Can naked sages in ancient times help us unpick the nudist/naturist conundrum? Nick Mayhew-Smith argues they can (Nick is an acclaimed author, journalist, theologian, lecturer/academic and naturist campaigner – but not necessarily in that order!)
Let me tell you about the time Alexander the Great met some nudists. Back in the 4th century BC, the Macedonian king was travelling on the eastern fringes of his empire when he captured a group of sages, who were advisers to one of his enemies. History records that these sages chose to live permanently naked as a matter of principle. In ancient Greek they were called gymnosophists, which translates as naked philosophers.
The sages believed clothes were a distraction to clear thinking, and their stripped-down lifestyle also included strict vegetarianism and earnest contemplation about moral behaviour.1
Alexander the Great posed these philosophers a series of questions and was sufficiently impressed by their wisdom he decided to set them free. The questions were along the lines of: ‘How can a man become a god?’ To which they replied: ‘By doing something no man can do.’ Short and pithy, as one might expect from a group of people so earnest in living the simple life. Alas the sages never had a chance to answer our very modern conundrum about a naked way of life: ‘What is the difference between a nudist and a naturist?’
It is a question that will send many of today’s naturists running for the hills, claiming it is nothing more than an exercise in splitting hairs. But I think it is of vital importance. To my mind, our inability to answer such a basic question does naturism a disservice, and helps to explain our worrying inability to explain ourselves to the general public.
More to the point, it fails to explain what we should call these ancient gymnosophists. Can they be called nudists? Well, Yes. They are men, and possibly women, who went out of their way to live without clothes. It doesn’t really need anything more complicated than that. Nudists are people who avoid wearing clothes in situations where others do. Even in a culture where tasks such as exercise or bathing were commonly performed naked, Alexander and his Greek friends thought the philosophers’ nakedness was the most remarkable thing about them. They could have just as easily called them ‘vegetarian philosophers’, but they didn’t.
Living naked full-time is as pure an expression of nudism as you are likely to find. For the gymnosophists, it was backed up by a fully formed philosophical rationale about avoiding worldly comforts and distractions. They weren’t simply naked without any explanation, but as part of a carefully developed outlook on life. If you choose to do something that is unusual, people will ask you why, and it is helpful to have an answer ready.
These naked thinkers were not just a one-off aberration. Other unclad communities of people who deliberately practised nudity stand out just as starkly if you dig through the historical records.
In recent articles for Naturist Life and British Naturism magazines, I wrote about a nameless, 4th-century Christian hermit who lived without clothes on the flanks of Mount Sinai for 50 years. He was much admired by the early church for his single-minded dedication to solitude.
His nudism arose from a very different place to that of the Greek gymnosophists, although like them he had a good explanation for it: by casting off all the trappings of civilisation, including clothes, he was making it known that he wanted to be alone. His nudism therefore rests on the notion that nudity is inherently anti-social. I was so surprised to discover that there were such long-term nudists in early church history I titled my latest book The Naked Hermit in his honour.2
And indeed this naked hermit was not the only one, and nor was this practice confined to men only. It was a minority pursuit for sure, but those who practised the discipline of very long-term nudism were greatly revered by early Christians. St Mary of Egypt is still celebrated by the church today, another desert hermit who is said have gone naked in the Jordanian desert for decades.3
Moving on, we can find another use of deliberate nudity in a spiritual context much closer to home, in 17th-century Britain. The early Quakers and their close cousins, the Ranters, were well known for running down the street naked as a protest against rigid social hierarchies and restrictions on how they could worship. A contemporary image shows a group of such Quakers standing naked in front of a bemused onlooker, with the caption ‘Above ordinances’, a sarcastic way of saying they thought they were above the law. A lesson we can take from that is that we naturists are not the first to be mocked for our deliberate nudity and no doubt we won’t be the last. Another image shows some Neo-Adamites protesting in Amsterdam, men and women being arrested in a public square for their dedication to the nudist cause; an image of prejudice that we naturists do well to remember.
This form of nudism is essentially a rejection of society’s norms, of the social contract that binds us to the authority of the state. For this reason dissenting groups such as the Quakers were known by the term ‘non-conformist’. As a form of protest this public nudity has obvious parallels with today, as in the naked bike rides. You might also have heard of the academic Dr Victoria Bateman, an economist at Cambridge University, who has used nudity to express her dissatisfaction with contemporary politics, and Brexit in particular. It is clear that Dr Bateman is not promoting or expounding naturism as such through her nude activism, but rather rejecting social and political norms.
