Greek keys - origins

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The Charioteer at Delphi

Who used Greek keys?

The Greek key pattern has been used throughout history and in many places. Since it is a simple geometric pattern, it isn't surprising that so many people have used it. The ancient Greeks certainly used it, as carvings on their temples, and on their pottery. You can see a simple Greek key on the head band of the famous Charioteer statue found at Delphi (see left). The Romans liked the pattern as well, using it in their mosaics. However, it's used elsewhere in the world. The Dongson (or Dong Son) culture, which was centered around the Tonkin gulf in present-day Vietnam used Greek key ornamentation. It has also been used by Hopi people in North America.

An older pattern

This tattoo was found on the hand of a woman, found mummified in the Gobi desert, who lived about 3000 years ago. The spirals going both ways looks like a Greek key. However, a Greek key has a double spiral, which not only winds to the centre, but also winds out again as well. These are simple spirals. Also Greek keys tend to connect from one pattern to the next, and these are just simple repetitions. However, the flow of the patterns feels like a Greek key, and I wonder if this is a forerunner of the real Greek key pattern.

This pattern is on Flikr here and there are photos of the original mummy here. Thanks to Tim for bringing it to my notice!

A pattern from a mummy in the Gobi desert

What do Greek keys mean?

Various claims have been made for what a Greek key means. There may be a connection with the labyrinth where Theseus fought the Minotaur. A Greek bowl in the British museum shows Theseus dragging the Minotaur from the labyrinth, which is indicated by a Greek key frieze. You can make a Cretan or classical maze using a Greek key (see right), and many mazes have Greek keys embedded in a design, especially Roman mazes.

Other suggested meanings are stylised waves, snakes, symbolizing the bonds of love, friendship and devotion, eternal life, the four cardinal points, the meander of life, creative energy, the four seasons, etc. Take your pick! I prefer the waves. There are curved forms of Greek keys which look very like seawaves. This pattern Curved Greek key is on the shield of Philip, father of Alexander the Great. The shield also has a more conventional Greek key pattern. This website only describes the square forms.

Making a Cretan Maze

A modern Greek Key

example of Greek key topology of protein strands example of Greek key topology of protein strands

The Greek Key topology is a kind of structure of a protein. The strands of the protein is like a single line, but connected together like a Greek Key. There are some examples on the left.