Sparta – VIII

sparta

The education of adolescents

We know with certainty that, at the gates of puberty, there was a brutal initiation ritual of physical and psychological type to be overcome in order to continue with the instruction. During the festival of the goddess Artemis, the altar was filled with tasty cheese. Aspiring lads had to steal as many cheeses as they could, but this must outwit a phalanx of armed lads with whips, instructed to use them unscrupulously in the task of protecting the altar. To achieve their objective, the boys must learn to coordinate and demonstrate a spirit of sacrifice and selflessness. Everyone received terrible wounds, but it was necessary to endure the pain as they stole the pieces. Sometimes a boy died. In Sparta there were many tests of this type, whose goal was to bring applicants to the limit to harden them up, also discarding the weak. Those who, covered in blood, bore the “ceremony” with no moan, cry pain or scream were awarded crowns of leaves and hailed as heroes for their people, acclaimed by their elders, young girls and the younger siblings, who found the triumph inspiring. Thus, the victorious became eirenes or irenes (ephebes).

From the moment following the festival of Artemis, a transformation operated in the instruction of the boys who had passed the test. They came from the gangs, receiving out a simple himation (woolen clothing) each year, being forbidden the chiton (common tunic). Discipline became stricter.

According to Xenophon, Lycurgus realized that, from adolescence, self-will is rooted in the mind of the boy. It looms in his conduct a subtle trend of insolence which marks the beginning of a selfish appetite and individualistic pleasure. Also, the stage that separates the fearful and innocent child from the wise veteran is a thin red line of imprudence and recklessness, typical of adolescence and those who, having learned a lot but not enough, tend to overestimate themselves and commit dangerous blunders. And that is the most difficult step in any learning: when you think you know “enough.”

To counter this potential pride, Spartan ephebes had to walk through the streets in silence, with their head bowed and their hands hidden, without looking around but fixing their eyes on the ground, taking a walk of monks, as centuries later would walk the perfect Manichean. Boys who would otherwise be the loudest and annoying were converted into gray and ghostly silhouettes. This, of course, was not permanent but temporary and contributed to strengthen the humility and modesty of the young Spartans; and to raise the pride of those who, after concluding their instruction, were allowed to walk with their heads held high. It also helped in the meantime that the citizens would not feel offended by the presumption of the candidates, since there is nothing to offend more a seasoned veteran than an arrogant and cocky “newbie” too proud of his achievements.

But on the other hand, the ephebes were first taught to read and write, and were taught music, dance, mythology and poetry. And, for the first time since they were seven years old, long hair was permitted: in which care they would rush, gradually getting spotless manes and feel pride of them, since the hair was “the cheapest ornament” and, according to Lycurgus, “adds beauty to a beautiful face, and terror to an ugly face.” Wearing long hair was an ancient Greek custom that somehow recalled the barbarian origins of the race. Many have given long hair, especially in the case of women, the importance of signs of fertility: nervous system extensions and tuners of spiritual capacities. Archetypically, it is the manifestation of the spiritual bell that comes from the top head of the consummate practitioner of inner alchemy. On the formation of long hair act factors such as nutrition, health, exposure to sun and air, and exercise. Thus the mane should be something like a banner of individuality, a personal identification sign denoting the health and habits of the individual.

What is clear is that for some young people who had been at age seven with a shaved head, a grown hair should have represented a sign of psychological improvement, and convey the sense of a new, more spiritual stage, less helpless and raw, less brutal. After the painful stage in which children sacrificed their hair, they had conquered the beauty and individuality allowed to their perfect ancestors. Both the shaved head like the achievement of long hair were for the Spartans two stages of an archetypal transformation process, internal and external.

The most important new material of this period was the music, which was oriented to religious, patriotic and war hymns. The songs and the singing together is something that helps the united cultivation of the spirit and strengthen the cohesion of the collective unconscious. Each alliance of warriors always has had its songs. In Sparta there were numerous choirs, and every Spartan child should learn to sing in a chorus. In many ceremonies three groups were organized: one of old people, other of young males and another for children. When elders began singing “In the past we were young and brave and strong,” the young men continued “and so are we now, come and check it out for,” and the kids responded “but soon we will be the stronger.” A nation that prides itself always seeks that each generation is better than the previous as time goes on, like a wolf pack: the younger vigorous and impulsive generations replace the older in positions through direct action.

