Hellenic Rites of Passage (Labrys-Community)


Coming of Age in Ancient Hellas
Written by Lesley Madytinou

Part One: General Rites of Passage
a. Generational and Phases of Passage
b. The Phases of Passage to Adulthood
Part Two: The Historical Rites of Passage to Adulthood
a. The Male Rites of Passage into Adulthood
Ionian Male Rites of Maturity in Archaic and Classical Athens
Dorian Male Rites of Maturity in Sparta during the Classical Period
b. The Female Rites of Passage into Adulthood
Ionian Female Rites of Maturity in Classical Athens
Dorian Female Maturity Rites in Sparta
Argive Female Maturity Rites
In Conclusion: Contemporary Rites of Passage


The first insight one receives when studying the ancient Hellenic rites of passage into adulthood is the intricacy, finesse and balanced manner in which the structures of civic, social, familial and religious life were integrated with each other. It is possible that it was due to this civilised and accepting approach to structure and order within every facet of Hellenic life that specific rites of passage were necessary to develop the qualities essential to assimilating a young person into successful adulthood. The ancient approach to the proximity of the Gods in all aspects of life and the world endorsed civic, social and familial structures with a sacred nature that is sadly missing in the modern world. The roles of adulthood were sanctified reflections of nature and all were expected to assume the yoke of the adult world in due time. However, to accept this burden of adult responsibility and duty required maturity.

The ancient Hellenes seemed to understand that maturity is not a natural consequence of either physiological puberty or the culmination of one’s education [as is the ideology of the modern world]. Maturity arises from the acceptance of structure and the inherent responsibilities and duties that are a part of preserving, continuing and advancing such a structure.

The rites of passage associated with coming-of-age and accepting adult responsibility are thus the rituals and procedures that prepare an adolescent for and thus catalyse the maturity necessary to emotionally, intellectually and spiritually accept the natural consequences of reaching sexual maturity.

Many of these rites associated the transition from childhood to adulthood with the transition from life to death. Becoming an adult is the death of the child. Accepting adult responsibilities and duties is the death of the life one knew or loved as a child. Maturity is the death of the purely physical existence of childhood and the transition to a netherworld of spirit, intellect and emotion. The success of these rites of passage depended entirely on how ready the child was to accept maturity in measured doses over a period of time.

It is important to note that there was no clear social or gender differentiation (other than symbolic) between male and female young children. The gender distinctions were only introduced upon puberty in Ionian Athens and in Dorian Sparta at the age of seven due to the separate civic development programmes for male and female children. The reasons for this were simple; regardless of region or tribe, there was a civic and societal recognition that male and female children matured at different ages and in different ways. This is evident in the familial, social and civic structure that represents the female acceptance of maturity happening at a far earlier age than their male counterparts. A female was considered ready for child-bearing and raising her young during her teenage years while a male was only considered a full adult ready to have his own family at around the age thirty or after.

The modern tendency to homogenise gender development is antithetical to the ancient Hellenic approach. Adult gender roles and functions were extremely well defined and delineated in the ancient Hellenic family, social environment and within the state. Advanced levels of maturity were necessary for any adolescent to accept their new adult status graciously. Individual desires were secondary to the primacy of family, tribe and state. The religious and philosophical concepts of virtue and ethics echoed, clarified and refined the conception of the maturity [and self-control] necessary to live a good life within the civic and social structure. Hence the ideology supporting the rites of passage cannot be seen out of context to the familial, social and civic structure of the time. Understanding this offers us further insight into the ancient Hellenic philosophies as those ideas concerning the virtue and ethics of individuals, the state and the importance of greater good and beneficence in defining family, social and civic roles and functions. Neither the philosophy nor the religion can be properly understood without the context of the structure of the ancient Hellenic culture.

The death of the child and the birth of the new adult is a gradual process that is accomplished by the acceptance of certain roles, duties and responsibilities given at specific ages that were not determined by the needs or desires of the individual adolescent but rather by familial expectations and social customs and reinforced by civic law. Philosophical ethics calling for the control of individual desires for the sake of a greater good may be better understood with context to the social and civic value system. Hellenic virtue is simultaneously brought into perspective as that which serves the greatest good of the Hellenic State and the Hellenic people as both a collective and individual family units within a tribe and region. Within context to this, philosophy is the examination of true human nature and the understanding, acceptance and advancement thereof. To remove Hellenic philosophy and ideology from the context of Hellenismos (ancient Hellenic culture and people) is thus to lose the function and purpose of such philosophy.

The point of the acceptance of maturity in the name of individual and collective good was never intended to mean the subjugation of the individual for the sake of some global humanitarian ideal. Its primary aim was the promotion of the intellectual acceptance of the beneficence of maturity [and thus reason] to both individuals and the collective within a localised social and civic structure.

