Kouroi and the Idealized Form

Kouroi and the Idealized Form

By Lucas Olson Duffy


(Marble Statue of a Kouros (youth)) [IV]



The people of Ancient Greece idealized their dead and highlighted the importance of the social persona. One of the ways they did this was through the Kouroi.

The name Kouroi translates to Youths and was a term coined

“by Vasilis Leonardos in 1895; we do not know what, if anything, the type was called in antiquity.” [VIII, p63]

“Kouroi appear first on the islands, in mid- to late seventh-century contexts on Naxos, Thera and Delos, a little later on Samos, and then in greatest numbers in Attica and Boetia.” [VI, p95]

Kouroi were statues depicting male figures in archaic period Greece. The Archaic period took place approximately between 600 and 480 B.C. These figures were usually naked and shaved young men. They are not very individualized but rather strive to portray the idea of youth within Greek culture. [III&VII]

“The kouros was not intended as a realistic portrait of the deceased, but as an idealized representation of values and virtues to which the dead laid claim: youthful beauty, athleticism and aristocratic bearing, among others.”[IX]

“The kouros embodies many of the ideals of the aristocratic culture of Archaic Greece. One such ideal of this period was arete, a combination of moral and physical beauty and nobility. Arete was closely connected with kalokagathia, literally a composite term for beautiful and good or noble.” [VII]

Some rare examples of kouroi even hold objects that reinforce their aristocratic standing within society. These include handkerchief rolls which were a symbol of nobility and Egyptian batons. These physical objects seek to project an idealization of their access to luxury while they were still alive. [VI, p98]

The Kouros portrayed at the beginning of this exhibit is of a young male. It was carved in Attica between the years of 590 and 580 B.C. It is one of the earliest examples of a freestanding marble statue from the region. Marble is a very hard stone and is difficult to quarry and sculpt. The Ancient Greeks learned how to work with marble from the Egyptians. [IV]

“The size and complexity of kouroi, and the expense of marble, also necessitated the use of Egyptian-style canons to design them.”[VI, p97]

This quote brings up the usefulness in using Tainter’s  energy expenditure theory to analyze the kouroi. As a result of marble being very expensive and also being extremely costly/labor intensive to cut, the youths portrayed by kouroi were likely the rich aristocrats that they were portrayed to be. Tainter logically described that the higher the level of effort/resources which go into creating a resting place/funerary monument for an individual, the more likely he/she is of being of a higher status within that society.

Not only are the marble techniques of sculpting Kouroi believed to have been directly influenced by the ancient Egyptians, but even the measurements of some kouroi can be clearly seen to be linked to the Egyptian canon of proportions.

“The similarity of… proportions to those of the contemporary Egyptian canon suggests that at least one of the earliest Greek sculptors was cognizant of the Egyptian method for proportioning sculptured figures.” [II, p1]

Even if you were not familiar with any of the history surrounding Kouroi and the tradition of Ancient Egyptian sculpture, just by looking at some examples of each side by side you might see similarities. The most glaring connection seems to be the striding forward with only the left foot that we see in both cultures. For this similarity to arise independently and become widespread within the cultures and stay for over a hundred years in both does not seem very statistically likely.

“This kouros is one of the earliest marble statues of a human figure carved in Attica. The rigid stance, with the left leg forward and arms at the side, was derived from Egyptian art.” [IV]

“The physical appearance, clenched fists and monumental size of the kouroi also suggest associations with eastern Mediterranean sculpture and culture, and in particular with Egypt. They are a modification of an Egyptian sculpture type, adopting the latter’s posture, hairstyle, stylized ears and big eyes, though shedding the loin-cloth that Egyptian youths wear.” [VI, p97]

In ancient Greece during the archaic period, being a nude male was not something to be ashamed of, rather it was celebrated. The Kouroi lost the loin-cloths of their Egyptian counterparts to better idealize the pure and youthful male form in all its glory.

“In Greek art, nakedness is often used to set the person aside from everyone else: sometimes as an athlete, sometimes as a hero and sometimes as dead.”[I]

The Kouroi idealized the body at its physical peak or ‘bloom’in life. This ‘bloom’ of strength and beauty was referred to as his hebe or acme. The idea of this hebe and its desirableness is described ephemerally in the following poem. [VIII]

“We are as leaves in jeweled springtime growing

That open to the sunlight’s quickening rays:

So joy we in our span of youth, unknowing

If god shall bring us good or evil days.

