Greek Coming-of-Age Rituals and the Lysistrata

brauron header

This week, we are going to look at the play Lysistrata and in particular the passage that describes coming-of-age rituals for young Athenian girls.

Lysistrata is a Greek comedy by Aristophanes, performed in Athens in 411 BCE. In the play, one of the characters attests to her good upbringing by listing all the steps of initiation that a well-brought-up young Athenian lady would go through – a kind of cursus honorum. Here’s what the passage says:

At seven, then
I pounded barley
At the age of ten,
And clad in yellow robes,
Soon after this,
I was a Little Bear to
Brauronian Artemis;
Then neckletted with figs,
Grown tall and pretty,
I was a basket-bearer…
(Aristophanes, Lys. 636).

There are four steps that are described in this passage. The historical descriptions of these rituals are slightly different, and they each have their own titles.

Arrephoros: the first step is to act as a bearer of the sacred casket, at the age of seven.

Aletris: the second step is at the age of ten, when she would mill corn for Athena Archegetis.

Arktos: the third step was service as a ‘bear’ to Artemis at Brauron

Kanephoros: the fourth step was returning to Athens as a basket-bearer, holding a string of figs.

Following this, she would presumably be married, or at least eligible for marriage. There is some debate over how accurate these steps are; one problem is the apparent switching between serving Athena and Artemis, and the archaeological evidence suggests that the Arktoi were younger than they would be according to the play. In any case, this passage is referenced a great deal when talking about rituals for young Greek women.

The role of the Arktoi (“Little Bears”) at Brauron will be discussed next week. Aside from serving as a place of worship for pregnant women, the sanctuary at Brauron was the location of the Arktoi ritual that seemed to have been very important to upper class Greek society in the Classical period.

Upper half of a hand maiden. Attic Black Figure Neck Amphora. Philadelphia MS4834.
Upper half of a hand maiden. Attic Black Figure Neck Amphora. Philadelphia MS4834.

What other coming-of-age rituals does this remind you of? Let me know in the comments!


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