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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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