Two fates beside you stand; the one has sorrow,

Dull age’s fruit; the other gives the boon

Of death, for youth’s fair flower has no tomorrow,

And lives but as a sunlit afternoon.”[VIII, p65]


The ancient greeks also believed in Kalokagathia, or a“beautiful death.”Idealizing these “beautiful deaths”in the front lines of battle (i.e. in the promachoi), can be analyzed from a functionalist approach to show how the society was using the idealization of individual dead to support itself as a whole by attempting to inspire new generations of young men to fight in their state’s military.

“We might even say anatomy is politics: that is, the field we call anatomy was coded for Greeks with social messages about class and status.” [VI, p84]

Some kouroi were portrayed with oil jars signifying their position as a wrestler (not as good as warrior garb for recruitment, but fit athletes still made good warriors and brought prestige to their cities during the Olympics/ other tournaments.) while other kouroi were even portrayed in full idealized youth including a military cap on top. A young man passing along a Kouroi of an almost godlike warrior youth may have been inspired enough to either join the military full time or even train and volunteer to fight in the promachoi. From a very funcionalist perspective, the kouroi, especially those with military epitaphs or caps, served the same utility that American “I want you” posters did during World War II.

“The cap that sometimes appears on later kouroi is a usefully ambiguous sign of military involvement:it can supplement the ‘heroic’epitaph of Croesus, but might also nod to citizen-hoplite ideals.”[VI, p98-100]

Perhaps the most famous military epitaph on a Kouroi belongs to an individual named Kroisos who died in a manner what the ancient Greeks described as the most perfect way for a man to die; a beautiful death fighting in the promochoi. The Ancient Greeks even had a name for this type of death, the “Kalos Thantos.”(The female version was dying in childbirth)

“Stay and mourn at the monument for dead Kroisos. Whom raging Ares once destroyed, fighting in the vanguard.”[VIII, p66]

This quote is fantastic because it showed that dead Kroisos’ bravery and grace were so great in battle that it took a god, Ares, to destroy him.

The kouroi were considered such an idealized form during the archaic period in ancient Greece that they were even considered suitable to be used to represent or offer to the god Apollo.

“Votive kouroi outside Attica are often found in sanctuaries of Apollo and there are representations in marble and other materials of Apollo as a kouros.”[VI, p97]

In the past it was believed that perhaps the kouroi tradition had originally started out as all being representations to Apollo. However,

“most scholars reject the old idea that it originally represented Apollo. (For one thing, in the seventh-century Cyclades, where the type originated, Apollo is bearded.)”[VIII, pg65]

Not only was it important for Kouroi to be idealized from a funcionalist perspective with society in mind, the individual dead also sought attention from the living. Many epitaphs are written in the first person and these “kleos” were believed to help the dead/energize them if they were read by the living. And what better way to get someone to read your sign than to put neon lights around it or in archaic Greece have a stunning nude male standing above it.

“More eye-catching than its rivals it becomes more likely to snare the passerby into speaking its dead owner’s kleos.” [VIII, p68]

From a funcionalist perspective regarding the following of Apollo, pretty statues would have also attracted more visitors to their temples, much like how in modern day india during the Kumbh Mela temples are constructed in vibrant colors and are covered in neon and flashing lights to attract devotees.


Works Cited

[I] “British Museum – The Strangford Apollo.” British Museum – The Strangford Apollo. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/young_explorers/discover/museum_explorer/anci

ent_greece/dress_and_ornament/the_strangford_apollo.aspx>.   (<- had to space the url otherwise it went off the webpage.)

[II] Guralnick, Eleanor. “Proportions of Korai.” American Journal of Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America, n.d. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/50417>.

[III] “Marble Head of a Kouros (youth).” British Museum –. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/m/marble_head_of_a_youth.aspx>.

[IV] “Marble Statue of a Kouros (youth).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/130013862>.

[V] Parker, Pearson Michael. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Phoenix Mill [u.a.: Sutton, 2001. Print.

[VI] Quinn, Josephine C. “Herms, Kouroi and the Political Anatomy of Athens.” Greece & Rome , Second Series. Cambridge University Press on Behalf of The Classical Association, n.d. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20204180>.

[VII] “Statue of a Kouros (Getty Museum).” Statue of a Kouros (Getty Museum). N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=12908>.

[VIII] Stewart, Andrew. “Stewart on Kouroi.” N.p., n.d. Web. <https://moodle.wesleyan.edu/mod/resource/view.php?id=206607>.

[IX] “The Strangford Apollo.” British Museum –. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/t/the_strangford_apollo.aspx>.