Stone Lifting in Ancient Greece: Bybon’s Stone

Stone lifting has, thankfully, come back into vogue both in strength competitions but also among the general lifting public. While previously on the site we have spoken of various acts of weightlifting in the Ancient World, it dawned on my recently that I have, to my own shame, rarely discussed some of the oldest, and most impressive weights that still exist.

This, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the history of weightlifting in the Western World, leads me back to Ancient Greece. Both practically and symbolically, Greek culture appreciated and celebrated strength. Practically, soldiers trained with weights and gymnastics prior to battle, athletes used a variety of methods (including drug taking!) before competitions and gymnasium culture thrived.

This is to say nothing of the numerous acts of strength and strong deities found in Greek mythology. Sometimes such stories crossed with reality – as was the case of the actual athlete Milo of Croton who was said to have built his strength by carrying the same growing cow up a hill for weeks to build his strength. More commonly, stories spoke with reverence about the strength of Hercules, the half man half god whose life was later made into a jaunty musical by Disney.

But how strong were Greek athletes? The stone dumbbells (halteres) Greeks used would not impress the average gym goer – they typically weighed anywhere from 2 to 9 kilograms. The object of today’s post, Bybon’s Stone, is a different matter altogether.

Heavy lifting stones are a notoriously difficult thing to preserve. The famous Dinnie Stones, used by the Scottish strongman Donald Dinnie in the nineteenth-century, were lost for several decades and only rediscovered in the 1950s following the tenacious searching of David Webster. As a personal anecdote, I myself have been in the strange situation of writing about the history of stone lifting in Ireland without having ever found one of these stones!

One of the things which makes stone lifting a rather difficult thing to track down is how bland a heavy stone actually is. The Atlas Stones used in strength contests are obviously used for feats of strength (or a very painful game of soccer). Regular lifting stones, those found in the outdoors, are rather less obvious.

If people do not record where these stones exist, or pass down stories concerning the stones in question, it is very easy for the stones to simply become lost. I shudder to think in the Irish context of how many lifting stones were probably broken down and made into a wall somewhere.

I labor this point to stress how special Bybon’s Stone is because it tells us exactly what the stone was for. Inscribed on the stone is a simple sentence – ‘Bybon son of Phola, has lifted me over head with one hand.’ Short, to the point, and oh so exciting!

Weighing roughly 143 kilograms, it is not exactly clear how, or even if, Bybon lifted this stone. The romantic in me believes it was akin to an Atlas Stone mixed with a military press. The stone does have a section carved out as a hand grip so maybe my prediction isn’t too far off. We, unfortunately, know little of Bybon aside from the fact that he existed in the early sixth century BCE.

Regardless of whether or not Bybon lifted this stone, two things are clear. First that some form of stone lifting culture must have existed in Ancient Greece and, more importantly, that heavy feats of strength were not entirely unknown or discouraged. This suggests something which I suspect every reader of this website already knows, the history of strength is indeed long and fascinating.

For anyone interested in learning more about Bybon, or weightlifting in Ancient Greece, I’d recommend Nigel Crowther’s article (link here), which served as my primary source for this post.

As always … Happy Lifting!

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