The Greek Kouros


Marble statue of a kouros (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

There are numerous opinions about the origins of the Greek kouroi, in general about what social groups and societies influenced the style of the kouroi, and in particular what the depictions of the kouroi signify about Ancient Greek culture in the archaic period. Focusing on the descriptions of the New York Kouros from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a contention is made that, “The rigid stance, with the left leg forward and arms at the side, was derived from Egyptian art. The pose provided a clear, simple formula that was used by Greek sculptors throughout the sixth century B.C.”[i] However, statistical analysis performed by Eleanor Guralnick, and the theoretical arguments presented by R. M. Cook prove otherwise, claiming that there is no direct influence of Egyptian sculpture on Archaic Greek sculpture, especially the New York Kouros. Given the argument presented by Guralnick and Cook, one is left thinking that since these kouroi may be unique creations of the Ancient Greeks, what was their specific function within Greek society, and by what means was this function carried out? One may apply several theories, like that of Saxe and the energy expenditure theory, to elucidate conceptions of social status, beauty and the idealized form. Nevertheless, the theory of functionalism is of the utmost importance in comparison to the previously mentioned propositions. By noting the meaning of the kouroi for the social whole, one may see that although the New York Kouros of the Archaic Period may not be completely influenced by Egyptians styles, such stonework provided a idealized depiction of the dead that gave a sense of order and guaranteed remembrance, something that both the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians would have wanted.

In The Proportions of Kouroi, Eleanor Guralnick wonders whether Egyptian artists have influenced Ancient Greek sculpture. Her findings have an impact on the interpretation of the origins of the style of New York Kouros. She writes that, “There is at present no generally accepted theory of what would constitute such an influence, nor any objective proof of it. Thus some scholars have concluded that similarities are accidental or coincidental and common to the arts of primitive societies.”[ii] Among other statues, like the “Tenea, Melos, Volmandra, Anvysos, Munich, and Aristodikos kouroi”, the New York Kouros is used in her research.[iii] Obtaining an Egyptian canon as reference, she applied 3-D and statistical analysis programs to a grid of a canonical Egyptian sculpture and the aforementioned kouroi. She writes, “With the aid of members of the Statistics Department of the University of Chicago, a program for cluster analysis called CLUS was selected for analyzing the proportions and grouping of the statues.”[iv]  The result of her study shows that many of the archaic kouroi are similar to the figures of human males. Even so, she explains that certain kouroi are “more like each other than they are like either men or the Egyptian canon.”[v] Although she does not mention the posture of the New York Kouros, the left leg slightly forward and the arms to the side, she provides a foundation for seeing the Greek kouroi as unique creations with a specific purpose in their depiction.

R. M. Cook, in Origins of Greek Sculpture, promotes a similar position as Guralnick, however, he does not use statistical analysis. He acknowledges that there may be some similarities between the kouroi and Egyptian statues:

Of the Archaic Greek types the kouros is most apparently comparable to Egyptian – an upright, four-square figure with arms held to its sides and one foot in front of the other. Except for the stance this is the most obvious pose for a standing figure, and there are essential specific differences, well defined by Schrader. The stock Egyptian male has a support behind the forward leg, tilts backwards, and wears a kilt; the Greek kouros stands free, has a more mobile poise and is naked (except in the Daedalic style for a belt).[vi]

His main argument presumes that Greek sculptors did not have the economic means to travel to Egypt in order to study Egyptian craftsmanship. Cook also claims that Greek benefactors would not have hired Egyptian teachers to instruct Greek sculptors. Lastly, he says “Nor is there the slightest evidence, material or literary, that foreign status were imported.”[vii] It is necessary to take notice of these assumptions. Cook does not give any evidence to prove why Greek sculptors would not be able to travel to Egypt. A list specifying normal wages of these artists in the archaic period would have been useful in backing his argument. Likewise, he does not provide a basis for the claim that Greek elites would not have paid for the instruction of Greek artists. Though Cook could have addressed these shortcomings, his ideas are instrumental in showing that while there is no concrete evidence demonstrating that Egyptian sculpture has no direct influence on archaic Greek sculpture, Greek kouroi are unique depictions of the Ancient Greeks. Now, it is necessary to inquire what function these depictions served in Ancient Greek society.

