AGŌGĒ , a Greek singular noun derived from the verb agō ("to lead"), can be used to denote the leading by the hand of horses. In human terms, agōgē was used by the Spartans and the inhabitants of the island of Chios to denote the process by which their youths were "domesticated." In other words, the youths were considered to be similar to wild foals and fillies and had to be "broken" before they could enter adult society. Since this view of youths was widely shared in Greece, the term agōgē can be usefully employed as a rubric for examination of initiatory rituals and customs in ancient Greece.
At one time, during the Archaic period (eighth–sixth centuries bce), initiatory rituals existed all over Greece. However, by the beginning of the Classical period (fifth–fourth centuries bce), these rites had vanished from most urbanized Greek societies or had been reduced to a few ceremonies. Only at the margin of the Greek world, on the conservative island of Crete, did men's associations still convene in men's houses and supervise proper rites of initiation—at least until the fourth century bce. Here, young boys had to serve at the meals in the men's houses, their low status being stressed by shabby clothes and seats on the floor. After this period of informal education, sons of aristocrats recruited boys of lower social standing to form bands, which were supervised by their fathers. These bands were trained in hunting, dancing, singing, fighting, and, a modernization, letters. Having finally passed through a short homosexual affair with a more recently initiated lover, each aristocratic youth received a military suit, a special dress, and a drinking cup, the tokens of adulthood. It still took a while, however, before the youth reached unqualified adulthood (perhaps at the age of thirty), but about this period we are not informed. When the boys left the initiatory bands, they were forced to marry en masse.
In Sparta, similar initiatory rites took place, but here the state supervised the youths' training, which was geared completely to the purpose of controlling the Helots, Sparta's subject population. Moreover, the Spartan system, the agōgē, had been extended by the introduction of a long series of age-classes. (Rites of initiation can always be contracted or prolonged, depending on a given society's needs.) In Athens, the original initiatory structure had disintegrated in the course of the sixth century bce with the decline of aristocratic power. Nevertheless, from the exploits of Theseus (which reflect the life of an Athenian initiand), from various rituals, and from the later "national service" (ephēbeia ), we can still deduce the existence of an initiatory system comprising transvestism, trials of strength, running, pederasty, and a stay at the margin of Athenian society.
This evidence, coupled with scattered notices from other cities, suggests a picture of initiatory rituals that were once universal in Archaic Greece. These rituals were connected with a variety of divine figures such as local heroes, Hermes, Herakles, Zeus, and Poseidon. Apollo was especially important, since he supervised the final integration into adult society. The ubiquity of initiation is confirmed by Greek mythology in which initiatory themes—some no longer mentioned in the historical period—occur with astonishing frequency.
The prototype of the Greek mythological initiand was Achilles. He was educated by the centaur Chiron far from the civilized world; centaurs also figure as initiators of other Greek heroes, such as Jason. Chiron instructed Achilles in hunting, music, and medicine, and he gave him his name, his first name being Ligyron. Subsequently, Achilles spent time on the remote island of Skyros, dressed as a girl. In the Trojan War, he was the foremost Greek hero; late versions of the myth even claim that he was invulnerable. Finally, he was killed, through the intervention of Apollo. The structure of this myth clearly reflects male initiation rites: the education in the bush, the change of name, and the transvestism; further, the heroic feats combined with the theme of invulnerability suggest a kind of martial ecstasy that was also expected from youth on the brink of adulthood among other Indo-European peoples. The death through the initiatory god Apollo suggests the "death" of the initiand before his rebirth as an adult.
Other heroes' lives also display the characteristics of an initiatory scenario. Perseus travels to a marginal area to acquire a special weapon in order to kill a monster. Oedipus is educated far from home, passes the tests of the Sphinx, and then gains the hand of the queen-widow. Jason is educated by Chiron, who also gave him his name. Having collected a band of followers (cf. the Cretan rites), he performs valiant deeds with the Argonauts before returning home to become a king.
Besides these pan-Hellenic myths, there were many local heroes who served as initiatory models for youths. One example out of many: in Cretan Phaistos, it was said that Leukippos (Leucippus), although born as a girl, had changed into a man when he reached adolescence. This myth was the aition for the Ekdusia ("the shedding of clothes"), the festival of Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis. Evidently, it was a festival that celebrated the end of initiation when boys shed their female clothes (dramatized in the myth as a sex change) in order to assume proper male ones. Many such local initiatory myths were recorded in Hellenistic and Roman times long after the corresponding rites had disappeared.
Whereas boys were educated to become warriors, girls were trained for marriage. In Sparta, one of the few places about which we possess a fair amount of information, scantily clad girls started their initiation at the margin of Spartan territory in the sanctuaries of Artemis, the main Greek goddess of girls' education. Here, besides physical exercises, they were instructed through music and dancing in choruses. Evidence from other cities such as Athens confirms that this was the custom all over Greece. Girls were considered to be like wild animals that had to be tamed (they were called "bears" in Athens). This is reflected in mythology where the names of girls such as the Leukippides and Hipponoe suggest that girls were compared to wild mares who had to be domesticated.
During their final training for motherhood, aristocratic girls in Sparta had to pass through a lesbian affair, as they did on the island of Lesbos, where Sappho instructed groups of aristocratic girls. In this period, special stress was laid on enhancing their physical beauty, so that their marriages would be successfully consummated. Consequently, this period was closely connected with the cult of the beautiful Helen, who was worshiped as a goddess in Sparta. In fact, in a number of Greek cities a beauty contest constituted the end of girls' initiation. The protection of Artemis lasted until the birth of the first child, for motherhood, not loss of virginity, was the definitive entry into the world of adult women.
Many details of Greek girls' training can be found in the myths concerning Artemis, even though they tend, as myths so often do, to concentrate on the most dramatic part of the story: the final entry into marriage. The "taming" of a girl is expressed in a number of myths that all circle around her resistance to "domestication." The pursuit of the Proetides, the capture of Thetis by Peleus or of Persephone by Hades, the races to win Atalante, and even the capture of Helen by Paris—all these myths are concerned with the perceived resistance of girls to enter wedlock. Greek mythology is very much a man's world.
The pioneer study of Greek initiation is Henri Jeanmaire's Couroi et courètes (Lille, 1939), and the standard study is now Angelo Brelich's Paides e parthenoi (Rome, 1969). Both Jeanmaire and Brelich base their analyses on comparisons with the ethnological evidence. D. B. Dodd and C. A. Faraone (eds.), Initiation in Ancient Greek Rituals and Narratives: New Critical Perspectives (London and New York, 2003) is a not quite successful attempt at a revisionary approach. My articles "An Enigmatic Indo-European Rite: Paederasty," Arethusa 13 (1980): 279–298, and "Transvestite Dionysus," in M. Padilla (ed.), Rites of Passage in Ancient Greece (Lewisburg, Pa., 1999), pp. 183–200 are detailed studies of the roles of pederasty and tranvestism in the initiatory rituals. Claude Calame's Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece (Lanham, Md., 1997) is a detailed study of the girls' initiation. Fritz Graf's "The Locrian Maidens," in R. Buxton (ed.), Oxford Readings in Greek Religion (Oxford, 2000), pp.250–270 is an exemplary discussion of one complex of initiatory myth and ritual.
Jan N. Bremmer (1987 and 2005)