What was childhood like in ancient Greece? What activities and games did Greek children embrace? How were they schooled and what religious and ceremonial rites of passage were key to their development? These fascinating questions and many more are answered in this unique exhibition that opens at the Onassis Cultural Center of New York, January 21, 2004. The exhibition “Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past” runs through April 15, 2004.
It is not widely known that ancient Greek artists were the first to create images of children that showed them as they were instead of as miniature adults. They also observed and recorded children’s characteristic gestures, their bonding with parents and caregivers, their various activities from learning to crawl to assisting in religious ceremonies, and their love of play. In the absence of extensive written testimony about children from this period, artifacts and images are a vital link to the lives of girls and boys from birth to adolescence.
The exhibition presented at the Onassis Cultural Center is exactly about helping us understand this “unknown” part of everyday life in the antiquity. It opens together with a special section, entitled “Striving for Excellence: Greek Childhood and the Olympic Spirit.” Together, “Coming of Age” and “Striving for Excellence” feature more than 80 objects on loan from major American and European collections that explore the life and death of Greek children, including family life, play and schooling, religious rituals, and the role of children in Greek mythology through painted vases, sculptures, grave monuments, ancient toys and other artifacts. The objects in “Coming of Age” range primarily from the Classical to the Hellenistic periods and are separated into two sections, one focusing on the life of boys and one on girls.
“Striving for Excellence” focuses on the importance of athletics to the development of Greek boys. Then as now, sport was seen as a fundamental component to the successful development of a youth’s character. Athletic competitions played a major role in the frequent religious festivals held throughout Greece, including the festival of Zeus at Olympia, known to us now as the Olympic Games.
Several of the amphorae in “Striving for Excellence” were once filled with olive oil -the equivalent of a cash prize- and given to the winner at similar games that were held in Athens. Other objects depict young athletes with their paidotribes, or trainers, with whom they prepared intensively for a month before the competition. “Striving for Excellence” features twelve works of art, ten on loan from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and two from the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College.
In its presentation at the Onassis Cultural Center, “Coming of Age” examines the lives of boys and girls at each significant phase from birth to adulthood. Depictions of childbirth in ancient Greece are extremely rare-most births pictured were the fantastical ones of the gods and goddesses.
During early childhood, Greek boys and girls were raised together in the gynaikeion, the woman’s quarter of the house. All members of the household, including their mother, nurses and female slaves, were responsible for their upbringing. Several of the objects in the exhibition show children of each gender at play together, using balls, tops or rollers. Unusual examples of girls’ dolls are on view, including three articulated dolls with movable legs and arms and another older bell-shaped example from Boiotia -displayed in the athletics section- that served as the inspiration for the Olympic mascot for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Other games represented include juggling and balancing a stick while moving.
After early childhood, the genders were separated and prepared for their distinct societal roles. At age six or seven, Greek boys began their schooling and were sent out for most of the day; included in “Coming of Age” are several examples of schoolwork, including writing exercises on an ostrakon (pot sherd), a wooden board or tablet, and a papyrus fragment, as well as an ink pot in the shape of a ball and a bronze stylus that was used to write on wax tablets. Meanwhile, girls remained home to learn the skills necessary to running a household. A Late Archaic terracotta piece depicts a cooking lesson that shows a young girl leaning over a pot as an older, seated woman gestures with a raised hand.
The exhibition presents artifacts dealing with adolescence, in which it becomes clear that the length of childhood differed depending on the child’s gender. At some point during their teenage years, boys underwent a ritual where they dedicated their playthings to a male deity in a symbolic act of forsaking all things childish. At age eighteen they became citizens, acquiring voting rights and civic obligations. Though young men often left their families at this point, most did not marry until later in life, usually in their late 30s. Girls, on the other hand, were usually married around fourteen or fifteen, transitioning directly from adolescence into adulthood and acquiring the domestic role as woman of the house.
It was not uncommon for a child in ancient Greece to die young, either in childbirth or while still a toddler. On the stele of Melisto, a commemorative stone included in the exhibition, a young girl about the age of six is depicted along with her favorite toy and pets, a tribute from her loving parents. Another grave memorial shows parents with their children and a nurse-the father rests his hand on his daughter’s shoulder, a rare scene in Greek art of fatherly affection for female offspring.
Along with artifacts of household life and depictions of real families and children, Coming of Age also focuses on representations of mythical figures, including gods and goddesses, during their childhood. Perseus, who was set adrift in a wooden box at birth by his mother Danae, is shown on an early fifth century Athenian lekythos as a helpless infant reaching towards his mother. He survived and later beheaded the gorgon Medusa. Often, their fantastical births are presented as narratives. An Apulian pelike included in the exhibition relays the popular Athenian version of the birth of Helen of Troy. Her mother Leda became a goose to avoid the pursuit of Zeus, who transformed himself into a swan and impregnated her, producing Helen, who was hatched from an egg at birth -a moment depicted on the pelike.
After its presentation at the Onassis Cultural Center, “Coming of Age” will travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum for the summer of 2004 and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for the fall. The exhibition debuted in New Hampshire at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, in August of 2003.
“Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past” was organized by the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and was curated by Jenifer Neils (Ruth Coulter Heede Professor, Department of Art History and Art at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio), and John H. Oakley (Chancellor Professor/Forrest D. Murden Jr. Professor and Chair, Department of Classical Studies, at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia).
This exhibition has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, promoting excellence in the humanities. The Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA) is also a major supporter of the exhibition and the exhibition catalogue.