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Krypteia or crypteia (Greek: κρυπτεία / krupteía, from κρυπτός / kruptós, “hidden, secret things”) was a tradition involving young Spartans, part of the agoge (classical Greek ἀγωγή) regime of Spartan education. Its goal and nature are still a matter of discussion among historians.
Young Spartan men who had completed their training at the agoge with such success that they were marked out as potential future leaders would be given the opportunity to test their skills and prove themselves worthy of the Spartan military through participation in the krypteia.
Every autumn, according to Plutarch (Life of Lycurgus, 28, 3–7), the Spartan ephors (classical Greek Ἔφοροι) would pro forma declare war on the helot population so that any Spartan citizen could kill a helot without fear of blood guilt. The kryptes were sent out into the countryside with only a knife to survive on their skills and cunning with the instructions to kill any helot they encountered at night and to take any food they needed.
According to Cartledge, Krypteia members stalked the helot villages and surrounding countryside, spying on the servile population. Their mission was to root-out potential sedition. Troublesome helots could be summarily executed. Such brutal oppression of the helots permitted the Spartans to control the agrarian population and devote themselves to military practice. It may also have contributed to the Spartans' reputation for stealth since a boy who got caught was punished by whipping.
Only Spartans who had served in the Krypteia as young men could expect to achieve the highest ranks in Spartan society and army. It was felt that only those Spartans who showed the ability and willingness to kill for the state at a young age were worthy to join the leadership in later years.
Some scholars (Wallon) consider the krypteia to be a kind of secret police force organized by the ruling classes of Sparta and targeted at the enslaved helot population that economically supported it. Others (Köchly, Wachsmuth) believe it to be a military training, similar to the Athenian ephebia. Jeanmaire points out that this bushranger life has no common point with the disciplined and well-ordered communal life (see homonoia) of the Spartan hoplite; but as it is only a short part in a very long and thorough training, this could precisely fit an additional skill only rarely useful when separated from one's unit. Jeanmaire suggests that the krypteia was a rite of passage, possibly pre-dating the classical military organisation, and may have been preserved through Sparta's legendary religious conservatism. He draws comparison with the initiation rituals of some African secret societies (wolf-men and leopard men).
- Henri Jeanmaire, La cryptie lacédémonienne, Revue des études grecques, 26, 1913;
- Hermann August Theodor Köchly (aka Arminius Koechly), Commentatio de Lacedaemoniorum cryptia, Leipzig (aka Lipsiae), 1835;
- Pierre Vidal-Naquet, The Black Hunter and the Origin of the Athenian Ephebeia, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 194, 1968;
- Wilhelm Wachsmuth, Hellenische Altertumskunde aus dem Geschichtpunkt des Staates (Teil 1 & 2), 2. Ausgabe, Halle, 1844 (Teil 1) & 1846 (Teil 2);
- Henri Alexandre Wallon, Explication d'un passage de Plutarque sur une loi de Lycurgue nommée la Cryptie (fragment d'une Histoire des Institutions politiques de la Grèce), Paris, Dupont, 1850;
- Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300-362 BC, 2nd Edition, Routledge, 2001.