Baring the Aegis: Hellenismos
Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
Coming of age ceremonies
Coming of age ceremonies are prevalent in most cultures and are often linked to the religious views of the people performing it. Famous examples are the bar mitswa's and bat mitswa's of the Jewish. The ancient Hellens had coming of age rituals as well, and like almost everything else in ancient Hellenic life, these rituals were tied into deity worship. Today, I'm going to talk about these coming of age ceremonies, but because the differences are so great between girls and boys, I'm going to describe their coming of age ceremonies separately.
Girl to woman
In ancient Hellas, a girl's coming of age ceremony was linked to her wedding day. As soon as she got married, she would move out, into her new husband's oikos, and commit to the task she was born to fulfill: gift her husband legitimate offspring--boys, preferably. It won't come as a surprise that in preparation for this entirely new role in life, a girl's coming of age ceremony was focussed almost entirely on ending her own childhood, and petitioning the Theoi for help in her life as an adult. As such, fertility and womanhood were big parts of the rituals.
Young girls rarely had a role to play in household worship. The family only had them with them for thirteen to fifteen years, on average, after that, she joined her rightful place at the oikos of her husband, where she carried more (religious) responsibility. There were religious roles young girls could fulfill outside of the home, however, most notably as 'Arrephoros' (Ἀρρήφορος)--year long handmaidens of Athena Polias (Πολιάς)--in Athens, and as 'Arktos' (αρκτος), bear, a service in the following of Artemis Brauronia (Βραυρωνια) at Brauron (Βραυρών).
During the Arkteia festival, celebrated every four or five years alongside--or as a part of--the Brauronia, named and in honor of the epithet of Artemis. Every Athenian girl, as well as many other girls from all over Attika, had to take part of the festival before they could marry. The girls were brought to Brauron, a temple of Artemis with a rich history in both myth and history. Some versions of the myth of Iphigeneia have her taken from the sacrifice and dropped in Brauronia, where she established a temple to the Theia in gratitude. Otherwise, an oracle might have told the ancient Hellens to build a temple to the Theia at Brauron after a terrible plague or famine plagued the land following the killing of a bear by two hunters.
The symbolism of the bear might refer to the bear which was slain by the hunters, or the clothes Iphigeneia might have left at her 'sacrifice'. It's also possible that the bear reference refers to Kallisto, who was transformed into a bear by the Theia.
During the festival young girls, and it seems that on occasion young boys, would gather to celebrate Artemis Brauronia with races, and dances. They would don bear masks and dance a dance known as the 'Arkteia', which was made up of slow, solemn steps meant to imitate the movements of a bear and was performed to a tune from a diaulos (double flute). They might have carried baskets of figs. Up until as far back as the 5th century, the girls might have worn actual bear skins, but bears soon became scarce, so they wore yellow dresses called 'krokoton', which they 'shed' instead of the skins to signal their coming adulthood.
The actual reason for the 'bear' ritual has been lost. It's possible that the ritual served to exorcise 'the wildness' out of little girls, but it's more likely that it was simply a way to procure kharis for the young girls who would soon call on Artemis during childbirth. In the same spirit, young women on the threshold of marriage made an offering to Artemis of their childhood toys and other paraphernalia that represented childhood, as with an offering of one drachma (roughly $ 60,-) at the temple of Aphrodite. Most likely, the bride also honored Hera Teleia and Zeus Teleios in some way.
A young woman came of age during her wedding and the subsequent wedding night, but became a woman when she gave birth for the first time. Especially during the latter, they desperately needed the support of the Theia Artemis. Aphrodite and Hera Teleia would support her through her marriage, and help her make it a success. With the help of the Theoi, a girl could become a woman.
Boy to man
Young boys had a very different life to young girls when it came to life in ancient Hellas. Because it was very important for a man to have legitimate children, the child's paternity was attested to on multiple occasions. In Athens, this was done the first time shortly after being named, and the second time when he reached sixteen years of age. Both times, the child was presented at the 'phratria' (φ(ρ)ατρία)--brotherhood--of his father. The system of brotherhoods, four in total, was the system that preceded the system of tribes. The brotherhoods largely fades, except for the registration of male offspring, and the vetting of such with testimonials and tests. The brotherhoods were overseen by Zeus Phratrios and Athena Phratria, who were honored yearly in a three-day festival called the 'Apoutouria'.
During a son's presentation to the brotherhood, Zeus Phratrios and Athena Phratria during the Apoutouria, boys sacrificed a lock of their hair to the patron Theoi and Hēraklēs, their father an animal. If one of the phratria contested that the father was, indeed, the father of this child, he could take the animal from the father before they reached the altar, and drag it away. Doing so would have been a very serious thing to do, and very shocking for a young boy to witness, not to speak of the father. The claim would then be put to a vote. When the phratria ruled in favor of the father, the animal was sacrificed and the meat distributed to the members of the brotherhood. The son became a full member.
At sixteen, a boy was considered a young man, and he entered one or two years of public service, either to mature, or to show he had matured enough to take part. This was called his 'ephebeia', which literally means 'young man'. On completion of this public service, a young man could enter the military and became a voting member of the Ekklesia. He became a citizen. Although young man were now considered adults, he only truly became an adult at age thirty, when he could serve in the boule, and get married.
Young men swore an oath upon completion of their ephebia, which has largely been preserved. It read as follows:
With this oath, the world opened up for young men; they would now be held divinely accountable for any trespassing upon the law and common sense. Political life would become important for men, as well as military service. They had roughly ten years to dedicate to these before he took a wife, so young men tended to fulfill much of their obligation to the city in these ten years. After his marriage, he became the one who presented sons to the phratria, and he got to experience the entire proceedings from the spot his father once held. This--most likely--created strong familial ties that continued through family lines for centuries.
There is much that remains to be said about coming of age ceremonies in ancient Hellas, more to be said about coming of age ceremonies in ancient Athens, even, but that is talk for another day. For now, I hope you have a basic idea of the youth and religious focal points of an Athenian child's life. Personally, I have a soft spot for coming of age rituals, and I strongly suggest creating or adapting ceremonies for the second (or even third) generation of Hellenists. What this would look like will be left for another post, but it would surely be beautiful.
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