The genre of tragic theatre is closely related to the concept of the ancestral and historical cult hero. Many of the tragedies illustrate the transition of an individual hero’s status from one state to another. A common theme of these status transitions of the tragic genre illustrate the consequences of not accepting the natural order of life and the resultant suffering that occurs due to the lack of completion of the rite of passage into maturity and adulthood.

The surviving works concerning the status transition from childhood to adulthood exemplify the customary and rituals procedures of successful transition as well as the consequences of unsuccessful transition. The study of these texts offers an insightful understanding into the generic structure of rites of passage in general.

Part One: General Rites of Passage

a. Generational and Phases of Passage

To identify the value of the subtleties of the rites of the passage of ancient Hellenes, it is useful to have a basic understanding of the primary elements of what encompasses a rite of passage in general. The ceremonies that mark these milestones in life and the ideologies that support them are the customs that embody the practical application of the value system of not only the family, tribe and State but also the religion itself.

The ritual elements and the axioms or doctrines that they embody and express are, first and foremost, the procedures for acknowledging or catalysing a change to an individual’s status in the world.

There are three major milestones in the life of any person; birth, maturity and death. These life phases form the basis for a series of rituals that introduce an individual into the roles and responsibilities necessitated by natural growth and progression. In essence, these rites of passage consist of a set of highly insightful rituals based on the pragmatic recognition of the true nature of the male and female of the human species. These ritualised customs and values are rarely completed in a single ceremony but are rather comprised of a collection of rites that are performed at various stages of development into a particular role.

All of these rites of passage are based on the single and important axiom that ‚each new generation is a continuation of the generation before‘. This essential truth is supported by many of the myths and teachings of the Hellenic religion. The generational passage takes place on five different yet interconnected levels:

  • The continuation of the human species

  • The continuation of an Oikos (familial lineage, home and wealth)

  • The continuation of the tribe

  • The continuation of the state (and civic identity)

  • The continuation of the psyche (soul)

Each rite of passage consists of three different phases of passage or change that occur in a specific order and in accordance with an ancient formula for catalysing the transformation of an individual’s status from one stage of development to another. Any single phase of passage may consist of either one or more rituals and customs designed to assist the individual to accept the change graciously and integrate it positively within their lives. Rites of Passage are distinguished from voluntary ritual initiations because they reflect and express the natural and inescapable processes of life.
These phases of passage are:

  1. Separation: The rites of separation form the first phase of any rite of passage.
    These rituals and teachings are designed to mark or begin the separation process from a particular state of being or from a particular status in life. The rites mark the end of a life phase and open an individual to the new role and responsibilities that are a consequence of the milestone they have reached. No rite of passage is either complete or successful until an individual has been successfully separated from their previous states of existence.

  2. Transition: (Also known as the liminal phase). This phase of any rite of passage literally refers to the thresholds, borders and boundaries of binary constructions.
    A binary construction refers to any system that uses two alternative states or conditions. Thus the liminal phase of any rite of passage consists of the ritual customs that inform, develop and make possible the transition of an individual to a new state of being.

  3. Incorporation: This final phase of any rite of passage comprises of the rituals designed to incorporate and integrate the individual into their new role complete with amended functions and responsibilities.

The generational passage and the three phases of passage may be found in rites of passage of all three phases of life (birth, maturity and death) in a significant manner and their primary is ‚Anthropopoeis‘ or ‚the act of human-making‘. This is accomplished by the development of the individual through the conservation and inheritance of the genealogy, culture, customs, citizenship and religion of their collective.

b. The Phases of Passage to Adulthood

The rites associated with reaching puberty, developing maturity and assuming the roles and responsibilities of adulthood participate in the generational passage in the following manner:

  • The continuation of the human species through sexual maturity and the procreative process

  • The continuation of the Oikos (household) through (a) the perpetuation of a genealogical line through the marriage and production of legitimate offspring and (b) the preservation of a family home or wealth through the birth rite of inheritance

  • The continuation of the tribe through the acceptance of young adults as fully functioning members of the tribe

  • The continuation of the state (and civic identity) through (a) the act of becoming citizens of the state; (b) land-owners of property falling within the state’s jurisdiction; (c) parents of future citizens and (d) protectors of the state in times of war

  • The continuation of the psyche (soul) through (a) participation in the procreative process and the production of children and (b) civic commitment in a virtuous and beneficial manner that develops and refines the soul

The customs and rituals of the rites of passage into adulthood participate in the three phases of passage in the following manner:

