Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.06.34

Mark W. Padilla (ed.), Rites of Passage in Ancient Greece.   Lewisburg:  Bucknell University Press, 1999.  Pp. 312.  ISBN 0-8387-5418-X.  

Reviewed by Mischa Meier, University of Bielefeld (
Word count: 1997 words

Since the great efforts of J. E. Harrison, H. Jeanmaire, A. Brelich, and C. Calame1 in examining rites of passage in the Greek world, these phenomena have become a new field of research for ethnologists and historians. Still, a new and comprehensive book which discusses the most important aspects against the background of actual results of scholarship in ethnology and history of religion is lacking. Padilla's volume marks an important step in this direction. The book consists of five parts in which the authors of twelve essays try to approach the complex phenomenon of rites of passage. However, most of the book deals with rites of passage in Athenian tragedy, namely 'Part One: Male Rites of Passage in Greek Tragedy', pp. 29-125 and 'Part Two: Female Rites of Passage in Greek Tragedy', pp. 129-180. The following shorter parts are concerned with the role of Dionysus in the context of rites of passage ('Part Three: Cults of Dionysus', pp. 183-218), with the meaning of the liminal stage during these rites ('Part Four: The Reconstitution of the Liminal Passage in the Ancient Novel', pp. 221-243) and with conceptual problems concerning the common model of rites of passage ('Part Five: Challenges to the Rites of Passage', pp. 247-312), which is still founded on van Gennep's important work and his tripartite classification of rites of passage (rites of separation, transition rites, rites of incorporation).2

In his introduction (pp. 15-23) Padilla himself stresses the importance of van Gennep's model (pp. 15-16), to which the authors of the following essays return repeatedly, either to take it as a starting point for further considerations or to demonstrate its validity in Greek societies or to criticize it. Unfortunately, Padilla fails to say explicitly what he means by the widely-used term 'rites of passage'. Furthermore he does not try to develop a specific understanding of this phenomenon that would fit Greek societies. Van Gennep's model of rites of passage, however, is construed from theoretical prejudices, which have been combined with some field-observations (see the essay of Calame, esp. p. 280sqq.), and it is a highly general model which is not suitable for grasping any specific aspects.

The problem of such a wide understanding of rites of passage comes to light especially in the first two parts of the book, which are concerned with Athenian tragedy. No doubt, using van Gennep one will find a lot of allusions to rites of passage or to elements of them in tragedy. The lack of any specification allows one to read Sophocles' Trachiniae, Euripides' Ion, Iphigeneia of Tauris and Helen strictly in the context of rites of passage. But this is only possible if one accepts van Gennep's model (or some elements from it), whose highly problematic genesis is well explained by Calame (278sqq.), without any further specifications concerning the role of tribal rites in 5th-century Athens. However, Euripides did not read van Gennep, and the question arises whether the rites of passage discovered in tragedies such as Ion or Helen are not overestimated. Nevertheless, all the essays concerning Athenian drama are highly original, and the approach from the rites of passage brings a lot of new and interesting aspects to light. But in most cases the important progress lies not in discovering rites of passage in tragedies, but in interpreting the texts on the basis of these rites.

Some years ago, J. J. Winkler in a famous essay put Athenian tragedy in the context of rites of passage,3 and other scholars, like F. Graf, followed him.4 The authors of the seven essays on rites of passage and Athenian drama in our volume confirm Winkler's thesis and present some supplementary considerations from investigations of individual tragedies.

