18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History

D.G. Hewitt - May 3, 2019

Throughout much of history, societies have marked the moment when their boys became ‘men’. And most continue to do so to this day. However, while in modern Western societies ‘coming-of-age’ rituals are largely fun and care free celebrations, in the past, they were far more dramatic. From Ancient Greece to ancient China, boys would be forced to prove their ‘manliness’. Tough, often bloody rituals were used to test youths, forcing them to prove they had what it took to be a man in an unforgiving world.

Thanks to surviving written accounts and to visual depictions, we have a good idea of what past societies did to mark the end of boyhood and the start of adulthood. And in some places, the influence of centuries-old traditions can still be seen. We know that, while some past societies believed boys became men as soon as they reached puberty – or even earlier – others allowed their male citizens to enjoy their childhoods for as long as possible. Similarly, the way in which the people of the past marked this major milestone in life varied dramatically. Some societies demanded bloodshed, whilst others demanded shows of obedience or bravery.

So, from murderous killing sprees and death-defying leaps to simple changes in hairstyle, here we present 18 of the most notable coming-of-age ceremonies for males in human history:

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Mentors were a vital part of male life in Ancient Greece. Museum of Art Boston

18. In Ancient Greece, boys would be paired with older male mentors and taught everything they needed to know about adult life

As a young man in Ancient Athens, being paired up with an older mentor was the first step towards manhood. In most cases, the boys family would arrange the union, seeking out an adult male who could help and support him in his career. The older man was known as the erastes, while the younger male was the eromenos, or philetor – though, in reality, the age difference might only be a few years, with the mentor still in his early 20s. The nature of the relationship varied markedly. In some Greek cities, it was highly sexual, and indeed this was seen as an important part of a boy growing up to become a man.

In Sparta, among other cities, any sexual contact between the mentor and his young charge was deemed highly inappropriate and could be punished extremely harshly, even by death. What’s more, it wasn’t just a one-way relationship. While the mentor was supposed to be the dominant partner in the arrangement, ancient poets often wrote of wily young men who manipulated their mentors and even broke their hearts. When the younger man’s family believed he was sufficiently mature to be a full citizen – and so marry and be politically active – the mentor relationship was terminated.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Leaning to fight was a crucial step on the way to becoming a man in Sparta. Pinterest.

17. The boys of Sparta were trained for adulthood from a very early age – and this included learning how to kill

In the ancient Greek city state of Sparta, boys were prepared for manhood from a very early age. In fact, as soon as they were born, a baby would be bathed in wine. How the infant reacted to this determined their path in life. If they showed courage and strength, they were destined to become a Spartan warrior. If the baby cried and showed signs of distress, they were deemed to be a future helot, or Spartan slave. Then, at the age of 7, the ‘warrior class’ of boys would be sent to the Agoge, a special school dedicated to turning them into not just men but into the most loyal and fearsome fighters of the ancient world.

The biggest test came at the age of 12. Then, a boy would be given nothing but a spear and a blanket and sent out into the wilderness. The aim was to survive for a whole month. Many boys failed, returning to their schools tired and hungry after just a week. They were dismissed from the Agoge and would live the life of the Spartan Perieci¸ or middle classes. Boys who survived a whole month were welcomed back as men. They would become full Spartan citizens and be permitted to take a wife and have children.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Young, wealthy males in Sparta would go on ritualistic killing sprees. Pinterest.

16. In Sparta, to become one of the city state’s elite men, youths would have to kill slaves silently and ruthlessly

The very best young men in Spartan society would undertake a special rite of passage, one designed to transform them into cold-blooded killers. If a student at the Agoge really shone, he would be selected to attend the Krypteia. This state-run institution was aimed at creating a secret military elite. The graduates of this school were deployed not just as special forces warriors against Sparta’s many external enemies. They were also used as a kind of secret police. Above all, it was their job to keep the helot slave population in check – by any means necessary.

To graduate from the Krypteia, young men would be ordered to go out and kill as many Helots as possible. More specifically, they were ordered to target the strongest male slaves and those who looked the most likely to rebel. Moreover, they were assessed on the ruthlessness of their kills, with extra bonus points for covert actions. Young male students might kill a Helot in his sleep or when he was relaxing with his family. If a student was caught, they could expect severe punishment. However, if they went on a successful killing spree, they would emerge from the Krypteia as adult male citizens and members of the Spartan elite, destined to hold high political office one day.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
In Rome, only an adult male could wear a toga virilis Wikimedia Commons.

