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Bull-Lifting, Initiation, and the Athenian Ephebeia

Thomas R. Henderson II

Bull-lifting was a form of collective ritual action in which a group of young men placed a bull on their shoulders and, standing before an altar, ritually killed and offered it to a god or gods.  While receiving scant attention in the literature, scholars have regarded bull-lifting as having a special association with ephebes, newly enrolled eighteen and nineteen year old citizens undergoing military training.  Ephebes, they claim, lifted bulls at altars as a maturation or initiation ritual.  The purpose of this paper is to clarify what bull-lifting was and the role the ephebes played in carrying out this ritual form of sacrifice.  A full collection and chronological discussion of the meager sources indicate that bull-lifting was performed by adult citizens of various age ranges and that only much later, by the end of the third century BCE, did ephebes raise bulls before altars as part of their overall civic training. 

More broadly, this paper argues that the ephebeia was not an institution of transition in which youths were segregated and later reintegrated into society.  Instead, it was a system of military training for newly enrolled citizens to better provide defense of the state, the first and most important duty of a citizen. When ephebes officially undertook the responsibility of participating in Athenian religion, it was as the youngest members of the Athenian adult population.  The rituals they performed brought them face to face for the first time with official state cults.  When they lifted bulls at specified festivals, they did so alongside other, albeit older, men.  Therefore, bull-lifting was not so much a display of youthful vigor, but a ritual action that demonstrated their newly acquired status as adult men.

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Paideia and Polis: The Ephebate and Citizen Training

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