  1. Separation: Each rite of passage into adulthood (sexual maturity, tribal acceptance, marriage, citizenship, inheritance and military duty) has an element of the separation phase of passage within its procedures and customs. Every facet of adult life that a young person must undertake and assume duty and responsibility for separates them a little more from their childhood. Sexual maturity is the first and most significant of these separation phases as the state of the child’s body undergoes transition into physical adulthood. Tribal acceptance also acts as a rite of separation in that the young adult moves away from the overriding influence of the family and into a tribal environment where their own individual character will be developed by the influence of people outside of their immediate family. Marriage requires a separation phase for the bride who must be separated from her family in order to become a full part of her husband’s oikos (household). In the same way that brides are separated from their families through marriage, young men are separated from their households to assume their military obligations. Becoming citizens is as much an act of separation as it is incorporation in that it detaches the young adult from the irresponsibility and freedom afforded to children. The act of separating the young adult from their childhood is crucial for developing maturity and accepting responsibility. The separation of the child from their family is thus also the liberation of the new adult into the autonomy and sense of duty necessary to be successfully incorporated into the adult world. In a religious sense, these separation rites include the departure of the child from the Gods who preside over childhood. The separation of adolescent boys and girls from one another is also significant as this is the rite of separation that will only be resolved through the re-incorporation of men and women through marriage.

  2. Transition: The transitional passage from childhood to adulthood refers to the deliberate and measured transferral of power from the family to the young adult. The entire rite of passage for a boy will begin at around fourteen and continue until he is approximately thirty or thirty-five years of age. While the male transition phases may be measured in age the rite of passage for girls is determined upon the occurrence of events. Female transition rites begin with the transformation of puberty, develop with the changes necessary to adapt to married life (and a new household) and culminate with the transition to motherhood. After bearing their first children young women are perceived to have completely fulfilled their female potential and are granted full adult status. For both boys and girls, the rituals of transition are events that introduce them into their new roles at times determined by (a) natural growth; (b) reaching a prescribed age or (c) fate. The rituals that accompany these rites introduce the young adults into the social groups that preserve and continue particular aspects of the structure of adult society in both a familial and civic context. The rites of transition mark the milestones of change from child to adult as well as the rungs of the ladder from youth to maturity.

  3. Incorporation: The incorporation of young adults into their new peer groups provides the adolescents with experienced role models and guidance to successfully be assimilated into their new roles. The incorporation passage primarily takes the form of rituals that welcome the adolescent into their new adult status although the experiences learnt from their new identity and role in real life will prove to be the ultimate maturing agent. These gender specific roles and experiences assist the young adults to negotiate the re-incorporation of male and female society taking place upon marriage.

The functions, rites of ‚coming of age‘ and the maturing agent of experience and time are not only the process of ‚human-making‘ but are more specifically the customs that make Hellenic men and women out of boys and girls.

Part Two: The Historical Rites of Passage to Adulthood

Rites are passed down from generation to generation and aim to prepare a child for entry into their adult and civic identities the cultivation of masculine and feminine qualities and functions within their psyches. These qualities will transform the spiritual, intellectual and emotional faculties of the adolescents that, in turn, will support the biological changes occurring within their bodies. The male and female customs are dissimilar as the anatomy, roles, functions, responsibilities and duties of adult men and women differed in both the family and the state. However, regardless of differences in rituals, the basic formula for the rite of passage (generational passage and the three phases of passage) is preserved within both male and female coming-of-age rites.

It is important to note that the goal of any coming-of-age rite is to supply the child with all the information and guidance necessary to fulfil: (a) themselves as either adult men or women (i.e. developing appropriate masculine and feminine spiritual, intellectual and emotional qualities); (b) their roles within their future family unit as either husbands, son-in-laws and fathers or as wives, daughter-in-laws and mothers; (c) their roles within the tribe to ensure the continuation of tribal lineages and customs as well as the right of specific tribes to own and govern ancestral land; (d) their roles within the state as citizens and (e) their role as adult members of the religion through the acceptance of spiritual guidance from the Gods who preside over their new roles and whose influence will assist them in accepting the fate assigned to them by natural law.

These coming-of-age rites function simultaneously as a phase of passage for the parents of the young adult who must transition into their new role of in-laws and grandparents. The awareness of this is an important factor in ensuring the natural distance, freedom and responsibility that a parent must afford a young adult who seeks to establish themselves as citizens with families of their own. Due to the generational nature of these rites, it is the responsibility of each generation to provide the necessary guidance for the next and future generations.

a. The Male Rites of Passage into Adulthood

The male rites of passage separate a young man from his boyhood and introduce him into his new adult peer groups of tribal men, citizens, landowners, fellow soldiers, married men and fathers. It is a long rite of passage that spans many years (depending on region) and is comprised of many sub-rites of passage that take place in accordance with city-state laws.

Each of these sub-rites of passage includes a challenge and test that is essential to for a boy to overcome in order to be incorporated into adult male society. The ancient concept that a boy can only become a man by surviving the tribulations and trials that a man must endure and conquer is central to the ideology of male rites of passage into maturity.