There are many other forms of deliberate and sustained nudity being used in a wide range of contexts, but I will finish with one modern example where nakedness is used as part of an outdoor ritual; communing with the natural world. Modern Neo-Pagan ceremonies, such as Wiccan, often incorporate some form of magical circle in which participants go ‘skyclad’ or naked at night. The reasons for this are many and varied and indeed some claim the custom has been inspired by an Indian philosophy related to those Greek gymnosophists we met earlier. Some devotees also claim that they are not truly naked but are instead ‘wearing’ the natural environment, dressed in the sky.
A lot of the early adherents of the Neo-Pagan revival in the 20th century were also naturists, as it happens, but no means all of them. At an academic conference on New Age spirituality recently I met a Wicca practitioner who described the nudity as a matter of strict ritual necessity and argued that the movement should minimise it as far as possible.
In a non-spiritual expression of this same impulse towards the environment, television presenter Kate Humble has spoken of her joy of dancing naked outdoors, something that she does in the wilderness as a way of getting closer to nature. In an episode of BBC Two’s Off the Beaten Track she skinny-dipped in a Welsh mountain lake with artist Natasha Brooks, and received mostly glowing plaudits for doing so.4 You can see and hear Humble’s reactions on a YouTube video.5
Having described the many ways people have chosen to go naked, I can think of only one word that encapsulates all of them: nudism. By consciously deciding to go naked where others would expect to be covered, they are deliberately practising or embracing nudity.
There are many reasons that drive them to do this. Some are profoundly philosophical, others deeply spiritual, some are anarchistic while others are the opposite, very gentle and in tune with nature. It is nice to think that the experience of being naked can mean so much to so many people, and has created such a rich culture over the whole of human history. This is our heritage, and we would do well to embrace it, celebrate the millions of men and women who have put their bodies (some literally) on the line to keep the nudist flame burning. Indeed, three of the world’s great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, record the start of human existence with a pair of nudists: Adam and Eve.
What I would like to stress is that nudism is an integral part of the human story, stretching back to some of our earliest written records and some of the earliest artworks too. People have deliberately chosen to take off their clothes outdoors, in public, driven by deliberate, ethical, passionate and coherent reasons for doing so. Nudism, therefore, is an enduring part of human culture. It always has been and it always will be.
I think this is something we would do well to remember when we try to explain what we are to a sceptical textile society, taking pride in the fact that nudism has been and still is an essential and long-standing part of the human story. That it has something positive to say about our nakedness in so many contexts. The naturist movement is a modern and highly successful chapter arising from this nudist heritage.
But why not call all of these many naked pioneers ‘naturists’? Well, the answer becomes pretty obvious when looking at the very mixed reasons that have been given for living clothes free through the millennia.
Take the naked hermit, living on the flanks of Mount Sinai. For him, nudity was the embodiment of rejecting society and therefore rests on the notion that the naked body is anti-social. He would never agree to living naked in the company of others, and indeed was said to run away if anyone came near him. If nudity is seen as a way of keeping other humans at bay, it stems from a fundamentally different place to modern-day naturism. We believe in and practise a form of nudism that is essentially communal, where men and women socialise freely and equally in the nude. This notion that nudism is inherently anti-social still lingers today, but is now exclusively expressed by those who are opposed to public nudity.
Other nudists we have met had very different reasons again for their deliberate nudity. Far from avoiding the public gaze, the Ranters, Quakers and Neo-Adamites positively revelled in running down the street, disrupting the status quo and trying to shake people out of their complacency. For them nudity was subversive, and highly political.
Yet another expression of nudism that is different to modern naturism is found in the naked sages that Alexander met. They considered themselves to be a class apart, an elite reserved only for those who met their intellectual, physical and dietary requirements. Naturism today doesn’t have such strictures, and indeed these strict nudist gymnosophers would no doubt frown on such ideas as sunbathing, holiday resorts and naked leisure generally.
So in summary, all these nudist cultures may have one very obvious thing in common with modern-day naturists, but there are also differences and nuances that run far deeper. We are all nudists, but nudism is a very wide and general term that encompasses many beliefs and practices. Naturism is a subset of the very diverse and enduring universe of nudism, a type of nudism that sits alongside many other movements.
A modern-day naturist might well agree with and participate in some of the other expressions of nudism I’ve outlined, but not all of them because they are contradictory and mutually exclusive. I have never heard a naturist argue that nudity must only be practised in absolute isolation, for example, or confined to a brief moonlit ritual.
