Greek and Roman Culture: Kouroi and Korai

free essayArchaic period covers three centuries – from the 7th to the 5th century BC. This is the period of formation of ancient art, the period of establishment of its canons and traditions. This period denotes the frames prior to the establishment of ancient art. In fact, the beginning of the art of archaic period can be viewed in the sculptures of the 9th century BC, and many of the signs of the archaic monuments can be seen in the art of the 4th century BC. Masters of early antiquity have used different materials for their creations. Among the retrieved sculptures, there are those made of wood, limestone, terracotta tiles, basalt, marble and bronze, which also represents the social class of the owner. Sculptures originally served as sacrifices to gods in the temple, and then their value has increased to the meaning of ornamental sculptures. Moreover, after early policies started to form in Greece, the educational role of plastic art increased as well.

The Description of Kouroi and Korai

The korai female figures appeared before kouroi, which can be explained by the cult of the Nature, symbol of fertility and homeliness represented by a woman body. In general, almost all korai statues have a similar standing position. Usually, korai appears in a frontal straight position, hands frequently omitted along the body, rarely crossed on the chest or holding sacred attributes (a spear, a shield, a sword, a wand, a fruit, etc.). The indispensable half-smile can be observed on the face of korai. Body proportions accurately represent the human analogue, despite the overall schematic and generalized image. All sculptures are carefully painted. The symbolism of the korai statutes has never been related to the representation of any Greek god. Therefore, the allegorical meaning of these statues is not fully understood.

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The selected korai is unique in its appearance. It is a red-haired girl, whose hair is plaited into many braids, which willingly fall on her high chest, shoulders and her back. The whole stature is symmetric and emanates the sense of both strength and female gracefulness. A long red dress called chiton is decorated with ornaments and hides the forms of the statue. The ornament is represented with red squares on the blue stripe in the center of the statue’s skirt bordered with green strips with yellow circles. Above the belt and along the cuffs of short sleeves there is a yellow ornament of intertwining lines. The ear lobes are decorated with massive round earrings. Only a thin white belt accentuates her waist and forms the transition to her hips. Korai feet are shod in sandals and are located close to each other. The uniqueness of this statue is that she holds a garnet in her left hand, while the right hand is positioned along the body. This korai statue is breathing with a fertile image of the young healthy woman. The holistic image represents the views on the female beauty predominant in the ancient Greek society. It is not just a symbol, but an idea of the way the perfect girl should look like. However, the symbolized garnet in the hand of korai makes a contradictory perception of this statue. Korai’s pose is emanating female tenderness, confidence, purity, and fertility. Despite such an image, this statue expresses the symbol of eternity, of death and resurrection through the symbolic heart of Dionysus, the symbol of the dead sun – a garnet in the statue’s hand. However, the traditional funeral meaning belongs to the kouroi statues, while female korai were much more rarely considered to be grave markers, mostly being associated with paying a tribute to gods.
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Men’s sculptures of the archaic period called kouroi differ from the female statues possessing a strict frontal pose with the left leg that is often pushed forward. Hands are omitted along the body and clenched in fists; rarely a sculpture has outstretched arms, which can be associated with the sacrifice function. Another prerequisite for the kouroi statues of archaic period is the exact symmetry of the body. Outwardly, a masculine sculpture has much in common with the Egyptian statues, which indicates a strong influence of the Egyptian tradition and aesthetics on the ancient art. It is known that the earliest kouroi were made of wood, but no wooden sculpture has been preserved. Later, Greeks have learned how to use the stone, so all retrieved kouroi are made of marble. Kouroi as well as the korai embodied vows and promises to the gods and were installed in temples supplied with special inscriptions containing the name of the owner and his promise. Kouroi were placed on the graves of important and rich people, governors, priests, etc. They were designed to instill the sense of patriotism in the citizens. Therefore, they often portray legendary heroes, as well as known heroes of certain poleis.

The selected kouroi is sculpted as a young warrior possessing a unique posture, which may indicate the statue’s relation to the late archaic period. Kouroi demonstrates a powerful young warrior with slightly asymmetric proportions, which are less visible on the general background of a moderately muscular body. A slight head tilt, hair neatly combed back and the right foot slightly stepping forward, show the air of confidence in the statue’s pose. Facial features are more detailed than those of the other typical statues: eyes are planted deeper, ears isolated from the hairstyle and facial folds are carved, which is not typical of these statues in general. His nakedness symbolizes his purity before gods. Such nudity is common among those who have participated in the Olympic Games and can be linked with the example of Orsipp and the existence of homosexual tendencies among Greeks as the cult of worship of men’s beauty. Moreover, the men’s nudity can be viewed in the legend about Ganymede and Zeus and in such term as a gymnasium – nudity that is expressed in the form of teaching in Ancient Greece. However, unique is the position of his hands. The left arm is bent at the elbow opening a palm facing forward. The right-hand arm squeezes the part of the spear. It is hard to address whether this statue represents the desire to communicate, to be an intermediary in the human-gods relations or to be a protector in the afterlife.