Great emphasis was placed in the cultivation of memory, and the young Spartans memorized ballads of the poet Tyrtaeus, who had helped them so much in the second Messenian war. As an example of the poetry of Tyrtaeus, forgive the following snippet:

Let’s advance by locking a concave wall of shields, marching in rows of Pamphyli, Hylleis, Dymanes [the three originating Dorian tribes], and waving in the murderer hands the spears. Thus entrusting us to the Eternal Gods, without delay we comply with the orders of the captains, and we all right away go to the rude fray, firmly raising in front of those spearmen. Tremendous will be the crash when both armies collide their round shields and resonate when abut each other… Well, it’s a beautiful die if you fall into that vanguard like brave warrior who fights for his country… with courage fight for the homeland and the children, and die without begrudging now our lives…

Those who dare, in closed row, to fight melee and advance in vanguard in fewer number die, and save those who follow them. Those who are left with nothing tremble without honor… Go in melee combat, with long spear or sword smite and finish with the fierce enemy. Putting foot by foot, squeezing shield to shield, plume with plume and helmet to helmet, chest to chest fight against the other, handling the hilt of the sword or the long spear… Go forward, children of the citizens of Sparta, the city of the brave warriors! With the left hold firm your shield, and the spear brandish boldly, without worrying to save your life: that is not the custom of Sparta. Make the spirit of your heart strong and courageous, and do not fall in love with life when you are fighting men.

The Spartan ephebes assiduously studied Homer, whose many verses could recite. But of course, the military-physical training did not stop ever, and was always the main subject. As they were getting older some boys were placed in front of the gangs of younger children, either as paidonomos or mastigophora. The desire of the veteran to make the rookie suffer to perfect him and cure him, teaching him everything he had learned—and that occurs in any army—, was taken to squeeze the new generations and to excel the foregoing.

We have seen that all instruction was intended to cultivate Spartan abilities as will to power, decision-making, the pleasure of responsibility, valor, courage, bravery, stoicism, patriotism, the martial, the ability of leadership, sobriety, self-control, asceticism, austerity, sacrifice and suffering, courage, physical and moral toughness, the sense of duty and honor, fortitude, wisdom, psychological and spiritual balance; the quick wit, sharp and cold and chivalry education, character building, solemnity, respect, brevity, iron discipline, efficiency, holy obedience and aggression. A wide range of important and basic qualities, today endangered. But all these qualities would be useless if they were not used for something; if they had no objective, a single goal. Nietzsche wrote, “It is inexcusable that, having power, you do not want to dominate.”

Any discipline, asceticism, self-control, the terrible pain, the fear, the danger, the risk, rivalry, hunger, thirst, sleepiness, exhaustion, cold, heat, discomfort, the hideous cruelty, the suffering and fighting, the beating, whipping, insults, blood splashing everywhere, the constant omnipresence of deeper death and higher life leading to a prodigious tension of life, were a wonderful and magnificent expression of how a whole lineage wanted to be: furious, and, at all costs, the absolute masters of their own collective will enthroned on Earth and mercilessly crushing any enemy that arose. Are these bad feelings? Or, conversely, are they highest and most admirable sentiments, sacred impulses that prompt to live, to fight, to destroy, to create, to renew and translate into some eternal memory? These were qualities and feelings that Indo-European humanity has lost and must be recovered.

All this is great as it is. Now then, what was the result of these qualities and these feelings? What was the result of such education? What was the result of the discipline of great suffering? The result was a man of superior type, with a cool head and insensitive to pain, suffering and discomfort, who used to think quickly in times of great danger and stress. A soldier well versed in all the arts of war who used to fight to achieve his goals; a martial man bred and trained to rule. A fearless and fearsome man, that despised his own life for the sake of his people; despised more the others, so he was hard and ruthless. A mighty stoic man also despised all material trifles of worldly life, and his only dedication were his brothers in combat, his loyalty to his country, and his devotion to his family and wishes of divinity for his race.

A man accustomed to outdoor life, which forged an unbreakable bond with his land, which was regarded as a sacred legacy, a responsibility. A gymnast with impressive physical form, a true athlete. A warrior used to earn things by himself. Nothing done to him would break him; he was able to endure the most terrible pains and deepest spiritual tragedies as calmly as accepting the joys and triumphs. After having demonstrated the ability to obey, he earned the right to command.

Think of how Spartan children suffered the pain, fear, stress and exhaustion. What happened when they emerged from childhood? Into what they turned when growing and becoming men? How would the body of an adult Spartan look like? We can only imagine, but at his side the young athletes of the Athenian sculptures may seem harmless angels.

