Growing up in classical Greece

These days we think of becoming an adult as a gradual process, but to the Greeks it was an instantaneous event.  Though it worked differently for boys and girls.

In the case of a well-born Athenian girl, she would go to a girls' school at the Sanctuary of Brauron, a year or two before marriageable age.  Less privileged girls would get their education at home.

Either way, at the end of their time the girls would perform a ceremony in which they dedicated their toys to the goddess Artemis.  From that instant they became marriageable adults.

 Proud fathers would commission a statue of their girl to commemorate the occasion.  This was like the graduation photos that families take these days, only back in classical Athens the graduation photo was done  in solid marble.

The great majority of statues of girls from the ancient world come from that sanctuary.  The surviving statues are very beautiful and lifelike, so that we have an astonishingly good idea what the girl children of classical Athens looked like.

On the morning of that ceremonial day, the girl was still a girl.  By nightfall, she was a young lady.  This instant graduation system might seem tough on the girls, but oddly the boys had the exact opposite problem.

Every male went into the army at the age of eighteen and returned to civilian life at twenty.  This two year compulsory service system was still in use across Europe only a few decades ago.  As soon as he reached eighteen the Athenian man could vote in the assembly, but...he didn’t obtain his legal majority until his father had passed away.  It was possible for even a forty year old man to still be a legal child.

This had the odd effect that many young women who were legal adults were married to men older than themselves who were legal children!


Orange said...

These initiations are so revealing of the nature of every society.

I think it is a pity that in our post-modernist era, there are no universally significant ways to mark the passage from childhood, to youth and to adulthood. One function of such ceremonies is to move people on, so that they do not get stuck in an earlier stage of life - which does seem to be a problem of our time.

For those Athenian boys, life sounds a bit like being "son of" for an indeterminate length of time. Father/son power shifts are a strong theme of Greek myths, so probably the religion and the society reinforced this pattern.

Gary Corby said...

You're right; it was possible to be stuck as a "son of" for a very long time. The number of sons who rebelled against the system was astonishingly small, but there must have been a lot of tension.