D. C. Pozzi ("Hyllus' Coming of Age in Sophocles' Trachiniae", pp. 29-41) focuses on the figure of Hyllus, who overlaps the two parts of the play. She argues that there is a double rite of passage: "of Hyllus to adulthood and Heracles to immortality" (p. 30). Both rites are mutually conditional: While Heracles, burning on Mount Oeta (beyond the end of the play), is being purged of his ferocity and so undergoes the translation from hero to deity, Hyllus becomes adult. Accepting Heracles' concubine Iole as his wife, Hyllus ensures the perpetuation of the Heraclean lineage and emerges as "Heracles' panhellenic civic heir" (38) against the background of the democratic polis. -- In Euripides' Hippolytus the references to rites of passage are obvious, and one wonders that they have not yet been stressed. So it is easy for R. Mitchell-Boyask ("Euripides' Hippolytus and the Trials of Manhood [The Ephebeia?]", pp. 42-66) to demonstrate that the figure of Hippolytus can be understood directly as an example of Vidal-Naquet's Black Hunter.5 The terrible lot of Hippolytus is to warn the Athenians: his refusal to accept his maturation and his future role, which his father Theseus himself has defined for the Athenians leads to catastrophe. As Mitchell-Boyask notes, Euripides wanted the Athenian audience to disapprove the failure of completing the ephebeia. -- Ch. Segal ("Euripides' Ion: Generational Passage and Civic Myth", pp. 67-108) uses allusions to rites of passage in Euripides' Ion to understand the play from a new perspective and demonstrates how Euripides, confronting the same conflict which Aeschylus' Eumenides had solved in a patriarchal way against the background of Athenian public ideology, now "places the private over the civic solution" (p. 98). -- B. Goff ("The Violence of Community: Ritual in the Iphigeneia of Tauris", pp. 109-125) has chosen a similar way to approach Athenian drama: The observation that in the Iphigeneia of Tauris a polis is presented that did not find a proper solution for Orestes' trial as in Aeschylus' Eumenides leads her to the thesis that the foundation of the cults of the Choes and of Brauron cannot celebrate an Athenian identity, but are rather intended to produce one. -- Ph. B. Katz ("Io in the Prometheus Bound: A Coming of Age Paradigm for the Athenian Community", pp. 129-147) focuses on the figure of Io in the Prometheus and argues that the connection between Io and Prometheus lies in a rite of passage which both have to undergo. While Prometheus is forced to mature "from his youthful, rebellious state, to that of a more reasonable adult", "Io provides a paradigm of a young girl experiencing initiation to adulthood" (130). Katz demonstrates that Io's characterization reflects the so-called 'wandering womb syndrome' described in the contemporary medical literature (pp. 137ff.); her hysteria expresses the fear of Athenian girls preparing themselves for their destined roles as wives and mothers. Prometheus is able "to diagnose her disease and predict its cure, and so like the Hippocratic physician, he sets out a prognosis: she will recover, though not in the course of the play" (p. 140). Correctly diagnosing Io's disease, however, Prometheus fails to diagnose his own suffering. He is "a healer who cannot heal himself" (p. 140). -- In the following essay W. B. Tyrrell ("Antigone's Unnoticed Rite of Passage", pp. 148-157) tries to interpret rites of passage, as they seem to appear in Sophocles' Antigone, against the background of the reality in 5th century Athens in order to stress the deep connections between dramatic fiction and Athenian contemporary history. -- With a similar aim B. Zweig ("Euripides' Helen and Female Rites of Passage", pp. 158-180) points out that in late 5th century Athens the figure of Helen had to be associated with Sparta, with which the Athenians were engaged in a long war. Zweig stresses Helen's central role in Spartan female rites of passages and argues that not only the poetic allusions in Euripides' play but also its dramatic structure and action are to be connected with Helen's ritual role in Sparta, and she concludes that the play has reinforced some "voices that view Sparta's recent success as a sign of her adherence to traditional ritual customs" (p. 172).

Parts three to five of the volume leave the narrower context of Athenian tragedy. Asking why the Theban king Pentheus in Euripides' Bacchae can call Dionysus "the effeminate stranger" (v. 353), J. N. Bremmer ("Transvestite Dionysus", pp. 183-200) deals with transvestism in the cult of Dionysus and demonstrates that this is an old characteristic of the god and that male cross-dressing is an important aspect in the context of rites of passage. -- G. L. Hamm ("The Choes and Anthesteria Reconsidered: Male Maturation Rites and the Peloponnesian Wars", pp. 201-218) first stresses the importance of the Choes in the cycle of Athenian rites of passage: In their third year the Athenian boys undergo rites which mark their passage from the gynaikeion and the dominion of women into the care of a paedogogos. In a second step she tries to explain the evidence of a body of small choes-vessels which were produced in the late fifth and early fourth century and "depict a highly conventionalized and unique iconography of boys apparently participating in ritual activity" (p. 201) as a "cultic response to the decimation of the population through war and plague" (p. 202). This interpretation of the Choes-festival and the vessels can serve to illustrate the importance of rites of passage even in late fifth and forth century Athens.

