The athlete in the periphery:
The Vita Antonii and the human limits of space and body

Dag Øistein Endsjø
Institute of Cultural Studies, University of Oslo, Norway

• Ancient athletes
• Philosophical athletes
• The athletic martyr in Hellenistic Judaism
• Christian athletes
• The athlete in the periphery
• Bibliography
• Abstract

With Athanasius's Vita Antonii, Christendom received its first ascetic superhero. Antony, however, was not the first Christian ascetic; the Vita itself even tells of ascetics in the village of Antony's youth. (VA 3.3-4). Why, then, would the presentation of this desert father become such a popular and powerful image, while his predecessors often are not even remembered by name?

As Antony was the first ascetic to withdraw into the geographical periphery, we are left with one major difference between the Vita Antonii and the mostly untold stories of those who were before him: the aspect of space. To make sense of how landscape could represent such a strong metaphor, one must first look closer at another key term in Athanasius's presentation. This is the way he describes Antony in athletic terms, even calling him an "athlete of God".Contrary to his literary presentation of the ascetic in the wilderness, Athanasius's use of athletic metaphors is in no way an invention of his. Not only earlier Christian ascetics but also Jewish and Christian martyrs were repeatedly called athletes of God. But why would Jewish and Christians believers want to identify not only their ascetics but even their fellow believers who were killed for their faith, with simple sportsmen? Why would anyone draw the connection from the arena over to the sainted martyrs who were considered to have gained direct connection with the divine sphere at the point of death, claiming for themselves both immortality and instant salvation?

Ancient athletes

Ancient athletes were the centre of enormous attention. Rewards the victors would receive at the most important Panhellenic games, such as an olive wreath at Olympia , and apples at the Pythian games, were only symbols of how the winners were even "deemed equal to the gods" (Luc. Anach. 10). The victory of a single man would bring honour to the entire polis he represented.

Later philosophers would especially emphasise the aspect of self control in the athletic endeavours. As the Bœotian poet Pindar in his odes hails only the victors of various fifth century bc Panhellenic games, it is, nevertheless, not the aspect of general self-control that comes to the fore, only its supreme manifestation. If a general individual self control would have been his main issue, Pindar would have had no reason to limit his odes to celebrating the winners. It is this supreme self control that is pivotal in the athlete's effort to emulate the mythical hero. It is through his complete self control the sportsman may conquer these physical and geographical limits of man, and thus fulfil the ultimate human potential.

Pindar primarily considers the feats of the victorious athletes as tantamount to those of the ancient heroes, straining the ultimate limits of humanity. Only the winner, however, in his excelling over all the other contestants, touches these absolute extremes. It is in this presentation of the supreme achievements that we again are confronted with the metaphors of a spatial periphery. As the winner reaches that utmost, physical edge of human endeavour, Pindar makes this the equivalent to touching the pillars of Heracles at the absolute geographical ends of the human world (Ol. 3.43-44). As Pindar specifies that "beyond is impassable for both the wise and the unwise" (Ol. 3.44-45), he makes the Pillars "stand for the boundary of the human condition itself" (Romm 1992, 18).

These spatial metaphors of Pindar must be seen in the context of the traditional Greek view of the world as limited in all directions by the peirata gaiês, the ends of the earth. Beyond these ultimate limits were the land of the dead and the divine spheres of the chthonic and Olympic gods. Reaching the ultimate limits of the earth was therefore equivalent to touching death. Only the polis (including the chora, its cultivated area) represented a space of true humanity. This could be emphasised quite literally, as in Aristotle's claim that without polis man by consequence is no longer man but "either a beast or a god" (Pol. 1253a). This did not mean that man could not venture beyond the symbolically important city walls or that this periphery represented an inhuman essence: the periphery reflected a human potential that to various degrees could be released. Contrary to the polis and its in all aspects human existence, the periphery was also an area where even keeping one's human identity was a challenge. This uncultivated periphery is what would represent the framework for how the Egyptian desert would be perceived by a classical Athenian as well as by a third century ad Hellenistic Greek.