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Archaic Greek Narrative

My family is a clan of traders who has travelled around the Pontos Euxeinos, trading with numerous colonies and purchasing slaves and goods. My relatives have built their wealth on trading with foreign lands and selling our goods in different parts of Greece, acquiring mansions, authority and wealth. We have acquired the wealth for centuries, traveling and fighting on the shores of different seas. My family has gradually become quite an influential social group that can even get involved in politics and knows how to defend our interests. It was my family’s support that has helped undermine the power of the aristocracy, beginning the era of tyrants who came into power using violent methods. Money rules in politics, it is needed for leading wars and maintaining peace, for keeping economy and supporting arts; and it is at the heart of power. For my family it became customary to use prestige to enhance our credibility, we learned it from aristocracy. Moreover, aristocracy used the military force of cavalry as a way of strengthening their status, but my family relies on well-trained infantry of hoplites, whose strong shields and sharp spears are equally reliable as compared to the cavalry of the higher social class. During one of the conflicts with the aristocracy, our family’s hoplites have shown their superiority, which became symbolic for us. This glorious event has impressed my family so greatly that the grave of my grandfather, who fought with the aristocracy, was decorated with the kouroi holding a spear in his arm to commemorate the courage of the hoplites. Moreover, the nudity of this statue and its similarity to my grandfather symbolized the participation of my grandfather in the Olympic Games. It was a bold decision. The sculptor diverged from the canons while working with the statue, he put a spear in the statue’s right hand, but the left hand was designed with an open palm to symbolize a religious tribute. We bring offerings to ancestors on that hand. Religion is important for my family, giving confidence in afterlife.

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My family’s trade expeditions go further, bringing amazing treasures and slaves, delicious food and magnificent pieces of art, luxurious fabrics, exotic spices, and valuable scrolls. One of the pieces of fabric brought by my vendors has struck me with its quality and delicacy so much that I have ordered to replace the korai on my family’s tomb with a new female statue dressed in a red silk dress with a sacral ornament on it. The sculptor had put in her left hand a garnet, the symbol of Ra, whom secretly worshipped my family ancestors and that is revered as a symbol of rebirth of Dionysus. Her dress similar to the wedding one symbolized the belonging of this korai to my family. As any bride, my family bought korai for 28 shekels from a sculptor as a part of the ceremony. I believe that the new korai will become a guide to the afterlife for my entire family. It will guide the lost souls of my relatives who died far from home like a lighthouse. Moreover, this korai will be an excellent tool for strengthening the influence of my family, and all the citizens of my polis will respect my family social position due to our acquired power and religious loyalty.

Ideology Inherent in Kouroi and Korai

The kouroi nudity is a reflection of the ancient ideology of heroic meaning. One of the ideologists of man’s nudity was Hesiod, who has written that Gippomen fought with Atlanta being naked. Moreover, in his Works and Days, he taught to handle work only naked, filling it with its ritual significance. Thus, he created the ideology of nudity as a kind of ritual manifestation available only for men. Therefore, the nudity of kouroi represents its ritual connection to the god’s realm. Xenophon, speaking of Autolycus, the winner of Pankration, says that beauty has something royal, especially if it is combined with modesty and self-respect. Therefore, he connects the idea of Hesiod and the image of the hero, shaping the ideal of a wonderful hero, which also reflected the point of view of Athenian aristocrats. The perception of body and spirit as a holistic unit, inherent in the Greek consciousness, is manifested in their ability to give abstract ideas a sensual, tangible and human form. As for kouroi, the statue’s nudity can be considered as an embodiment of the idea of a hero.

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From the gender perspective, women were perceived in the ancient Greek society in their childbirth function and as trading goods of the family. Their role was to give birth to as many children as possible, which was needed for the growth of the city-state. From such a perspective, it is very unique that there are statues of korai. Despite the subordinate position of women in ancient Greece, most of them were educated. They were acquainted not only with purely feminine chores, such as weaving, spinning, but also with economics and were taught to read and write. Thus, it can be assumed that the girl (kora), who lived in the house of her father (oikos) who owned hearth (hestia; hence, the name of the goddess of the hearth – Hestia), also performed a ritual function, representing a will of Hestia. Thus, korai could have developed from the ritual function of interaction with goddesses of the Greek panteon.

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