15. For young, wealthy males of Ancient Rome, getting a ‘man’s toga’ was the first one of life’s true milestones

In Ancient Rome, getting a plain white toga was a big deal. The Toga virilis (quite literally ‘the toga of manhood’) was given to a boy at around the age of 12 or 13. However, it was reserved for freeborn males, not slaves. As boys, young Roman citizens would don the toga praetexta, with purple stripes adorning the plain white cloth. Only when a boy became a man would he be able to ditch those stripes. Once he got his Toga virilis, a free young man would enjoy all the rights that came with adult male citizenship of Rome, though he would assume the responsibilities that came with the privilege as well.

Perhaps the most famous reference to the togas of boys and men can be found in the accounts of Julius Caesar’s private life. According to the ancient sources, the future leader married his first wife Cossutia before he had even assumed the toga of manhood. As soon as the young Caesar was permitted to wear his Toga virilis, he ditched his spouse. No reason was given for the divorce, though it was almost certainly done for political reasons. After that, Cossutia disappears from the records for good. Caesar, meanwhile, made full use of the advantages that came with the adult toga and set off on his pursuit of total power.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Becoming a man in Ancient Rome was often a boozy business. Wikimedia Commons.

14. The Ancient Roman festival of Liberalia was a full of alcohol and symbolism, for boys and their mothers alike

Each March, the Romans would celebrate The Liberalia, a festival dedicated to Liber Pater, the ancient god of both wine and fertility. Like many Roman festivals, it was a suitably debauched affair, with copious amounts of drinking, eating and dancing. But it had a serious purpose too. It was used to mark the transition from boyhood to manhood – albeit only for children of freedmen and women. At the start of the celebration, boys of 15 or 16 would wear their bulla praetexta, charms made out of gold or leather and worn around the neck. They would then take these off and place them on an alter, offering them up as a gift to the Lares, the Roman gods of the family and home.

Once they had given up their bulla praetexta, the boys could finally don their adult togas. They were officially men of Rome, and had a wealth of privileges, including the right to own slaves and to vote. Like mothers of all ages, proud Roman moms would often collect their sons’ bulla praetexta from the alter at the end of the party and keep them for sentimental reasons. Or perhaps for superstitious reasons – it was said that, if a young man grew to be so successful that he was given a public triumph, the bulla would guard him against jealous evil spirits.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
The young men of Ancient Greece might have to prove themselves to become adults. Pinterest.

13. In Ancient Athens, young men had to address a special court and prove they were worthy of becoming adult citizens

Young men of good standing in Ancient Athens were expected to enter public service. Given their social status, it was simply assumed they would be up to the job. However, their bloodline needed to be confirmed before they could join the ranks of the privileged epheboi, or free young adult males. This is where the Dokimasia came in. Here, young males would be questioned on their parents, grandparents and other relatives. If the members of the Dokimasia were convinced that both sides of the candidate’s family were pure Athenian citizens, he would be permitted to go from being a boy to being a young man.

The Domaskia also assessed the young candidate’s physical prowess. If he was deemed fit enough, he would be expected to undertake military service. If not, then he would be expected to take over his family business or assume a role in public life. As such, the candidate’s mental capacity might also be assessed by the Dokimasia. Notably, all young males were expected to be grilled by the Dokimasia before they could move on from being ‘boys’. Even the sons of the Boule – the Council of 500 who ran Athens – needed to undertake this vital rite of passage.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Young male Masais would have to kill a lion with just a spear in order to prove their manliness. Wikimedia Commons.

12. In Kenya, young Masai boys would be sent to kill a lion armed with just a spear – if they succeeded, they were a man

The Masai people have called the plains of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania their home for hundreds of years. And their connection to the land and the native wildlife has influenced every part of their lives – including their male coming-of-age traditions. According to local lore, a boy could only become a grown man, otherwise known as a ‘moran’ or warrior, when he had killed a lion. More specifically, any teenager hoping to become a man would need to kill a male lion using nothing more than a single spear. To succeed in the task would prove that he was a real warrior, blessed with skill and courage.

If a young man was successful in his lion hunt, he would bring the mane back to his home village. Here, he would symbolically throw it away (older warriors were allowed to gift manes to women of the village) and he would then sacrifice a lamb. All this was to ward off bad spirits and mark his transition to adulthood. In recent years, however, this practice has come to an end as the Masai people work to protect Africa’s endangered lions. These days, the male coming-of-age rituals are centered around the bi-annual ‘Masai Olympics’, with spear-throwing the main event.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Jumping from a wooden tower has long been a coming-of-age ritual on Pentecost Island. Everywhere Man.