The tests and trials of youths is a subject undertaken by the ancient poets whose works were performed through the didactic medium of the theatre. Euripides‘ ‚The Bacchae‘ offers one such example through the character of the youthful Pentheus who becomes King without having the wisdom to pass the test that the God Dionysos sets for him. His tragic death at the hands of his mother and her fellow maenads is the result of his failure to meet the challenge of manhood.

One of the finest examples of the poetic illustration of the tests of manhood is the initiatory text of Philoktetes by Sophokles. Philoktetes is the story of a young man who through tragic circumstances cannot complete his full rite of passage into adulthood and thus is caught in a situation from which he can neither return nor progress. In the inimical style of Sophokles, the tale is told in the manner of an allegory and is one of the most impressive examples of an ancient initiatory text. Philoktetes exemplifies not only the course of generational passage but also includes all three phases of passage (separation, transition and incorporation) in a manner that is worthy of mention.

  • Generational Passage: The rite of generation is represented by Sophokles in the form of a bow which Philoktetes inherits from his ancestor Herakles. This motif is duplicated in the character of Neoptolemos who inherits his weapons from his father Achilles. These weapons play pivotal roles in developing the character of both Philoktetes and Neoptolemos. This reveals an insightful facet into generational passage in the form of the role played by the inheritance of weapons in developing the identity of any individual. The fact that the inheritance is a weapon is significant in that it represents not only the means of individual survival but also the manner by which a hero may prove his worth through courage and valour. When all else deserts Philoktetes it is the bow of Herakles as the emblem of his generational passage that ensures his survival through his ability to sustain himself.

  • The Separation Rite: The rite of separation is allegorised in two ways (a) by the bite of a serpent that separates Philoktetes from his health and (b) by Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus abandoning Philoktetes upon the island of Lemnos. Philoktetes is thus separated from not only his own agility but also the company, guidance and loyalty of his kinsman. He must face his trial and endure his test of solitude and survival without any of his creature comforts such as family, tribe and fellow citizens. All that remains is his inherited bow. When Neoptolemos tricks him out of his bow, Philoktetes‘ very survival is threatened unless he accepts incorporation into the Hellenic army at Troy. Hence the separation of Philoktetes from his bow is simultaneously the separation from his ability to sustain himself. His subsequent survival relies completely on incorporation into a cause in which he no longer believes.

  • The Transition Rite: The rite of transition is portrayed (a) by the transformation of Philoktetes from a healthy nobleman on his way to Troy amidst the company of the aspiring Hellenic generals to the lame, suffering and savage wild man who crawls around Lemnos and (b) the promised transformation of Philoktetes and Neoptolemos by the hero Herakles who promises healing, glory and honour if they make the journey to Troy. The transformation of Philoktetes from nobleman to savage is representative of the sheer animal survival nature of mankind that must be relied upon by the young man during his rite of passage. The promise of healing, glory and honour by Herakles [the heroic nature] illustrates that the suffering of separation and transition will be healed by the successful incorporation and integration of the savage and heroic nature of man.

  • The Rite of Incorporation: The rite of incorporation is demonstrated by Philoktetes‘ action of rejoining the Hellenic army in Troy. This is the culmination of the integration of the savage and hero within as well as a major milestone in the journey to accepting the fulfilment of maturity despite the harsh truths about the structure into which one is being incorporated. This illustrates the battle between disillusionment and ideals as well as the function of heroic ideals in ensuring the successful completion of the male rite of passage into maturity.

Sophokles provides an accomplished example of a boy’s journey into manhood that forms a more than adequate foundation upon which to reflect upon the actual rites of passage used by the ancients to catalyse the maturity of Hellenic youths.

Ionian Male Rites of Maturity in Archaic and Classical Athens

The Ionian male rites of passage from childhood into adulthood in Athens began at a three day festival called the Apatouria. The Apatouria was held in the Pyanepsion of each year and was the event where young boys would be introduced into their father’s phratria. Each phratria (blood-brotherhood society) in Athens was compromised of Ionians who shared common ancestry. During the first two days of the Apatouria, it was customary for members who had been married in the past year to hold a wedding feast for their phratria brothers to announce their marriage and the identity of their new wife. On the third day called the Koureotis; youths of somewhere between fourteen to sixteen years of age were introduced and inducted into their father’s phratria. This was an extremely important coming-of-age rite for Ionian boys and was a first and vital step to not only becoming an adult male within the society of men but also within the Athenian State. Membership to a phratria was a prerequisite for being enrolled on the citizenship list of any demos (one of 142 outlying municipalities of the countryside surrounding Athens divided under the jurisdiction of 10 ancestral Ionian clans) until the reform of Cleisthenes in 508 BCE. Being listed as a citizen within an Athenian demos was, in turn, a pre-requisite for gaining full Athenian citizenship upon reaching the majority age of eighteen. Upon their induction into the phratria, boys offered a lock of their hair to the Goddess Artemis (whom both boys and girls are protected by and in service to until they come-of-age) to represent that their childhood was at an end. After their incorporation into the phratria, the society acted as an intermediary between the ancestral family line and the state for these young men. Henceforth these youths were referred to as ephebos meaning ‚on the threshold of maturity‘ and representing the fact that they had now entered the transitional phase of passage.

