Introduction. Short Description of the Lesson (Summary of the Last Part of the Talk)

(This post is a reflection by Elena on the session she gave for us. You’ll find that immediately below).

If we imagine a teacher preparing a series of classes on the religion of the ancient Greeks, we can easily forecast the problems that he or she will have to deal with. And I am not talking about the philological, historical rigour required, or about the choice of texts to use – although that’s all very demanding as well.

I am talking about the effort which every Classics teacher makes to predict and prepare for the educational needs of their students, to imagine and anticipate, right from the planning stage, their doubts and questions, interests, yes, even the bait which we need to use to lure them through the complex labyrinth of Classical studies. In the final analysis, after having carefully examined everything which has to be studied, we can’t escape the need to make the Classics more appealing, and to do this without compromising the rigour of the discipline.

With this in mind, and remembering the last points that have just been made (about how to make the Classics more appealing), a good choice of topic might be initiation rituals – the very phrase evokes exotic, intriguing, images and scenes.

However, it’s just these images and scenes that make the teaching challenge even greater: the theme of initiation rituals brings up many of the difficulties inherent in teaching ancient religions:

  • Difficulties of definition: what are initiation rituals? What did the Greeks themselves call them, was there an emic term? How do we now define them in modernity, and why do we define them as we do?
  • Textual difficulties: what are the sources on initiation rites? Do they date from the period in which the rites were practised (or at least close to that period)? Or are they much later?
  • Difficulties linked to the scarcity of sources: how can we reconstruct rituals, when the textual sources are few and far between? Or when the sources are very late and are describing archaic rituals? Do we turn to comparative methods?
  • And here is another problem which has to be tackled with regard to the ancient religions: should we use comparative tools? And if we should, with the initiation rites of which religions should those of the ancient Greeks be compared? With which methodological tools? Should comparisons be diachronic or synchronic? Or should we just not make them?

These are some of the problems that the teacher has in mind when he or she walks into the classroom and starts to teach ancient religions, very possibly to students who have been drawn to the class by their fascination with the idea of initiation.

This fascination is somehow connected with the so-called “vogue for initiation” that fascinated scholars until into the 1990s. In spite of the fact the we have no clear and indisputable proof of the existence of tribal male initiation rituals in Ancient Greece, scholars tried to apply Van Gennep’s pattern to many religious rituals and cults. Their work shed important light on the real initiatic phenomen of Ancient Greece: an initiatic way of thinking the world. Combining the inheritance of The Black Hunter, Buxton, and Graf’s later work, and – more indirectly – that of Propp, the extent to which initiation rites function predominantly at the mental level is becoming increasingly evident: at the level of a paradigm which permeates the very structure of the stories told in connection with certain myths and rituals, which are somehow patterned in terms of initiatory activities. It’s as if the people telling the story – it’s as if our sources – thought in initiatory terms, and gave an initiatory (even tripartite) structure to the events which they were describing. And so we read about heroes who move away from their communities and then, after undergoing certain trials, return transformed, bearers of civilization; or of rites which involve young men leaving, and subsequently being reintegrated into, their community; of ritual combat which, if one survives, sanctioned entry to a particular group or society; of celebrations with tripartite structures to symbolize the renewing of the community: the Hyacinthia in Sparta, for instance, or the Anthesteria. And doesn’t the story of Dionysus seem rather initiatory? And that of Achilles? Not to mention the Argives, who used to cut off their hair when they’d been defeated. I could go on forever, or at least until the point at which we have to ask ourselves: but – if we see initiations everywhere we look, is it not possible that we are seeing reality through an initiatory filter?

This last question is very challenging. Even more challenging, however, is the following question: how can we explain all this to our students? I tried to do it this year in the context of my Ancient Greek History source by applying the flipped classroom methodology and the cooperative learning.

First I introduced the problem of initiation rites in ancient Greece, using the traditional, frontal, method; then I gave them a task on a text or context of their choosing: to find a story or a context, of any kind, which they thought could be described in terms of initiation; third I corrected the task and gave them individual feedback, sharing the most important comments with the whole class; finally I gave them some chapters from The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians by Xenophon (2-4) and Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus (16-18) in class. After 20 minutes, I divided the class into groups of 4 and invited them to compare their work and prepare a synthesis of it. There was a total of about 15 groups. I managed to apply the cooperative learning approach by dividing them in groups: they had to cooperate in order to co-construct a body of knowledge, from a perspective of knowledge sharing and in a context of peer-to-peer activity.

In the last 30 minutes of the lesson I invited them to help me fill in a chart showing the – supposedly – initiatory elements. I drew this chart in a post on Edmodo and filled in the elements so that the students could follow the completion of the chart on the slide projector. The students from the different groups raised their hands up and conveyed the remarks of their group in order to share the acquired knowledge with their peers- and with me.

In the final debate we tried to challenge the initiatory interpretation of the agoge by speculating one or more initiatory filters. The results were amazing.


At the end of the module, I asked the students for eedback, which they  gave anonymously.  The questions were:

  1. How did you feel during the group work?
  2. (if applicable) Did you find it difficult to work with people whom you didn’t know well?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 5, how well do you feel you now understand the problem of the initiatory pattern in the study of the religions of Ancient Greece?

Here’s the feedback, divided into two columns: the basically positive and the more negative. The last two are very pertinent (and interesting), and so I’ve put them in the centre.

 Most positive

Least positive

Well, I think this approach should be used more often.

It’s a stimulating approach, but too time consuming.

Well, having to find an initiation story autonomously has made me understand the term “initiatory paradigm”.

It’s a useful approach, but tiring for us students.

Well, I thought I hadn’t understood but then, explaining to the group what I had understood, I realised that in fact it was more than I’d thought!

Shy people are more at ease in frontal lessons.

Working in a group, I perceived aspects of the problem that otherwise I’d have ignored.

I prefer frontal lessons for learning stuff. For learning methods,
though, group work and the inverted classroom.

Working in a group made me analyze the texts in greater depth.

In the group I had to waste time teaching people who knew less than me.

Seeing that the others had the same problems as me in the individual work made me feel more confident.

I don’t like group work because individual responsibility is lost.

I’ve been able to relate to people who have different ideas and feelings and knowledge to me.

It’s more important to work on stuff alone. 

It was easier to share my doubts with the group than to ask the teacher about them.

It was an experience that allowed me to clear up doubts and uncertainties about some things that I might not have realised I had if we hadn’t done the “fieldwork”

I really felt I was being a researcher, and it was a good feeling!

I enjoyed working on a text, and being able to apply the method I’d learnt.

It was difficult to throw myself into it. But without challenges we don’t get anywhere.

I think whether or not frontal lessons or flipped classes combined with cooperative learning work depends on the topic being studied. If I don’t know anything about a subject, I prefer frontal lessons, but if I do have a basic knowledge I prefer preparing at home first and then group work in class. 

For bibliography see E. Franchi, “Guerra e iniziazioni a Sparta e a Yulami:
il miraggio spartano nell’antropologia oceanistica”, in I quaderni del
d’oro on-line, n.3, 2010, pp. 193-227 and E. Franchi, “Destini di
un paradigma: il rito iniziatico tra antropologia e scienze dell’antichità”,
Mythos 5, 2011, pp. 175-90.

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