The geographical periphery or the eschatia is, however, not only separated from the human city, but from all of the culturally recognised geographical states reflecting the different proper conditions of the cosmos. It is an border zone betwixt and between not only the state of the polis on the one side and Hades as the land of the dead on the other, but also between Hades as a divine abode and the Olympian realm. This placement made the Greek periphery something like an astructural crossroads. Being left in between all the proper states, the eschatia would represent a border area where all aspects of the cosmos were free to intermingle. Mythical and ethnographic representations of the distant landscapes repeatedly emphasised the general confusion of beastly and divine elements with that of man, dead or alive (cf. Endsjø upcoming). This is where the heroes repeatedly encountered the gods in their true form, and even were offered the possibility of becoming divine. The most important characteristics of the eschatia, however, was those of ambiguity and paradox - a place where being and non-being, life and death, had yet to be separated. This was also extended to everything that was found within its limits. When asked who were the more numerous, the living or the dead, the legendary sixth century Græco-Scythian sage Anacharsis could rejoin accordingly, "where do you place those who are sailing the seas?" (Diog. Laërt. 1.104). Free from the structures of all the settled geographical states that it bordered upon, the periphery represent an unsettled state where the possibilities accordingly were unlimited.

As Hades represented the uttermost limits of how far one could travel, this unsettled area was consequently also the space that offered adolescents the means to become adults through facing initiatory ordeals "onto death" or "of which the end may be death" (Pind. Pyth. 4.186). In this way leading man to the uttermost limit of the human experience, the periphery was itself representing the definite challenge. Thus, Pindar relates the athletic experience to how the geographical periphery represented an initiatory aspect, an aspect that also was reflected in a vast number of ritual and mythical interrelations between how the Greeks perceived this area and their various rites of passage (cf. Endsjø upcoming). When Pindar repeatedly parallels the feats of the athletes with the exploits of different heroes, one sees that all of these heroic ordeals also take place in the uncultivated area of the periphery. We read, for example, of the geographically peripheral adventures of both Achilles, Asclepius, Bellerophon, Cyrene, Heracles, and Jason.

Philosophical athletes

It was the aspect of athletic self control, the enkrateia, which instigated the philosophical use of the athletic imagery. The very word askesis was actually taken from the athletic arena by early Greek philosophers and moralists (cf. Wimbush 1990, 3). Plato had his Socrates use the metaphor of athletic training of the body to explain how also the soul should be exercised and moulded (Crito 47a-48a). This discourse was nevertheless often combined with a critique of physical gymnastics. Even though the training of the body would be considered vital for the individual and for society, even Socrates, as rendered both by Plato and by Xenophon, would emphasise the primacy of the soul (Plato Crito 47e-48a; Xen. Mem. 1.2.4). The Cynics and Stoics would continue this tradition and stress even more the importance of the spiritual and mental spheres. "With scorn for pride in pure physical achievement as folly, the Cynics now claim that they are the true athletes in their struggle for virtue" (Pfitzner 1967, 28; cf. Demetrius de eloc. 260).

Even though these philosophers thus rejected the true value of the purely athletic venture, they, interestingly enough, perceived a certain spatial aspect of their own project. The Cynics and the Stoics considered Heracles, the prototypal hero of the peripheral geography, their patron and claimed "to be following the great example set by" him (Pfitzner 1967, 28).

The athletic martyr in Hellenistic Judaism

An even more powerful use of the image of athlete is found in the Jewish apocryphon Fourth book of the Maccabees: here, the probably first century ad Alexandrian author recombines the Stoics' philosophical use of the athletic metaphors with the physical ordeals of the Jewish martyrs under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century bc. As the first text that connects martyrdom with the athletic discourse, it also reinterprets the philosophical agon. Combining the contest of philosophical virtue with that of the traditional physical ordeal of ancient athlete, the image of the athletic martyr transcended the Stoic and Cynic claim of the philosopher being a truer athlete than the sportsman. Thus the martyr emerged as an extremely powerful figure. Demonstrating total self control in their torments, the victims were said to have vanquished their tormentors like noble athletes (6.10). They had been called for a contest of pain (11.20), "a noble contest" (16.16), or more precisely "a contest for God" (17.11).

