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!

The Ionia Sanction releases in Australia

It's the start of a new year. Happy 2012 to everyone!

 That also means The Ionia Sanction has finally released in my native homeland. Yay!

It's quite bizarre to poke your nose inside a store and see your own work on the shelves. Also fun.  I'm afraid it's reached the point where my children automatically say, "Don't look, daddy!" every time we approach any store that displays books. Oh well. So much for impressing the kids.

I want to say a huge, vast, enormous thank you to Belinda Byrne, who in addition to being a really nice person, took a chance on the crazy idea of a detective series in ancient Athens. If it weren't for her, there wouldn't be that lovely cover with the blue background and the lion's head coin that you see on the right. 

Thanks too to my wife Helen, an entirely apposite name under the circumstances, and to our daughters. The dedication on The Ionia Sanction says this:

For Helen, Catriona and Megan

School daze

School in classical Athens wasn't compulsory, but a father who didn't send his boys to school had about the same status as a leper, so effectively every boy got an education.  Girls were educated at home; which might annoy the ladies reading this, but in fact by the time I'm finished you might think the girls were the ones better off.

The first thing all kids were taught was how to read and write.  Literacy levels were high.  Very high.  And that applies to both women and men.  They might have had the highest general literacy until our modern age; and even then there are a few modern nations with literacy levels probably below that of classical Athens.  A common insult of the time was to say of someone, "He can't swim and he can't read."  Meaning, "This guy is a total idiot."    In a civilization of islands that relied on trade, swimming was a basic survival skill.  By implication, so too was reading.  

Every play, every history, every document of the time takes it for granted that the women could read as well as the men.  Also, plenty of pottery shows women playing musical instruments.  Literacy and music covers off two thirds of the male curriculum.

The boys learned these things: reading and writing, music, poetry, "wrestling" (sport), and the big one...reciting Homer.

A boy who didn't learn his Homer to a minimum standard could expect some beatings.  Homer was way too large for any normal person to remember it all, but there were core parts everyone had to know.  (Though having said that, Diotima can recite all of Homer end to end, and so too could a professional bard of the time).  If you read any dialogue from the period — the dialogues in Plato are a good example — you'll see that educated Athenians threw in quotes from Homer in their conversation in much the same way that Victorian period Englishmen threw in Latin tags.  I don't do that in my stories because it would drive you insane, though I've popped in the occasional easily recognized tag.  In The Ionia Sanction, as an experiment I put a quote from Homer at the top of every chapter.  The one at the start of chapter one is, "Evil deeds do not prosper; the slow man catches up with the swift."

With every boy going to school, there were obviously a lot of schools.  Almost certainly every deme had its own school, and the more populous demes probably had several.  (A deme was like a suburb; in fact many ancient demes are suburbs in modern Athens.)

There are numerous texts from the time extolling the virtues of a good beating to instill moral fiber in the weak.  The same didn't apply to the girls. Dr Arnold of Rugby School would probably have approved.

The Athenians had to pass a law limiting the school day to from dawn to dusk.  I'm not kidding.  No doubt when it was passed, the teachers grumbled how kids had it too soft these days, but they seem to have stuck to the letter of the law.  So an Athenian boy rose before dawn, arrived at school as the sun peeked over the horizon, and returned home when it was dark.  And let me point this weekends!  Religious festival days were the only respite for the boys.

Dedicating your toys to Artemis

I gave a talk at my daughters' school a few months ago, and much fun it was.  They were studying ancient Greece, so I was a fairly natural  addition to the curriculum.  I waffled on for an hour about things that I thought would interest the girls.  I talked about hairstyles, how children dressed (it was the previous post that reminded me of this), about schools and how kids took part in the festivals and how girls went to the sanctuary at Brauron.  Then I mentioned in passing that ancient Greek girls, before they married, were required to dedicate all their toys to the goddess Artemis.

Fifteen minutes later, I was still fielding questions as the girls desperately looked for ways around this evil rule.

They were shocked.

The dedication is obviously a coming-of-age ritual.  A maiden puts away her childish things before she becomes a wife.  Or more accurately, it worked like this:

When a girl was born she was a kore, which means maiden.  When she's betrothed she becomes a nymphe, and nymphe she remains until motherhood, when she became a gyne.

It's not quite the same as the maid, the mother, and the crone that's commonly found in neo-pagan beliefs.  But kore-nymphe-gyne was the true progression that the Greeks used, and the dividing lines are marriage and motherhood.  The dedication of the toys was part of the transformation.  The girl went to the temple, no doubt with her family, where in a ceremony she placed her toys somewhere within the temple, then she left without them; no longer a girl, but a young woman.

Based on the persistence of the girls I spoke to, I have no doubt there was more than one favourite doll that went missing at age 13, that magically reappeared at age 16.  There were probably some other brilliant schemes to save toys.  But in general the girls seem to have followed the rules.  There are a few surviving dedications which we can read today.  The clearest I know of is this one:
Timareta, the daughter of Timaretus, before her wedding, has dedicated to you, Artemis of the Lake, her tambourine and her pretty ball, and the net that kept up her hair, and her dolls too, and their dresses; a virgin's gift, as is fit, to a virgin goddess.