Maria Cavagnaro asks:
“Somebody told me – on the occasion of celebrating a friend’s 90th birthday – that ancient Greeks used to celebrate (or to count up to – I don´t remember which) only up to your 12th birthday. I tried to find information about this on the internet but I couldn’t. Is that so?”
Maria, from what I have read there seems to be in ancient Greece no such thing as our yearly celebration of one’s birthday. Before I answer you I had another look at some books (Flaceliere and Nilsson) in case I found some information, but I didn’t. If someone else knows and can give us references, I’ll be glad to have them.
However, your question made me think on this from another point of view. As we know, ancient Greeks considered the day of one’s birth (as well as the day of one’s death) a ‘dirty’ day. This, of course, can not support the development of a celebration of such a day, although, I repeat, I don’t feel I have enough information to exclude it. What you said about the 12th birthday, by itself shows something different.
There was a ceremony for the age of puberty or adolescence, but this is not a celebration that regards the individual specifically, of course not his birth-day. This celebration is about the city accepting a new member.
Ancient Greeks held a rather pessimistic view of this life. Recall the mother who was asked by God what gift she wanted for her children, and she answered that she wanted them to sleep and never wake up again.
Recall also their names. They might have been celebrating various heroes, but their names were not after these heroes. Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus, Plato, Aristotle, Sappho, etc, are not names of heroes or Gods. This means that the day of their ‘baptism’ had not the importance that it has for us.
It is only after Christianity that birth, baptism and this whole life acquired a sanctity which is tied with an individual as such – beyond countries, nations, cities, etc.
Please keep searching, and if you find more information I’ll be glad to know about it.