11. The people of Pentecost Island have been using their version of bungee jumping as a coming-of-age ritual for centuries

These days, the ‘land diving’ ritual of the people of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, is known the world over. The earliest version of bungee-jumping, it’s now a major tourist attraction. However, for centuries it was used as a coming-of-age ritual for the men of the island. Unsurprisingly, given it involves jumping from wooden towers up to 30 meters high with nothing but two tree vines tied around the ankles for protection, it is regarded as the ultimate test of courage – and, therefore, of masculinity.

According to tradition, only the men of a village may jump. They prepare for the big day by secluding themselves from women, abstaining from sex for up to a week. Then, when the day comes, the youngest, least-experienced jumpers go first. The aim is to get as close to the ground as possible, ideally brushing the earth with the head or shoulders. The riskier, the better. A young diver’s mother will be in the crowd, watching and holding onto a special item from the boy’s childhood. When he makes a successful jump, the item is symbolically thrown away – the boy has become a man. However, there is no compulsion to jump. Boys and men can decline to take part in the ceremony without being shunned or judged by their community.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Some scholars believe killing and eating dogs was a coming-of-age ritual in ancient Russia. Pinterest.

10. Back in 2,000BC, young men on the Russian steppes may have been forced to kill and eat their own dogs to be seen as adults

Life on the Eurasian steppes 4,000 years ago was about as tough as it gets. Young boys would have been forced to grow up fast. And, according to archaeologists studying Bronze Age settlements in this part of modern-day Russia, boys came of age in a very grisly way indeed. Recent investigations suggest that each winter, villages would kill the dogs they lived alongside. While they would have been used as guarding dogs to protect sheep from wolves rather than kept as pets, the people would have become attached to these dogs, with the young boys likely to have grown particularly close to their canine companions.

Boys wouldn’t just have to kill their dogs to be seen as men in their communities. Since recovered ancient bones show signs of being stripped of their meat, scholars believe they would actually have to kill them, butcher them and then eat them. If they managed to carry out this grisly task, they would be seen as adult males, with all the privileges and responsibilities this would have entailed back in the Bronze Age.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
The tossing ceremony was the first stage to becoming a man in Aboriginal society. The University of Illinois.

9. The Australian aboriginals had a number of painful ways for boys to prove their manliness

Australian’s aboriginal people had – and indeed, continue to have – a number of ways to mark the transition from a boy to a man. And, though they varied from tribe to tribe, some of them were very painful indeed. The first rites-of-passage would take place when a boy turned 12. Known as the ‘tossing ceremony’, this saw the young boy tossed into the air and then caught by various male relatives. Once that ritual had been negotiated, the boy needed to overcome tougher obstacles before he would be seen as a man in his tribe.

Many tribes would practice circumcision, with this performed on teenage youths rather than on infant boys. What’s more, in some communities, the newly-circumcised youths would be required to smear their blood onto the backs of other males from their tribe. The process would continue some time later when the youths would be required to carry burning branches and endure the pain of embers falling down onto their bare bodies. After that, they might be required to lie on top of hot embers for several minutes. And finally, the ‘knocking out ceremony’ saw an initiate’s tooth knocked out with a stone. It would then be thrown to the boy’s mother – and his transformation from boy to man was deemed complete.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Young Aztec males were expected to bring prisoners back to be sacrificed. Wikimedia Commons.

8. In the bloody culture of the Aztecs, boys needed to capture an enemy on the field of battle to become a man

Human sacrifice played a central role in Aztec culture, in more ways than one. For instance, priests would spill blood in the hope that the gods would provide them with a rich harvest or send rain. Or they might sacrifice a victim simply to give thanks to their gods. What’s more, human sacrifice was used as a rite-of-passage for boys hoping to become fully-fledged male warriors. According to Aztec traditions, a boy could only become a real warrior if he not only fought but he took an enemy prisoner rather than kill him outright in battle.

The Aztec youths would be expected to bring their prisoners back to their city and to the base of the temple. It may be that they would also lead the prisoner up the temple steps, though historians can’t say for certain. Either way, once the prisoners reached the top, he would be laid down on a special ceremonial stone. Then a priest would cut pen his stomach, from the throat downwards, and then pull his heart out. The heart would be held aloft as an offering to the gods and the rest of the body tossed down the steep steps of the temple, to be carted away and disposed of. Once the whole process was complete, a boy would be considered a true man.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
The Spanish coming-of-age ritual carried on into the 20th century. Pinterest.