Upon turning 18, the ephebos would tour all the sanctuaries of Athens and swear an oath before witnesses that he had reached the majority age and had been born in accordance with the laws of Athens (i.e. born of a legitimate union of a father who was a registered Athenian citizen). From the early 4th century BCE the law was amended to state that only a child born from both a father and a mother who were registered Athenian citizens could gain citizenship. From eighteen, the ephebos could inherit property, represent themselves in court and was declared free of state care if he was an orphan. Most importantly, this was also the age when the young man became eligible for two years of compulsory military service. At this time his father or the state (if he was a war orphan) would present the ephebos with greaves, breastplate, helmet, shield and spear with which he would undergo his military service.

After this two-year period was over, their ephebeship ended and they were considered men who attained a certain maturity through their exposure to battle. Henceforth they were referred to as Neoi to acknowledge their status as new men. They took an oath to protect Athens and were eligible for further military campaigns until they were fifty-nine years of age. However, the Neoi were only considered fully mature men at the age of thirty. This roughly coincides with the time when they would marry and come into their inheritance upon the death of their fathers (who were mostly at least 35 years older than them). Even though they were considered mature adults at thirty years old, Athenian men were only encouraged to marry and have children at around the age of thirty-five.
The wise reasoning behind this is evident by the words of Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, the father of democracy and one of the seven wise men of ancient Hellas.

A young child growing first loses baby teeth at seven years old
[thus establishing growth cycles of seven years];
When indeed the Gods might complete seven additional years,
the signs of full youth become manifest;
In the third [seven year cycle], limbs still growing, the chin becomes downy,
changing the bloom of the skin;
In the fourth seven, all are best in strength and men
show signs of excellence;
The fifth is the season for a man to think of marriage and
producing children to follow after him;
In the sixth, the mind of man is educated in all things,
he wishes as well not to work at impractical tasks;
At seven sevens he is best in mind and speech;
As well as eight, fourteen years for both;
In the ninth he is still capable but his speech and wisdom
are softer in matters of great virtue;
In the tenth, if one should arrive at this completed measure,
he will have his portion of death not out of season;


In accordance with Solon’s wise reasoning: Marriage and children in the fifth season (35 – 41 years of age) will result in a man entering his seventh and eighth seasons when his own sons and daughters come-of-age and he will thus be at the summit of mind and speech and exemplify perfect maturity. A man in the full ripeness of maturity will be more likely to make the decisions necessary for his own young adult children to wisely guide them into maturity. If he should have children too young, he will not be mature enough and if he should too, he will be too soft on them in terms of teaching virtue.

This concept of the natural levels of maturity and the actions appropriate for each ’season‘ of man’s development is an important understanding of the ideology surrounding rites of passage in ancient Hellas and are fairly indicative of the expectations of citizens of any Hellenic state where the education of children was a family [as opposed to state] responsibility.

Dorian Male Rites of Maturity in Sparta during the Classical Period

The male maturity rites only differed vastly in regions where the education and civic identity of children was purely the responsibility of the State and community at large as opposed to being left to individual family units. Such a place was the Dorian tribe’s Spartan State complete with its famed warriors. The primacy of the military as a social and ethical value system in Sparta created a very specific set of male maturity rites that were designed to promote and develop the most heroic of masculine qualities within its pubescent boys.

One of the first differences is that Spartan boys only remained within the care of their mothers or nurses until the age of seven where after they were inducted into the Agogue (a communal male school system) where the boys would live while they received their education and learned military training, hunting skills as well as sports and social training. This was their first rite of passage that effectively began the boy’s separation from:

  • The comforts of home so they could learn to endure hardship and discipline;

  • The individual family unit so that the child could grow up in the standard manner prescribed by the State for Hoplites (soldiers) rather than according to the whims and wealth of a particular family. This was the second phase of their incorporation into their state and civic identities. The first of which took place when they were infants.

  • The individualistic and self-centred nature of childhood and the incorporation into the collective and standard nature of Hoplites who must learn to subjugate their individuality for the sake of collective military strategies such as the legendary phalanx. This communal style rite of passage ensured the bonding necessary for a cohesive male society as well as a disciplined military superiority.

  • The separation from the world of women into the care of male society who would act as role models as well as guiding the development of the boy into their adult male identity.