I love my naturism, and take huge pride and satisfaction in fitting it into this bigger vista of what the naked human body has managed to represent over the millennia; connecting it to so many rich and varied expressions of that wonderful nudist impulse. When we compare our naturism to the nudists of old we can see that there is much more to nudity than simply getting undressed.
1. A modern dictionary definition of gymnosophists is: ‘a member of an ancient Hindu sect wearing little clothing and devoting to contemplation.’
As part of NAG’s campaign for the acceptance of naturism in London, on 7 July, Richmond Park was the location for a naturist picnic. Keith Palmer gives this report:
“Peter and I met Steve at the information kiosk at Richmond Station as the sun emerged from behind the drizzly morning clouds and a fine afternoon seemed in prospect. We waited 15 minutes to see if any others turned up but no-one else appeared, possibly put off by the poor weather earlier. As we three ascended Richmond Hill we looked down upon a super view of the river curving away into the distance.
“In the park we found a sunny glade among scattered mature oaks to make our encampment. We stripped off and settled down to our picnics. We were positioned discreetly but certainly not hidden. A number of cyclists and dog walkers passed by, clearly noticing us but making no comment either negative or positive. I think we can take that as acceptance?
“The turn-out of three was distinctly disappointing, given the improvement in the weather after midday. Many thanks to Steve for guiding us across the sandy paths of the park to a suitable spot.”
Yet another indication that the NAG hard work, along with BN over six-years, on getting a better awareness of the legitimacy of naturism paid off. That work led to new guidance from the CPS in 2013 and the College of Policing in 2018. Police officers, court prosecutors and open space managers now realise that public nudity by naturists is not illegal.
Having established naturism as a legitimate activity on Hampstead Heath, NAG is currently looking at other open spaces and parks around London where naturism may take place. It is important not to rely on advance weather forecasts, when a day may instead turn out sunny.
Unless it is clearly unsuitable weather, NAG will always check at the meeting point on the day. If you would like to be part of future NAG activity in Hampstead Heath contact Chris Lamb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women who would like to join action at Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond should contact Louise Ponting through www.naturistwomen.org. For Richmond Park contact Steve Harrison at email@example.com.
For other enquiries on NAG London activities contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday 20 July 2019 and at 2.00pm, to a clap of thunder, 25 naked cyclists started the 7th Clacton WNBR from the west sea front near to the Martello Tower. Organised by Robert and a small local Four Seasons WNBR collective, the route took the naked riders from an assembly point in the Toby Carvery car park on a gentle 8-mile circular route around the streets of Clacton in sunshine and showers.
Without fanfare, other than the thunder, they could not match the Colchester send-off the Saturday before when 20 riders and watching crowds heard music from the Street Orchestra Live. Naturally, amongst the tunes played was the hit ‘Ride my Bicycle’ by Queen.
To aid traffic control a motorcycle escort, provided by Michael, helped to clear the way at road junctions. Riders came from far and wide; London, Brazilian friends Gabriella and Milton, Eastbourne, Gloucester, a WNBR ride organiser from Australia, Cambridge, Ipswich as well as the area around Clacton. They included Ken on a special trike which accommodated his oxygen cylinder. and to add to the carnival atmosphere Adam wore a colourful straw hat.
For Barry Greenope, definitely not to be confused with Barry Freeman, it was his 99th WNBR. Barry was disappointed that he will not attain 100 rides until the start of the 2020 WNBR season. Advance coverage by local paper Clacton Weekly Gazette meant that thousands of people lined the streets to cheer on the naked cyclists.
Robert gave a good interview on BBC Radio Suffolk, at their invitation, on the Monday after the Ipswich WNBR. Then on Wednesday Robert had a phone conversation with inspector Matt Breeze, a police officer from Ipswich, who said they had received no adverse comments from the public about the ride. Along with the public, police officers were looking forward to the carnival atmosphere created by the ride. Patrons of Marine Parade pubs and restaurants had a lucky opportunity to cheer on the ride twice.
After the ride ended some of the jubilant cyclists went to the new naturist beach nearby. A small stretch of beach is just past the Martello Tower and easily identified by the big rocks in the sand. After a spot of sun and sea we had a joint meal in the nearby Toby Carvery. Another special rider was Alan, who is autistic and collected £125 for the charity National Autistic Society.