7. In 19th century Spain, a boy only really became a man when he went away to fight for his country

In 19th century Spain, life revolved around two institutions: the Church and the military. These played a central part in every stage of life, and the army was closely linked to manhood. At that point in time, military service was compulsory for all young men. As soon as they turned 18, they would be expected to leave their home villages and go and serve for a fixed period of 2 or even 5 or 10 years. Young men who reached this milestone age were known as quintos, and a village might have a group – known as a qunito – or boys of around the same age who would leave at the same time.

Despite the dangers of military service, especially at a time when Spain was fighting wars in Cuba, Latin America and the Philippines, becoming a quinto was a big deal, and the surest sign that a boy had become a man. A few days before they were due to depart for their military service, the quintos of a village would go from door-to-door asking for food and drink. In many villages, this turned into an important annual festival, with the quintos getting drunk and feasting on what they gathered. They then might graffiti their names on the village walls, alongside the young men who had come of age before them.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Viking boys were expected to grow up and become men early. Pinterest.

6. Viking boys needed to hunt, help on the farm, fight and even marry before they would be seen as grown men

Becoming a man in Viking society was no easy process. There was no sudden transition from boyhood to manhood. Rather, a young male would have to prove his maturity over the course of several years. This was a tough environment, and Norse males were expected to be leaders and warriors in every sense. So, while in old Norse law, a boy was considered a ‘man’ at either the age of 12 or after ’15 winters’, this meant little in reality. Indeed, though he could ride a horse and even drink wine with the men of his community, only when he passed a series of trials would he truly be accepted as an adult male.

It was down to a young boy’s relatives to prepare him for manhood. To start with, as a young boy, he would be expected to help out running the family farm. Then from the age of around 10, he would begin to hunt, learning alongside grown males. What’s more, before he even reached his teens, he would learn how to fight. Only when he proved capable of fighting and hunting wild beasts would a boy be regarded as a man. However, according to Norse law, there was one final obstacle to manhood – marriage. Scandinavian youths would be married off as young as 12. Once he had a wife of his own, a boy had really made the transition to adulthood.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
The Guan Li coming-of-age ritual had its roots in Confucian philosophy. Pinterest.

5. The Guan Li ceremony of the ancient Chinese was rooted in Confucian philosophy and was complex and symbolic

The Zhou Dynasty ruled over ancient China for more than 700 years, and many of their traditions continue to this day. One such enduring tradition is the coming-of-age rituals during which a boy is said to finally become a man. The Confucian ceremony of Guan Li would typically be held when a young male turned 20. Unlike in many other ancient cultures, the initiation rites were peaceful and wholly symbolic. They were, however, highly complex, representing the humanist and rationalist beliefs of Confucianism.

At the very start of the Guan Li ceremony, the boy’s father would give a brief speech to the watching guests. While this was happening, the youth would take a bath and have his hair cut and styled, with a special bamboo pin put in. Once washed and ready, the Confucian master of ceremonies would place a traditional adult male cap known as a fu tou on the youth’s head. The boy would then leave the room and change into robes that matched this new cap. This was repeated with a darker hat and robe. After the second time, the youth would salute all in attendance and his transition to manhood was complete.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
The ancient Persians sent their boys away aged two to start their training for manhood. History for Kids.

4. For the people of the Assyrian Empire, boys had to toughen up from an early age, but needed 15 years of hard training to become a man

At the height of its powers, from the 10th to 7th centuries BC, the Assyrian Empire stretched from Egypt right across to the northern borders of modern-day India. The huge ancient superpower was able to conquer large parts of the known world by building up a large army of skilled, fearless warriors. Under the rigid system, young males were not allowed to enjoy their childhood for long. Indeed, in order to make strong men, boys were ‘toughened up’ from an early age. Indeed, as soon as they were born, boys were taken away from their own fathered and raised solely by their mothers and other female relatives up until the age of five.

After their fifth birthday, a boy would then be expected to begin his military training. For the next 15 years, their lives would be dedicated to learning how to fight. Some would be trained in using a bow, while others would focus on fighting with a sword or spear. All would learn how to ride a horse well, and, according to the ancient historian Herodotus, the young men would also be drilled in the importance of always “speaking the truth”. Only once they emerged from the military academy at the age of 20 would the youths be truly regarded as men, with all the privileges and responsibilities that came with adulthood.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
Leaning to hunt with an eagle was a key life skill for Mongolian males. ArtNow.