New York Kouros Video

The New York Kouros, created around 590–580 B.C., is an idealized masculine form. Such figures were used as parts of grave markers.[viii] The figure stares blankly into the distance; his fists are closed. In Art, Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece, Andrew Stewart provides a convenient overview of kouroi:

Some communities preferred to use kouros as a tomb marker, others as a votive offering to the gods (both male and female), and still others used it for both purposes; furnished with suitable attributes, it could become a hero or a god—the Dioskouroi, or Apollo…. All are young and unbearded, though some (perhaps all) of those that seem to have no pubic hair actually had it added in paint…where a ghost of the pattern survives. Almost all large-scale kouroi are made of marble and small-scale ones of bronze.[ix]

He explains that the kouros is tragic, that it represents beauty and nobility—Kalokagathia—that has suffered an early death. The New York Kourous is perpetually blooming. The deceased is remembered in a positive light. The function of the kouros is explained by the Saxe theory. In The Archaeology of Death and Burial, Mike Pearson explicates the Saxe theory as he says, “The greater the person’s status, the more likely that their most significant identities are represented at death, at the expense of their lesser identities, and conversely.”[x] The depiction of the dead in the form of the New York Kouros shows that the patrons of this statue wanted the identity of the deceased to be that of an ideal Greek man, one who died when he had strength and vigor. This kouros represents what every young Greek male should aspire to be: rich, strong and noble.

The energy expenditure theory also provides insightful information about this depiction of the dead. According to Pearson, this theory can help identify the social rank of the individual. He says, “…the social rank of individuals correlated with the degree of energy expenditure and their mortuary rites in 90 per cent of cases.”[xi] Stewart explains that the kouroi took about a year to make, therefore, using the energy expenditure theory, one could tell that they were made with a specific function, to demonstrate what an ideal, wealthy dead should be like.[xii]

The theory of functionalism serves the most important role. Functionalism “emphasizes the pre-eminence of the social whole over its individual parts, the human subjects” explains Pearson.[xiii] Stewart provides a background for the social upheaval going on in archaic period Attica. His account makes it clear why the kouroi served such an eminent function in Greek society. He says, “In Attica, specific social conditions seem to have sharpened this sense of cosmic and human instability, giving a certain local thrust to the kouros’s message. For unlike many other Greek states, sixth-century Athens had no official, securely entrenched aristocracy.” Hereditary power had been destabilized and weakened.[xiv] The marble kouroi, like the New York Kouros, must have provided order and stability by way of its perfection. The aristocracy used the kouroi to not only display what perfection is and what all the other classes should strive for, but also to create an indestructible monument for remembrance by way of marble statues.

While certain scholars note that Egyptian statues may not directly influence the Greek kouroi, their research makes one wonder what was the kouroi’s unique function. By way of the Saxe and the energy expenditure theory, one notices that wealthy members of Ancient Greek society commissioned the kouroi. However, the theory of functionalism proves most instrumental in explaining that for a society suffering from instability, the depiction of the idealized dead through the use of stonework provided symbolic stability along with demonstrations of ideal human figures.

[i] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Marble statue of a kouros (youth), Web. 27 April 2013. ‹›.

[ii] Guralnick, Eleanor. The Proportions of Kouroi.  American Journal of Archaeology , Vol. 82, No. 4 (Autumn, 1978). Published by: Archaeological Institute of America., 462.

[iii] Ibid., 461.

[iv] Ibid., 464.

[v] Ibid., 469.

[vi] R.M. Cook, R.M., Origins of Greek Sculpture. The Journal of Hellenic Studies , Vol. 87, (1967), Published by: The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies., 24.

[vii] Ibid., 27.

[viii] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Marble statue of a kouros (youth), Web. 27 April 2013. ‹›.

[ix] Stewart, Andrew. Art, Desire, and the Boyd in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print. 65.

[x] Pearson, Mike. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A&M University Press. Print, 29.

[xi] Ibid., 31.

[xii] Stewart, Andrew. Art, Desire, and the Boyd in Ancient Greece. Print. 68.

[xiii] Pearson, Mike. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Print, 22-23.

[xiv] Stewart, Andrew. Art, Desire, and the Boyd in Ancient Greece. Print. 68.