Athletic metaphors were also found in other parts of Hellenistic Judaism. In hailing various Biblical figures as athletic heroes, Philo of the first century ad uses the athletic discourse in the context of many figures who spend long time in the geographical periphery. The Jewish philosopher, however, is indifferent to what landscape these figures are found within. The desert does not represent any important metaphor in his understanding of the heroic patriarchs. Looking at Philo's famous presentation of the ascetic Therapeuts in the Vita Contemplativa, it is also clear that this is not a people living outside of the civilised space of the oikoumenê: the Therapeuts live in a comfortable landscape by Lake Maretois - just outside of Alexandria - in an ordered society that differs from the usual city only in offering somewhat less packed conditions.

Christian athletes

The athletic metaphor was early taken up by Christian writers in explaining the pious struggle against the demonic aspects of the world. Already Paul urges the believer to act like athletes, both in a manner of self control and in gaining the victor's wreath - now a symbol of the imperishable existence promised (1.Cor. 9.24-27). The way Paul uses the term, agrees with the logic behind how the athletic metaphors are used not only in the discourse of the Stoic and Cynic philosophers, but also with that of Maccabbean martyrs. The way of connecting the athletic touching upon the absolute borders of the human experience, with the extremes of human space, would also continue even when the athletic discourse had been transposed away from the arena. In the mid second century 2.Clement 7.1-3 we can similarly read of how many uselessly "sail for perishable prizes" in opposition to what one should do, "run the straight course" and "sail to […] the contest of immortality."

By the end of the second century, Tertullian makes an interesting allegory, comparing the martyr's prison cell where he is awaiting death, to the desert of the Biblical prophet (ad martyras 2.8). The way he describes the prison cell as a place where the spirit are free to leave the body and roam about, does, however, relate maybe more than to the Biblical experience, to the Greek periphery, which was a place where the normal mode of movement often was suspended to various fantastic ways of travelling. It is also important to remember that this was a time when there was no Christian challenging the unsettled landscapes of the periphery. "Which of them goes about like Elijah, clad in sheepskin and a leather girdle?" would Clement of Alexandria ask. "Which like Isaiah, naked except for a piece of sacking and without shoes? Which of them will imitate John the Baptist's awesome way of life?" (Strom. 3.6.653.5).

These early Christian uses of athletic images were soon followed by a flood of various Christian martyria. When the second century Martydom of Polycarp refers to "those who already contested" (18.3), the author builds on texts such as 2.Timothy which encourages the believer to "Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus" and then specifies that "An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules" (2.Tim. 2.3-5). The author of James would state similarly that "blessed is the man who endures trial" (James 1.12). Just as the ancient athletes going to the utmost limit of all mortal achievements touched upon the divine sphere (Pyth. 10.28-29), the martyrs were perceived as seeing the glory of god (Acts 7.55-56). Both the struggle itself, the aspect of complete self control, and the sense that the contestants take part in something like a cosmic drama, are aspects of these martyrdoms which easily connect them to the perception of the athletes in the Pan-Hellenic games. This association was naturally strengthened by the fact that a large number of Christian martyrdoms actually took place in the same arenas where the usual sports were performed, sometimes even in the content of the traditional pagan games.

As Christians came to power and adherents of the dominant church no longer could expect the threats of being martyred - at least not within the borders of the empire - the use of athletic metaphors was nevertheless continued, but now within the context of asceticism. As we have already seen this was not any originally Christian idea. However, when the Christians now considered their ascetics as the athletes of God, they could also claim these to be the successor of the martyrs. The notion of asceticism reflecting athletic self control had already for a long time been embraced by the pagan philosophical movements of Stoicism and Cynicism and thus had been used extensively for more contemplative practices. This was also recognised by the various Christian authors, who would tie their own ascetic vitæ intimately up to the pagan tradition of celebrated lives of the philosophers. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, would in the 380s form his ascetic biography on his sister Macrina in the mould of "the perfect example of a truly philosophical life" (Elm 1994, 39). We must nevertheless be aware of that this connection between the biographies of early Christian ascetics with the lives of pagan philosopher, can, of course, not been limited to the idea of athletic metaphors: "In the eyes of educated Christians, Christianity was the only true philosophy; to choose an ideal Christian life was tantamount to choosing a philosophical life" (Elm 1994, 125).