The Spartan body was immediately distinguished for being very willowy, slender, dark-skinned not for race but for exposure to the sun, air, moisture; to dry, fresh and salt water, the skewers of vegetation, to stinging insects, dust, land, rock, snow, rain, hail and, ultimately, all kinds of weather. This would make the Spartan skin so stranded and hard as wood. Second, the relief of his body would be highlighted. The type of physical training had favored the development muscle mass concentration, hardness, strength, extreme flexibility and the “purging” of all grease and impurities. Thus, the Spartan would be fibrous and bulky at once, and would look lean and sharp. Vascular fat and softness would shine by their absence; blood vessels, ligaments, fibers, muscles, nerves and tendons would stand almost grotesquely and ultimately, everything would appear to be a rough, twisted, tense and compact mass of roots, branches, wires, tubes, cutting, marking and stones with the color of the wood.

In addition we can figure out that their body would be entirely crossed by many scars. The marks of the lashes would be remarkable in many areas of the skin, but especially in the back. Each Spartan should be a differential map, with different types of signs of violence. Many would lack teeth, have a broken nose and scars on the skull and face: a legacy of melee combats and brutal ball games. The height of the Spartan, what their contemporaries have told us (remember Xenophon, though he lived in an already decadent stage of Sparta), must be high if we consider the malnutrition undergoing in childhood and puberty. In Thebes skeletons have been discovered belonging to a Spartan garrison, of which 180 centimeters must be a normal height among them. Spartan’s hair was long, usually blond. They were allowed to grow beards and took pride in their care, because for them the beard was a symbol of a free and accomplished man who chooses his life. Their faces with a hard look, a strong expression highlighted by the intensely of the blue eyes bequeathed by their Dorian ancestors.

The animals are remarkable for their hardness, their instinct, their resistance to pain and hunger, bad weather, and for their ferocity. The Spartans, thanks to the energy that only comes with experience, motivation and a fanatical and methodical training, were able to beat them. Through self-sacrifice and the risk posed by blindly lunging the unknown and the extreme, they were able to answer the question of where the limits of man lay, and what man is capable when a supernatural will dwells within and take firm roots throughout his being.

We cannot even imagine how were the men of ancient times, for their ferocity, determination and toughness. Well, of them all, the Spartan was the hardest and well-made, the most perfected and stronger. The instruction of the Spartans was brutal, but in one way or another, instructors have always unconsciously intuited that that is the best way to form good warriors.

On a much smaller scale, modern armies also employ brutality toward the recruits. The insults, shouting, offences, humiliation, beatings and hazing—modern initiations—help the novice to be ashamed of his former self, to get rid of it, forget it and change it to a personality that is coupled with that of his comrades: another piece of the puzzle that will become his unit. Moreover, often they are not called by names, but by nicknames (“war names”) or numbers. Exhaustive exercises, inconvenience, discomfort, suffering, fear, stress, disgust, etc., serve to sustain and promote the recruit and his humility and respect before what excels him. Only when the applicant has delivered himself as a sacrifice, voluntarily touching bottom in strenuous suffering, he may start from scratch again in a new way, with a transformed personality purged of its blemishes and tempered in the fire and the hammer of an ideal; firm, fanatic, sublime and sacred. Today only the vaguest trace of all this stoicism has reached us.

Public punishments, extremely difficult testing, the victory of each gang and good sports scores helped to reinforce the prestige of the Spartan community. A community not only has prestige for those who do not belong to it, but its members feel that same prestige internally. This morality, this esprit de corps, increased the pride of belonging to such community. The sacrifices that Sparta members underwent made everyone feel pride and honor in their contemplation. Every time a lad calmly endured a whipping session, every time another one beat a sport record, each time that, with his face torn and bleeding hands, the victorious fighter triumphed over himself and over probability, the will of each member of the community was persuaded: “such acts demonstrate the greatness of my community. I am proud to be with these men and will continue perfecting to reach their height.” And pride and elitism swelled as with fire. When called “equals” among each other, they felt mutually proud. And when a weak fell from exhaustion during a march, when another was punished for moaning in a fight or under the lashes, when another fainted of pain, when another did not return from the forest or mountain, when another died in a career or of hunger, the same iron will read these happenings: “Such acts show that not everyone has the honor of belonging to our community, but that it must be won. I want to win this honor and I am on track. And I want the weak to surrender, leave or be removed from our community for the sake of it.” That is, they dismissed those who might besmirch the honor of the word “ equal,” and such removal was a sacrifice that kept alive the flame of pride.

This group is to the amorphous collectivity what the pack is for the flock.

Published in: on September 25, 2013 at 6:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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