At the age of thirteen and coinciding with puberty, the adolescent boy had to endure a test of survival that was designed to weed out the weak youths and to only allow the strongest of boys to continue on with their training to become Hoplites in the Spartan army. This test and challenge is reminiscent of Sophokles‘ Philoktetes in that each boy was sent into the mountains alone for a period of time where they had to use their instincts and skills to survive.

At eighteen, a Spartan youth became eligible to become a reserve in the Spartan Army and the most important rite of passage (as the raison d’etre) began when he was twenty and became eligible for ten years of military service. The young men were encouraged to marry at this stage although they were not permitted to live with their wives until they had finished their military service at the age of thirty. Spartan youths at age twenty were also required to become members of syssitia (dining messes/clubs) composed of approximately fifteen members per club. The purpose of such a club was to teach young men to bond and rely upon each other. These youths were called homoioi (meaning ‚equals‘) in reference to their common lifestyles and the discipline of the phalanx which demanded that no hoplite consider himself superior to another. Within their military service, they were required to fight in the annual campaign season or whenever necessary. Upon departing for battle, their wives or mothers (if they unmarried) would present them with their shields along with the words; „E tan e epi tas“ („with this or upon it“) in reference to the Spartan requirement that a soldier must either return victoriously home carrying their shield or dead and carried upon it. Victory or death were the only options for an Hoplite.

At age thirty, the young men were released from full-time military service and were considered full Spartan citizens with all the rights and privileges afforded to a full citizen. They could now live with their wives and families although they remained active reserves of the Spartan army until they were sixty years of age. Upon reaching this culmination of their rite of passage into manhood and male society, Spartan men were expected to contribute financially to the syssitia system and participate in the guidance of young boys and homoioi.

b. The Female Rites of Passage into Adulthood.

From the onset of menstruation the rites of passage into adulthood began for girls in the ancient world. The status of adult women in the various city states was greatly influential in determining the form of the ideal role and functions of females in the family, society and within the civic structure. The natural function and purpose of femininity was divinely prescribed as that of wife and mother to future generations. Hence the matriarchal training and preparation for adulthood was in accordance with the religious, societal and civic expectations of women within the structure of the laws and value systems of any particular city state or region.

Where lineage and pedigree were highly valued by a tribe governing a region, ideals of passive domesticated femininity predominated and women were more inclined to be limited in their civic freedom. In other regions where strength and heroism were primary tribal and civic values, the females were educated and trained in a manner equal to their male counterparts albeit with a different civic and societal function. Thus no female rite of passage in the ancient world can be seen without the context of the civic and societal status of women in a particular region and during specific periods in time. As with the men, the ideals and values of the state and/or tribe at any given moment in time dictated and determined the nature of the rites of passage from childhood to maturity. Yet regardless of the specific details of the role and function of women in the various regions, the basic formula and purpose of a rite of passage remained the same.

From puberty until the time of her marriage, a girl was called Parthenos to indicate her status as a virgin or maiden. This status of maidenhood was the first separation rite of a girl from her childhood. She stood upon the threshold of adulthood due to her physical ability to bear children. She was no longer a child but nor was she a woman. Ancient Hellenes only bestowed the status of Gynaike (woman) to a female who had endured labour and given birth to a child. This was a time of physical and emotional transition for the maiden as she underwent the hormonal changes that would bring her to full sexual maturity and fertility. As a maiden she was now more fully integrated into the care of adult women whose responsibility it was to prepare her for her new status as one who is eligible for marriage through her incorporation into the society of maidens.

The second phase of her rite of passage would be upon her marriage after which she would be called Nymphe (the bride). Once married the girl was separated from her maidenhood through the transition phase of sexual consummation. This was simultaneously an act of re-incorporation into the world of men from whom she was separated from during early puberty by the introduction of gender roles. This act of incorporation re-introduces the female to male society in her new role as wife. So too will she be incorporated into her husband’s family and tribal associations while assuming the domestic, societal and civic duties and responsibilities befitting her new status.

Ionian Female Rites of Maturity in Classical Athens

One of the central reasons that Ionian girls in Athens were married so young and entered maturity so early is the Ionian perception of menstruation and the behavioural changes that many young girls suffer upon entering puberty. Emotional and hormonal behaviour was seen as medical afflictions of young girls approaching and incorporating the changes of menarche. The medical treatment prescribed for these afflictions was usually sexual intercourse or pregnancy. This perspective and its influence upon the age by which Ionian women were expected to be married and bear young is best understood through the words of the famed physician Hippocrates:

But when the flesh is yielding, quickly the menstrual blood flows down the straight passage of the veins and the part of the body is not endangered. But when the menstrual blood flows slowly, the veins and the part of the body are endangered and the girl is disposed to wildness and madness. And when the uterus is filled with the menstrual blood, there is chill, with fever. They call these fevers ‚wandering fevers‘.