The Christian biographers would emphasise extensively the aspects of death and dying in their description of Christian asceticism. This was, of course, related to how the image of a Christian athlete had been closely identified with the anguished martyr. "The church fathers frequently asserted that asceticism was a new form of martyrdom, one in which we could be martyred daily" (Clark [1982], 45). The martyrological discourse of athletic metaphors were consequently used at an early point in contexts of asceticism, as in the anonymous pre-Nicean text Peri Parthenias: "If you are a virgin for Christ, you must not be so according to your own wishes, but according to the wishes of Him, for whose sake you are virgin […] 'no athlete has been crowned who has not competed according to the rules'" (P.Parth. 7.81-5; quoting 2.Tim. 2.5).

The vain regard that the early Christian ascetics received, points, however, to that these "new martyrs" just could not live up to their murdered predecessors. In spite of the athletic metaphors and the claim of their representing the martyrs' true descendants, these ascetics simply could not gather the same sense of attention as the martyrs. The ascetic stories were not celebrated, and are for the most only passed down to us as part of the background in the urban preambles of the stories of desert heroes as Antony, Amoun, and Pachomius (VA 3.3-4, 11.1-2; SBo 8). The old ascetics around the villages of the young Antony, men our hero at first would look up to and try to emulate, have not even been remembered by name. This does not mean that the number of early ascetics was insignificant or that they were easy to ignore. Already by the end of the third century, we encounter a "field dominated by 'old men'", practising ascetics at "the edges of the town of village" (Elm 1994, 359), while other people of both sexes were trying different ascetic practices within the limits of their homes.

The athlete in the periphery

The veil of ascetic anonymity got forever lifted as Antony left the cultivated Egyptian landscapes for the desert. All ready a celebrated figure in his lifetime, Antony was made a hero for all Christendom as the Vita credited to Athanasius was published. If we, then, look to what were the new aspects brought into the ascetic story by Antony, we are left with only one major difference: that of space. As Antony moved out into the desert, his ascetic practice appear to have gained an additional aspect that strengthened considerably the general reception of his experience. The fame of the hermit seem to have increased proportionally with the increasing distance Antony put between himself and the cultivated land of the Nile valley.

Why, then, should the placement of Antony in the geographical periphery make him a stronger symbol than his contemporary ascetics who kept themselves within the limits of the cities and the cultivated lands? Can we at this point tie the desert father, Athanasius's "athlete of God", to how Pindar considered his athletes as connected with the eschatia?

The narrative of Septuagint will, of course, renders us with numerous examples of the ordeals of the desert. From Moses on, the desert represents an important arena in the continuous interrelation between God and the Jews. Though Antony is also connected with a number of these Biblical prophets, the wasteland as described by Athanasius, is, just as much as a desert of the Septuagint, the reflection of the pagan periphery: Athanasius makes Antony's desert and mountain represent a landscape populated with centaurs (VA 53.2-3), and a place where the pagan gods, though demonised, are still very much present. Like similar Christian texts, the whole vita is also written in the pagan genre of the philosophical biography. Athanasius does not flinch back from actually taking bits of pagan literature and reformulate it within a Christian framework. Porphyrius's vita on Pythagoras, for example, is clearly the model for Athanasius's describing the exit of the deserted fort after twenty years of isolation (VA 14.2-4, cf. Bartelink 1994, 63-67), while Epictetus's test of a true athlete is repeated with a little additional demonic momento, as Antony first move out into the wastelands (cf. Epict. 1.18.22-23; VA 11.2-4). In a similar way to how different Christian authors would use various pagan texts to forward a Christian message, Athanasius uses the culturally constructed pagan landscape of the periphery so that Antony can be portrayed as the Christian successor of the ancient heroes.

