Were you to find this delicate fragment under the hot Mediterranean sun, coated in a layer of Samian dust, what conclusions might you draw? From the sharp straight line, horizontal in our photograph, you might be tempted to visualise some kind of repeated pattern, like a border. I asked a trusted archaeologist, who opted for the depiction of cattle horns, carved into large-grained marble. What we’re actually looking at, so R. R. R. Smith assures me, is a fragment of a colossal kouros statue featuring nothing other than the careful definition of pubic hair.
The type of statue, named from the Greek word κόρος for ‘boy’ or ‘youth’, is typical of the Archaic Greek period and appears all over the Greek world from around 600 to 470 bc. The type is characterised by a uniform and almost austere appearance – a nude, muscular youth standing upright with the left leg posed forward, influenced by Egyptian statue traditions. The arms hang down, finished off with a clenched fist and the face looks straight out, greeting the onlooker with the curved lip of the famous ‘Archaic smile’. The statues often mark tombs or dedications, and represent some sort of idealised body of the deceased. But despite this, kouros statues – with their rigid bodies and perfected stance – draw us away from the individual and rather focus of the perfection of the youthful body. Without an accompanying inscription, the kouros is a “universal, aristocratic youth, eternally youthful and eternally beautiful”, an embodiment of male aristocratic excellence. (Whitely, 2001)
But whilst the characteristic elements of the kouroi statues which I’ve just described remained pretty consistent throughout the Archaic period, pubic hairstyles were in flux. It would be an exaggeration to say that this particular field of study is rife with intellectual debate but it is not undeserving of a little attention. The question which has been tentatively raised, but unsatisfactorily treated, concerns the reasons behind such changes in style on statues which, on the whole, remain so consistent. Perhaps the most obvious of answer lies with chronology, an approach which R.R.R. Smith has taken in his diagram pictured below, which traces the evolution of shape and style with reference to individual statues, often dated by their accompanying inscriptions.
Style of pubic hair is usually considered – so I’ve heard – to be the sculptor’s style and, as a result, is sometimes used in the dating process. Looking at the diagram above, we can trace the gradual evolution of shapes as certain elements are emphasised or downplayed, such as point of the upper horizontal edge. The Aristodikos kouros (no. 5, central photograph) displays pubic hair in the shape of a leaf, whilst in the torso fragment, (no. 8, pictured left in black and white), the three points of the ‘leaf’ have become more defined.
Here are the statues 5, 6 and 7 (according to the diagram above), all attributed to the late sixth/early fifth century:
On the left we have the Aristodikos Kouros, on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and thought to have come from the surrounding region. It’s dated around 500-490 bc. Next up is the Bronze Apollo, also known as the ‘Pireaus Apollo’ because it was found there and is held in the Piraeus Archaeological Museum. It is dated anywhere between 530-480 bc and is thought to have originally come from Delos. Finally, on the furthest right, is the statue known as the Warrior Agrigento, a marble statue from Akragas, Sicily, dated to around 470 bc. Although Smith’s diagrams are interesting, they omit a great deal about the context of these pubic hair styles: the different sculptural styles and materials. Take the Pireaus Apollo, for example, a rare example of a kouros in bronze. Bronze cannot easily be painted upon, unlike marble, and so any details had to be cast, rather than added on afterwards. The warrior is interesting precisely because it’s not a kouros-style sculpture. The pubic style depicted fits with the styles we find kouroi, suggesting the pattern extends beyond this type.
The main purpose of these examples is not to confuse the situation, but to highlight the range of geographical areas in which they have been found: across mainland Greece and its surrounding islands, including Samos and Delos, and around modern-day Turkey. The assumption that we should draw a chronological progression in style between sculpture from such a range of places seems to oversimplify matters, especially when dating is so difficult. But the familiarity of styles suggests a spread of fashion which goes beyond the whims of the sculptor. An alternative possibility is that these changing styles reflect changes in real-life, perhaps even playing an important role in the individualisation of the statues.
What seems important to me, regardless of interpretation, is the attention that these pubic hairstyles draw, continuing the display of a manicured and highly-maintained body. Add to that the fact that these stone details would have been accentuated with brightly coloured paint and we get a very different idea of archaic Greek sculpture. The so-called New-York kouros, held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, displays surviving traces of paint which have led to revealing discoveries concerning its coloration. The naked skin appears to have been an ochre colour, the hairband and neckband were red ochre, the nipples a slightly darker red and – most surprisingly – ultraviolet radiation has shown that the eyebrows and pubic hair were painted in a bright azurite blue. A reconstruction of the colours, created by the Liebieghaus collection who were involved in the research, might help to imagine Archaic Greece in colour. More fascinating insights into polychromy in antiquity can be found here through the collection’s digital exhibition.
Why would a 6th century aristocratic youth, or the sculptor recreating these ideals of beauty, want to emphasise the pubic hair? Hair played an important part in ancient Greek identity and although pubic hair is often ignored, it should certainly be included in this discussion. Facial-hair was central in constructing age-groups within Archaic society and determining the point between pais (boy) and aner (man).
Whilst there’s quite a bit of research out there on female depilation – the methods used and its popularity – male pubic hair is scarcely mentioned. When it is, it’s almost always in Aristophanic comedy. There’s the adolescent boy in Clouds whose “privates bloomed with dewy down like apricots” (978) and the In-law in Thesmophoriazusae whose pubic hair is singed off so he can convincingly play a woman (236-246). We can gauge quite a bit from the female characters in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae (Assembly Women) who disguise themselves as men in order to infiltrate the assembly. One exclaims: “I threw my razor out of the house straight away, so that I’d get hairy all over and not look female at all” (64), but it remains unclear whether this refers just to armpit hair or to pubic hair too.
In many ways, the youthful bodies of the kouroi can appear pretty pre-pubescent, sporting long hair and a cleanly-shaved face. Emphasis on their pubic hair, its definition and sculpted style, would have drawn attention to the youthful age captured by the sculptor, depicting the individual at the prized moment between boy and man. The changing shapes, whether attributed to time or to personal style, highlight the individuality granted through pubic hair, an individuality that was not quite possible through hairstyle, stance or facial expression.
Whitely, J. The Archaeology of Ancient Greece, 2001
Smith, R.R.R. Pindar’s Poetry, Patrons, and Festivals: From Archaic Greece to the Roman Empire
Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann, The Play of Colour on the Muses and the Kouros