The prescribed medical and psychological cure for these ‚wandering fevers‘ was marital intercourse and motherhood. Hence the sexual maturity of young girls was often marked by rites that prepared them for marriage and child-bearing. Another female ‚coming-of-age‘ affliction was that of ‚hysteria‘ which, from an ancient perspective, was connected to the uterus and a diagnosis of ‚blocked menses‘. The prescribed medical cure for such a condition was pregnancy.

As a consequence of the ideas concerning menstruation and the cures for the ‚disorders‘ thereof, adolescent girls faced the prospect of early marriage. Marriage would effectively remove them from the family home, incorporate them into a new family and leave them transformed as sexually active adult women and mothers. Coming-of-Age rites for adolescent girls (especially for Ionian girls in Athens) were thus ultimately the process by which they must accept their destinies as wives and mothers. This acceptance of their adult female nature was seen as ‚that which would make the flesh yielding‘ (as per Hippocrates) and cure them of their menstrual disorders.

The acceptance of one’s adult nature and all the duties and obligations this acceptance brought is the vital key to all ‚coming-of-age‘ rites of passage. The identity of the girl is transformed into the adult woman. This is the journey from which there is no return for the female and was often symbolised by the new bride burning the wheel of the chariot that carried her from her family home to her husband’s house where her children would be raised.

Dorian Female Maturity Rites in Sparta

The Dorians and in particular the Doric Spartans institutionalised athletics for girls who were coming of age and discouraged the use of cosmetics and adornment. Exercise was believed to assist in bearing the pain of childbirth as well as ensuring the production of healthy children. Girls were naked during their athletic training and games although this nudity was not a public spectacle or intentionally erotic. Plutarch records an instance in which a bachelor watched these naked girls exercise and was considered dishonourable by adult Spartans.

Because military perfection was of primary importance in Spartan society, women were highly valued as the ‚mothers of future Hoplites‘. Unlike Ionian women who were usually married and bore children from fourteen years of age, young Dorian women were only encouraged to have child at the end of their teenage years due to the higher survival rate of mothers and the healthier children produced if pregnancy occurs after adolescent growth is complete.

The education given to girls began well before adolescence though [at seven years old] and differed vastly from the education given to boys. Literacy was not a standard requirement for education of either males or females as it was not pre-requisite for military prowess. The main purpose of education was thus to support the military perfection of Sparta. As the boys were educated to become Hoplites (soldiers) so were the girls educated in a manner appropriate to become the mothers of Hoplites.

The girl’s education was state-run and uniform for all females of a particular age.
The uniformity of education ensured that all girls were trained to be the same kind of mother. Physical, emotional and spiritual strength combined with health were developed in these girls so they would be tough enough to raise [and often bury] the future hoplites of Sparta. Their education continued until they were eighteen years of age where after the young women were considered marriageable. All children born from the marriage belonged to the husband’s oikos (household) and the wife’s control and governance over this household was only gained through the children she bore. The concept of marriage in a Spartan sense did not include ideology or morality that encompassed a practice of monogamy for either husband or wife. Xenophon and Plutarch both record that it was not uncommon for a man without children to approach the husband of a woman [who had already born a child] and request that he be allowed to procreate with the wife.

It seems likely that women whose husbands were infertile could just as easily request procreation from another man. It was the duty of a Spartan wife to administer the financial affairs of the household. As such the economic responsibility of the family finances fell solely upon the shoulders of Spartan wives whose duties included the payment of civic charges. One of these civic charges was the required payment of mess fees by Spartan households. The inability of failure to pay these mess fees resulted in the loss of citizenship for Spartan men. Hence the very preservation of citizenship rested upon the skills of Spartan wives to manage their family’s financial affairs.

Argive Female Maturity Rites

Examples of the consequences of girls who continue to resist accepting their adult natures (i.e. marriage and children) exist within the legacy of ancient Hellenic literature. The minor character of Io in Aeschylus‘ Prometheus Bound explores the hysteria and journey of self-discovery of a young girl to accept her impending adult female identity and the expectations of her family and the civic expectations and responsibilities. Like Prometheus who is bound in suffering for his theft of the divine fire, Io will suffer daily until her heroic nature (like Herakles in the myth of Prometheus) can accept the implications inherent within the rite of passage from maiden to mother. Her complete acceptance of her new identity will signal the end of the transition phase and the beginning of her incorporation into adult female society. Until incorporation is accepted totally, the second stage of transitional passage will continue. From Prometheus Bound and the character of Io, it is clear that an extended transitional passage will often result in spiritual, emotional or physical nomadic behavioural patterns.

The story of Io in Prometheus Bound finds its catalyst for change (and growth) in the form of the Goddess Hera. The influence of Hera’s wrath in a myth or play usually indicates a contest (Agon) or struggle which the hero or heroine must endure and overcome in order to find the Goddess‘ approval. It is significant that the anger of the Goddess turns Io into a cow as this is Hera’s sacred animal. So too is Hera the patron Goddess of women and marriage.

