Where and when did Nike become so important, inspirational and influential?
How did her cult begin? What did the people who first paid homage to her intend?
From the beginning of time, humans have loved the idea of winning rather than
just surviving. Nowhere was this urge to triumph felt with greater power than
in ancient Greece.
Springing from geographically isolated city-states, ancient Greek culture was literally defined by the
agon -- the struggle. On the warrior's battlefield, on the speaker's podium, on the poet's stage, or in
the athlete's gymnasium, the ancient Greeks defined themselves by their ability to confront opposition,
to overcome adversity, and to achieve victory.
It is no small wonder, then, that the personification of victory - nike - played such a prominent role
in ancient Greek society. Nike was ephemeral, seductive, fleeting and sensual. Nike was there one
second, gone the next. Nike, or the potential for nike, was everywhere.
For the ancient Greeks, Nike was victory, just like her Roman counterpart, Victoria. In Greek literature,
she was first mentioned by the Greek poet Hesiod as daughter of two Titans -- Pallas and Styx -- and was
the sister of Zelos (‘Rivalry’), Kratos (‘Strength’) and Bia (‘Force’). In Hesiod's Theogony, Nike battled the
Titans alongside the Olympian gods and was rewarded for her loyalty to them with honour and glory.
The flip side to her abandoning the losers, who also happen to be her creators, could be an indication
of the drive to be on the winning team.
In ancient victory odes, the poets Pindar and Bacchylides represented Nike as the most important judge
of arete (excellence) and the one who actually bestowed triumph upon the worthy.
Nike’s spheres of influence are war, sport, poetry and art – wherever there is agôn (competition or struggle
- Nike signals victory in all.
Nike's presence in the visual arts is not in any way tame. Classical period sculptors,
in particular, used taut drapery, sensual poses, and the erotic depiction of the female
body to transform the figure Nike from conceptual personification into embodied fetish.
In the ancient Greek world, Nike was something after which men lusted.
All that said, we should not be fooled into thinking that Nike is some long forgotten
daemon. We are fascinated, maybe mesmerised is a better description, by the siren.
From Monroe to Madonna, strong, successful and sensual women stir emotions of great loyalty and
adoration among men and women all over the world. Indeed, now more than ever, the archetypal
spirit that Nike represents lives among us. As she always has.