Part four of the book consists of only one essay: Taking initiation rites as an example, K. Dowden ("Fluctuating Meanings: 'Passage Rites' in Ritual, Myth, Odyssey and the Greek Romance", pp. 221-243) examines the relationship between ritual and myth and demonstrates how ritual can become part of a myth and finally can even become the most important element in narrative fiction -- as in the Greek novel.

Methodological problems are discussed in the two essays of the last part. D. D. Leitao ("Solon on the Beach: Some Pragmatic Functions of the Limen in Initiatory Myth and Ritual", pp. 247-277) tries to demonstrate that within the tripartite classification that van Gennep has proposed concerning rites of passage, the stages of separation and incorporation are more important than the liminal stage, whose central role has been stressed especially by V. Turner.6 His considerations are directed particularly against Vidal-Naquet's concept of the Black Hunter. Leitao demonstrates that a lot of elements which Vidal-Naquet had taken to characterize the Black Hunter (trickery, ambush), do not constitute a young "anti-hoplite" (p. 255sq.). Transvestism, trickery and the use of daggers by youths, all of which are "consistent with the fighting methods of the adult male warrior they are about to become" (p. 256), cannot define the liminal period in his eyes since transvestism represents the "'feminine origins' of boyhood, a gendering influenced by a boy's close ties to female relations, especially his mother" (p. 256) and constitutes separation while trickery and the use of non-hoplite weapons contributes to the development of an adult male identity and constitutes incorporation. However, one may ask why the development of an adult male identity should be seen as a punctual event rather than a period. -- Finally, C. Calame ("Indigenous and Modern Perspectives on Tribal Initiation Rites: Education according to Plato", pp. 278-312) presents some basic considerations concerning the problem of defining rites of passage. In particular he criticizes the canonizing of van Gennep's tripartite model, in which prejudices and empirical research had been combined to a comprehensive conception. The broad influence of this conception on historians and ethnologists leads to its projection onto societies which are then explained within just the same categories that have been projected. Taking Plato as example, Calame demonstrates how already in antiquity the same methods had been used.

The last two essays of the book raise questions which one misses in Padilla's introduction, especially concerning the specific understanding of rites of passage and the validity of van Gennep's model for Greek societies. To grasp rites of passage in ancient Greece some further methodological considerations are necessary. The individual essays of the book are all worth reading and offer causes for further reflections; as a whole, however, Padilla's book is not the comprehensive work on rites of passage in ancient Greece one might have expected.


1.   J. E. Harrison, Themis. A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (2nd ed). Cambridge, 1927; H. Jeanmaire, Couroi et courètes. Lille, 1939; A. Brelich, Paides e Parthenoi, Roma 1969; C. Calame, Les choeurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaique, I-II. Roma, 1977.
2.   See A. van Gennep, Les rites de passage. Paris, 1909.
3.   J. J. Winkler, "The Ephebe's Song: Tragôidia and Polis", in: J. J. Winkler, F. I. Zeitlin (eds.), Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context. Princeton, 1990. 20-62 (earlier version in Representations 11 (1985), 26-62).
4.   F. Graf, "Die kultischen Wurzeln des antiken Schauspiels", in: G. Binder/B. Effe (eds.), Das antike Theater. Aspekte seiner Geschichte, Rezeption und Aktualität. Trier, 1998. 11-32.
5.   P. Vidal-Naquet, Le chasseur noir: formes de pensée et formes de societé dans le monde grec. Paris, 1981.
6.   V. Turner, "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage", in: The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, 1967. 93-111.

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