The transition to sexual maturity and the rites of passage that assist girls with this process also took place under the patronage of the cult of Hera of Argive. At the Heraion a rite of passage took place where a girl at sexual maturity was placed in a solitary and confined area, painted white and referred to as a ‚cow‘.

  • This ritual contains all four aspects of a rite of passage in that:
    The girl must undergo an experience similar to that which Io underwent at the will of Hera. This is a form of generational passage as the same rite of passage is used from generation to generation as the divine model of gender roles and functions are inherited by each generation of young girls becoming women.

  • The girl is kept in seclusion and separated from her family and familiar surroundings. This is the separation phase of the rite of passage.

  • The girl is painted white and enters the state of womanhood under the influence of the Goddess Hera into whose care a girl passes as she enters marriage. This white painted girl simultaneously transformed into Hera’s sacred animal at the same time as she is transformed from a child into a marriageable maiden. This is the transition phase of the rite of passage.

  • After the rite the girl returns to her family to prepare for her future marriage and child-bearing. Her responsibilities become those of an eligible woman empowered with the divine duty of accepting the identity of an adult female with all this requires. Adult responsibility will now be expected from her and as she heroically rises to this challenge and accepts her new maturity within the family and the state she will become integrated within adult society. This is the final phase of the rite of passage; incorporation.

Although the ritual of her coming-of-age is complete, the girl must still face the true rite of passage in the real world. In much the same manner as Io, in cow-form, is pursued by Zeus in the form of a bull; the young girl is painted white and called a cow but for her transformation from Parthenos (maiden) to Nymphe (bride) to be complete, she must be ‚bulled‘ (i.e. lose her virginity). This aligns the young girl directly with Hera as the Cow Goddess of Women and Marriage whose epithets express the stages of female life. These epithets are Hera Pais (the child); Hera Ataurote (the unbulled referring to virginity); Hera Azuges (the unyoked referring to unmarried); Hera Nymphomene (the bride); Hera Zeugia (the yoked referring to married) and finally Hera Teleia (the one who is complete, perfect and has fulfilled her purpose).

Based on the parallel symbology of the epithets of Hera, the myth of Io and the Argive ritual it is possible that this particular rite of passage was given to a girl prior to an impending marriage. The groom would thus represent Zeus as the girl would represent Hera and their marriage would be a generational rite of passage that re-enacted and reflected the Hieros Gamos (holy marriage) between Zeus and Hera.

In Conclusion: Contemporary Rites of Passage

Much of the ideology of Hellenic rites of passage is antithetical to New World thinking. The successes of Second-Wave Feminism and other Equality Movements in homogenising male and female gender roles within the State and society will make the clear distinction between gender roles seem irreconcilable with the modern world. And indeed, Second-Wave Feminist thinking is adversative in many ways to the ideology of ancient rites of passage. It is only in Third-Wave Feminism and in specific Cultural Feminism that the differences between essential male and female qualities and characteristics may be explored positively and celebrated once more.

In a contemporary setting, these rites of passage would focus on preparing young boys and girls for the role they will play within the family and the state (including the laws and customs of the time). These roles are fluctuating due to an unstable economy and changing political systems. The important thing is to offer the necessary and appropriate information and guidance to these adolescents. However, the rites themselves should be left unchanged and only the information, guidance, functions and responsibilities should be contemporised to suit the 21st century CE and beyond.

The structure of generational passage and the phases of passage should remain unaltered as they are the initiatory formula for catalysing maturity in young Hellenes. The symbolic acts within the rites of passage should also be preserved as an act of generational passage and remain as a respected form of ancestral memory.

1. Rites of Passage in Ancient Greece: Mark William Padilla
2. Sophokles‘ Philoktetes: translated by Gregory MacNamee
3. Euripidis‘ Ion: translated by George Theodoridis
4. Religion in the Ancient Greek City: Louise Bruit Zaidman,Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Paul Cartledge
5. The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History: JV Fine
6. Religions of the Ancient World: Sarah Iles Johnston
7. Art, Culture and Cuisine: Phyllis Pray Bober
8. Figures of Speech, Men and Maidens: Gloria Ferrari
9. The Ancient Greeks; A New Perspective: Stephanie Lynn Budin
10. Spartan Women: Sarah B. Pomeroy
11. Marcello Lupi, L’ordine delle generazioni. Classi di eta e costumi matrimonali nell’antica Sparta. Pragmateiai: Collana di studi e testi per la storia economica, sociale e amministrava del mondo antico. Bari: Edipuglia, 2000. Pp. 228. ISBN 88-7228-237-3.
12. Xenophon: The Constitution of Sparta
13. The Unmovable Spartans: Robin Fowler