Four baffled police motorcycle outriders arrived at 1.00pm at the Espace Naturiste in Paris on Sunday 8 September. Paris WNBR organisers then had to inform them that the Paris local government had cancelled the planned ride – just the day before on Saturday 7th. But the local government department officers had not informed this police unit. That meant the police escort to clear the WNBR route through Paris traffic was not needed.
Months of planning by APNEL’s Jacques Frimon, together with Gilles had gone into the ride. APNEL is the French equivalent of the UK’s Naturist Action Group. All the correct procedures were followed and permissions were granted. Then on the Saturday Didier Lallement, Prefect (head) of the Paris Police decided that the ride should not be classified as a protest – as all other WNBR rides are accepted to be internationally – but would instead be classed as an illegal sexual display.
On the Sunday morning hundreds of riders turned up at the Espace Naturiste in Bois de Vincennes. Also there in force were
Ton Dou (poet speak for Anthony Douglas) a Bare Body Freedom Activist singer-songwriter from Las Vegas is running for President of the United States 2020. He will be holding an outdoor clothing optional campaign rally at Duffy Plaza in very central Times Square New York City during his Ultimate Freedom Concert Sunday, September 1, 2019.
San Francisco Body Freedom activist, who is supporting the campaign, has been writing loosely campaign related news-essays-blogs which Ton has been posting. Aside from FaceBook and Change.org, they can be read in the blog section of nuderallies2020.com. Especially interesting to me is essay #2 titled, “What about the children?”
If Donald Trump could be elected, anything could happen. It would be an interesting change to have a bare US President instead of an unbearable one!
The Minutes for our Spring meeting held at Spielplatz Naturist Resort in May are not up for you to enjoy.
The weather forecast in London on the morning of 16thJune was not promising by all accounts but the sun did come out for the Hampstead Heath Picnic and four hardy souls persevered and by all accounts had an enjoyable afternoon. Rather than repeating my report for the day, I’ll leave you to read Hampstead Heath: Picnic in the Sun.
Before you go, take a look at our brief revision of the Summer 2019 Outdoors.
For anyone who hasn’t been watching this, Lene Tereland has just completed her BA in photography at London Metropolitan University. Her graduation exhibition project featured naturists doing the everyday things we do. Lene had hoped to persuade the University to allow a clothes optional viewing; this they would not, but they have allowed Lene to invite five of her subjects to be present (nude) during a private viewing on 19th June between 7pm and 8pm at 1st Floor, Annex Building, Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT. Members of the public will remain dressed, which is a shame, but as Lene says: ‘Is good news, as I thought [the university] wouldn’t allow any nudity.’
If you can’t make it that day, then you can still see Lene’s exhibition during one of its public days from 20th June until 30th. Opening times: Mon-Fri 10am-7pm, Sat-Sun 11am-6pm.
BN have updated their listings, so we have now revised the list of Outdoor UK Naturist Activities in summer 2019. As these are wider than just London, in fact most of the activities are around the UK, we have revised its title as well as the Outdoor naturist opportunities list itself.
Sandra Ballard has negotiated a performance, for a naturist-only audience, on Friday 9 August 2019 in Oxford, of the play Redcoatsby the well-known travelling Mikron Theatre.
“Mikron’s radiant Redcoats will guide you through 80 years of Butlins splendour with their trademark mix of fun, pathos and songs. Join us as we delve into holiday huts, bonny babies and knobbly knees with guest appearances from Marlene Dietrich, Gracie Fields and Laurel and Hardy.”
This special performance will be at Toad Oxford Artisan Distillery, Old Depot, South Park, Cheney Lane, Oxford OX3 7QJ. Don’t forget to bring a towel to sit on!
Arrive on Friday 9 August at 6.30pm for tasting a gin or two, before the play starts at 7.30pm. Tickets for the play are £15.50 each and can be purchased from the BN website. Book early to avoid disappointment!
MIKRON is an award-winning Yorkshire-based national arts charity now in their 48thyear. Travelling on-board their historic narrowboat, Tyseley, Mikron is a professional theatre company that travels the country by inland waterways to give performances at non-theatrical venues by canal or river in the summer months. They also travel by van in spring and autumn.
“I have seen many performances by Mikron over the past 40 years, they are always good fun.” They commission two new plays each year, and the companion to Redcoats during the 2019 season is All Hands-on Deck; the story of two WRENS during World War 2, the polar opposites to each other.
MIKRON perform in repertory and tour between April and October. Further details of their 2019 tour can be found on Mikron’s website.