.’


‘The Olympic statues represent winners posing according to nature, providing genuine portraits of bodies.’


‘If we study the Hellenic soul, its incomparable statuary does not appear to be the wonderful achievement of its artists, but the normal ripeness of their admirable way of life.’


‘The Hellenic tradition called Man, ‘ephemeral'(εφήμερος, ephimeros), and portrayed him in such a miserable way, that Zeus, ashamed to have created it, would have it obliterated without Prometheus’ intervention. Aeschylus depicted a bleak portrait of the first moments of our species, in complete conformity with the contemporary data of science.

We should not hesitate to imagine and reconstitute a imposing symbolism embedded in the ceremonies in Olympia. This man who jumps, who runs, it is our ancestor homecoming to his lake pilling hut or his troglodyte cave, chased by some dreadful beast. This discobolus, it is our ancestor, who naked and unarmed, picks up a stone from the road to defend himself, at times before the sling, the Egyptian boomerang or the silex pointed javelin were invented.

As for wrestling, it announced civilization, Man who does not fear the animals becomes the wolf of his kind. Then the hero, the justice-seeking athlete appears, who exterminate the last monsters, like Theseus, who throws his full strength towards the side of justice, ruler and shepherd of men, tough civilizer.

We must consider the Olympic games like a sort of commemorative pantomime of our troubled origins; and this tragedy of the species, where the characters are all similar, the wounded man and the combating hero, still has the capacity to move us, even nowadays.’


‘There is a sort of profanity to assimilate a contemporary boxing session to the magnificent rite of the Helens dedicating strength to freedom and beauty to the homeland.’


‘Therefore, by the strength of their very noble souls, the Helens conquered the future; and if we cannot think without using Aristotle’s ‘Organon’, we cannot make a gesture without asking ourselves if it is Greek, so much this word depicts human perfection in all its forms, physical and metaphysical.’


”Nowhere else than in Greece, would the human form be glorified with such a religious solemnity.’


‘A close relationship exists between the show of the games and the public; if the athlete was incomparable in Greece, the whole nation formed the most competent jury; it knew its gymnastics like we know here how to read! The physical education teacher was called a ‘paedotribe’, a kneader of children. His method could not be deciphered; it was closely connected to musical theory. ‘It is by rhythm that the paedotribe kneads the child’s individuality’, says Plato, who also said, ‘The best gymnastic is sister of fair music who makes the soul wise’.


‘It is understood that when we say simply ‘an ancient’, we express the idea of perfection and at Pericles’s time, one could have said ‘a handsome’ (un beau) like we commonly say ‘a beauty’ (une belle), because for the Ionians man ruled over woman, like he does in the museums, in the plastic point of view.

Greece saw in the Athlete, the soldier, and its games prepared citizens to the national defense; the Roman empire only expected of the gladiator pain and death. Therefore, this is why the Roman statuary only kept wounded, dying or dead gladiators.’


‘One point is already acquired: the complete impossibility to obtain the harmony of development with only one of the five canon gymnastic disciplines. Specialization in gymnastic, opposes an impassable obstacle to beauty.’


‘To the body considered as an architecture, the first ruling principle will be the optical harmony between the part that carries and the carried part-the legs playing the part of the columns under the architecture of the torso. Seen from profile, the ancient statue offers to the eye the median protrusion of the thigh and not the curve of the belly, which remained flat. The roman Antinöus-Mercury has the legs of  the goddess Diana, conflicting with the upper development of the pectorals-development that was obtained by an all special and esthetic exercise.

We know about the Palaestra’s diet, with Galen’s commentaries; it doesn’t tells us about the art of developing separately a proportion…In a dialog between Solon and the Scythe Anacharsis, we find precious indications ‘for each exercise we have established a corresponding Master.’ He describe the young palaestrians (adepts of the Palaestra): ‘They have neither heavy plumpness, nor pale complexions, nor pale thinness; our young men are tanned and burnished by the sun,  and as they are in they naked self, they would still inspire terror; none of them are skinny; none of them are fat. They all have a well design body’s proportions; the flesh excess was melted away by the sweats. What the winnower do to the wheat, our exercises are doing it to the body of these young men.’


‘Beauty blossoms from health. One must resemble to an ancient athlete to be in a very good shape: this Olympian look presuppose perfect digestion and exemplary functioning of the cutaneous breathing. Asclepios and Hygeia are more than Apollo, Hermes and Herakles the patrons of the statuary and ancient athletics.’


‘We do not believe that for men it is enough to focus mainly on the body or the soul alone, just like fresh born from nature; we are in need of the education that will enhance the natural gifts and transforms into good qualities unbalanced inclinations. For the lawmaker, there is a science of the exercises of the body, alike there is a science of the exercises of the soul.

‘Hearing the telling of a feat, further tell us Solon, our young men desire imitating it, or to be able to do it. Thus are the effect that Hesiod and Homer’s poetry produce upon us.’ Hence, the ephebes rather than playing Apache or bandits like our own kids, were emulating heroes; and pedagogy took over free time to raise it towards the level of an art and at the same time fulfilling the need to prepare future citizen. Impressive co-operation between poetry, hygiene and, we could dare say, of virtue and pleasure. As the usefulness of intent was hidden behind the playfulness of free time, duty came along in such pleasant ways! Such future citizens were hence guided towards the Ideal.’


‘Nothing, said an ancient, can help you grasp the idea of the bravery of the athletes, of the beauty of their bodies, of their admirable poses, of their marvelous flexibility, of their tireless strength, of their audacity, their emulation, their invincible courage, and of their ceaseless efforts towards victory’.

To be continued…

Sâr Joséphin Péladan. Picture by Walter DAMRY, in the collections of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.


Original French







with the latest


by polymath

Sasha Chaitow:


A Little Joséphin Péladan Sampler – Part II

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