By taking the uncultivated periphery as the scene of his story, Athanasius brought his athletic hero back into a mythical and initiatory landscape to which the athlete, through his testing of the human extremes, belonged. As Pindar would compare the feat of the victorious athletes to those of the mythical heroes, Athanasius uses the same parallels by placing Antony in the very geographical periphery which is Pindar's metaphor for the athlete's uttermost experience. Removing Antony from the human landscape of the polis to the uttermost limit of human geography, Athanasius emphasises the ascetic impetus: the wasteland assured that a normal human existence no longer could be possible. When Athanasius describes the eschatia, he reinterprets the traditional perception of the landscape of the periphery in order to suite his presentation of someone who tried to imitate the divine Christ.

The ascetic practice answers to the same logic as that of the athletes and the martyrs: Bringing through different exercises their bodies to the absolute limit of humanity, they both manipulated their corporeal boundaries so that they could encounter the divine elements from which man in his usual existence was limited. Thus, the early Christian ascetic also became the image of ancient athlete. Though the potential is the same for the athlete and the martyr in the way they both allegorically enter a landscape where they touch upon the uttermost borders of human nature, their respective cultural imperatives would make them relate differently to this potential of incorporating non-human aspects: while the ancient athlete would keep his human nature untainted by the divine aspects, the martyr would transcend the limits of his or her human nature and go towards the human union with the divine as perfectly exemplified by Christ.

Looking again at the peripheral landscape in which Athanasius places Antony, we recognise that the desert represents an accentuation of the ascetic drama: removed from the safety of the human structures of cultivated lands, the desert father is always on the spatial brink of death, in the only landscape where he truly can die daily (cf. 1.Cor. 15.31; cf. e.g. VA 19.2, 47.1, 89.4). The way Athanasius removes Antony from the human landscape of the polis, is that which will emphasise this ascetic impetus. While virginity would lift "a human being above humanity" (Elm 1994, 337), the wasteland would assure that a normal human existence would not be possible at all. The landscape accentuates the drama: removed from the safety of the human structures of the cultivated lands, the desert father is always on the very brink of the demonic and beastly experience.


Bartelink, G.J.M. Athanase d'Alexandre: Vie d'Antoine: Introduction, texte critique, traduction, notes et index. Paris: Cerf 1994.

Clark, Elizabeth A. [1982] "Devil's Gateway and Bride of Christ: Women in the Early Christian World" in Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith: Essays on Late Ancient Christianity. Lewiston & Queenston: The Edwin Mellen Press 1986, pp. 23-60.

Elm, Susanna K. 1994. «Virgins of God»: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Endsjø, Dag Øistein [upcoming]. "To Lock up Eleusis: A Question of Liminal Space" in Numen.

Pfitzner, Victor C. 1967. Paul and the Agon Motif. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Romm, James S. 1992. The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press


Using athletic metaphors in his representation of Antony, Athanasius draws on a long tradition tying the desert father not only to the ascetic endeavours of Stoicism and Cynicism but also to the ordeals of the Maccabean and Christian martyrs. This, however, is not sufficient to explain the enormous attention Vita Antonii received, in contrast to the neglected experiences of Antony's Christian ascetic predecessors.

Looking to the classical Greek way of representing the athletic experience, one finds the reflection of the hero's spatial journey to the uttermost geographical limits of human existence where one may touch upon the divine realm and the land of the dead. Mastering these physical and geographical limits of man, the athlete succeeds in an initiatory ordeal and fulfills the ultimate human potential. This geographical allegorisation of the ancient athletes, parallels how the geographical periphery in general was represented as an initiatory space. Removing Antony from the human landscape of the polis to the uttermost limit of the human experience, Athanasius emphasises the ascetic impetus: the wasteland assures that a normal human existence can no longer longer be possible. Though the hermit is also connected with various prophets of the Septuagint, the literary landscape is definitively a classical periphery, inhabited by centaurs and frequented by the old gods. By thus placing Antony in the desert, as the first Christian ascetic, Athanasius reinterprets the classical construction of the periphery, and, in doing so, creates a true Christian successor to the ancient heroes.

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