3. For the ancient Mongols, a boy would have to learn how to hunt with eagles before he joined the men of his tribe

For more than 6,000 years, men have been hunting with eagles on the steppes of Central Asia. According to the travel memoirs of Marco Polo, both Kublai Khan and Genghis Khan were masters in the art of berkutchi and had huge numbers of specially-trained hunting birds with which to enjoy their hobby. In the tough conditions of Mongolia, the practice has served as an effective way of hunting and providing food. At the same time, berkutchi has also served as a traditional coming-of-age initiation for Kazakh boys. Only by mastering the art and earning the respect and obedience of an eagle can a boy be considered a man.

Traditionally, a father would teach his own son the art of berkutchi. The boy would be given an eagle chick of his own to raise and train. The process might take several years and, since eagles are usually fiercely independent, it’s extremely tough. Once mastered, however, the young male can join the rest of the men in hunting expeditions. Moreover, he would also be able to take part in ancient Mongo games. Here, a man’s skill on horseback or with an eagle might win him not just the respect of his peers but possibly even a wife as well.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
A change in hairstyle was sufficient to signify the transition to manhood. Wikimedia Commons.

2. In ancient Korea, a simple change of hairstyle was for a long time a sign that a boy had grown into a man

In Korea, the earliest mention of coming-of-age ceremonies for young males can be traced back to the 10th century. This was a time when the Goreyo Dynasty ruled over the unified Korean peninsula. According to the records from the time, in the year 965, King Gwanjong gifted his son and heir an outfit that was usually worn by grown men. This gifting of adult clothing quickly came to be a popular method of showing that a boy had become a man. Then, over time, it merged with traditions imported into Korea from China and other neighboring cultures.

Later, during the Joseon Dynasty, which dominated Korea from the 14th to the start of the 20th century, coming-of-age ceremonies for middle and upper-class males became even more complex. Over time, the Chinese traditions of boys being given ‘adult’ hairstyles became increasingly commonplace. In particular, the Gwallye ceremony, which took place when a boy turned 15, saw the boyish long, flowing hair, tied up into a tight knot. This would symbolize to the rest of Korean society that the youth was now a man.

18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History
The age at which Samurai boys became men varied considerably over the centuries. Pinterest.

1. A young Samurai would be required to undertake a series of tests to prove he had grown into a man and a warrior

The Age of the Samurai started at the end of the 12th century and continued up until the mid-1800s. Over this time, the way in which a boy became a man evolved. While some parts of the initiation ceremony remained constant over the centuries, others – above all, the age at which a boy made the transition to adulthood – varied significantly. Since adult men were expected to fight in open battle, parents understandably tried to delay the day when their sons were no longer regarded as boys. As such, at times of war, the rites-of-passage might not happen until the age of 20.

In times of peace, however, it sometimes dropped as young as 12 or 13 – especially if a family wanted more children since only adult Samurai were permitted to marry. The coming-of-age ritual was known as Genpuku. Unlike many other warrior cultures, the Samurai never required young boys to undertake feats of strength, bravery or endurance in order to be seen as grown males. Rather, Genpuku was all about the symbols. Youth would be given a Samurai helmet, to be worn in place of the cloth cap of boyhood. He would also be presented with his own body armor and, most importantly of all, his Samurai sword.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Spartan Way: Manhood Is a Journey”. Art of Manliness. Brett and Kate McKay. August 26, 2018.

“Kenya’s Maasai break with coming-of-age tradition to save the lion.” Reuters, December 2016.

“Australian Aboriginal – Initiation and Mourning Rites of Passage.” The University of Idaho.

“Coming of Age in Ancient Greece.” Yale University Press.

“From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe.” Philadelphia University Press, 2003.

“The 6 Types of Togas Worn in Ancient Rome”. N.S. Gill. ThoughtCo. June 26, 2019

“History of Ancient Sparta.” Live Science.

“Bred for Battle: Understanding Ancient Sparta’s Military Machine.” National Geographic.

“Childhood and Samurai Training.” University of Tampere.

“Ancient warriors killed and ate their dogs as rite of passage.” New Scientist, August 2017.

“Coming of Age in Ancient Greece.” The Onassis Foundation.

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