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One of the most common elements in Greek and Roman art, the meander symbol is a linear geometric pattern commonly used as a decorative band on pottery, mosaic floors, sculptures, and buildings. It is one of the most used patterns throughout human history, but where does it come from and what does it symbolize?
History of the Meander Symbol (Greek Key)
Also referred to as a “Greek Fret” or “Greek Key pattern,” the meander symbol was named after the Meander River in present-day Turkey, mimicking its many twists and turns. It is similar to squared waves, featuring straight lines connected and at right angles to each other in T, L, or cornered G shapes.
Although we call it the Greek Key, the symbol pre-dates the Hellenistic period, as it was used abundantly in decorative arts back in Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. In fact, the oldest found examples are ornaments from Mezin (Ukraine) that date back to about 23,000 B.C.
The meander symbol can also be traced back to many early civilizations, including Mayan, Etruscan, Egyptian, Byzantine, and ancient Chinese. It was a favorite decorative motif during and after the 4th dynasty in Egypt, decorating the temples and tombs. Archaeologists have also discovered it on Mayan carvings and ancient Chinese sculptures.
In 1977, archeologists found the meander symbol on the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. An ivory ceremonial shield with a complex Greek key pattern was one of the numerous artifacts found in his tomb.
The Romans incorporated the meander symbol into their architecture, including the colossal Temple of Jupiter—and later to the St. Peter’s Basilica.
During the 18th century, the meander symbol became highly popular in artwork and architecture in Europe, due to the renewed interest in classical Greece. The meander symbol signified Greek style and taste and was used as a decorative motif.
Although the meander pattern has been used in various cultures, it’s closely associated with the Greeks due to their excessive use of this motif.
What Does the Meander Symbol Mean?
The ancient Greece associated the meander symbol with mythology, moral virtues, love, and aspects of life. Here’s what it was believed to represent:
- Infinity or Eternal Flow of Things: The meander symbol is named after the 250-mile-long Meander River, which Homer mentions in “The Iliad.” Its unbroken, interlocking pattern made it a symbol for infinity or the eternal flow of things.
- Water or Constant Movement of Life: Its long continuous line that repeatedly folds back on itself, resembling squared waves, made a strong connection with the symbol of water. The symbolism persisted into the Roman times when meander patterns were used on mosaic floors in bathhouses.
- Bond of Friendship, Love, and Devotion: Since it’s a sign of continuation, the meander symbol is often associated with friendship, love, and devotion that never ends.
- The Key of Life and Ideogram for the Labyrinth: Some historians believe that the meander symbol has a strong connection with the labyrinth, since it can be drawn with a Greek key pattern. It is said that the symbol opens “the way” to the eternal return. In Greek mythology, Theseus, a Greek hero fought Minotaur, a half man, half bull creature in a labyrinth. According to the myth, King Minos of Crete imprisoned his enemies in the labyrinth so that the Minotaur could kill them. But he eventually decided to end the human sacrifices to the monster with the help of Theseus.
Meander Symbol in Jewelry and Fashion
The meander symbol has been used in jewelry and fashion for centuries. During the late Georgian period, it was commonly incorporated into jewelry designs. The pattern was often used as a border design around cameos, rings, and bracelets. It can also be seen in Art Deco jewelry, up to modern times.
Modern styles of jewelry include a Greek key pendant, chain necklaces, engraved rings, meander bangles with gemstones, geometric earrings, and even gold cufflinks. Some meander motif in jewelry comes with wavy patterns and abstract forms. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the Greek key symbol.
Many fashion labels have also been inspired by Greek culture and mythology. In fact, Gianni Versace chose the head of Medusa for his label’s logo, encircled with meander patterns. It’s no surprise that the symbol can also be spotted on his collections, including dresses, t-shirts, jackets, sportswear, swimwear, and even accessories like handbags, scarves, belts, and sunglasses.
The Greek key or meander was one of the most important symbols in ancient Greece, representing infinity or the eternal flow of things. In modern times, it remains a common theme, replicated in fashion, jewelry, decorative arts, interior design, and architecture. This ancient geometric pattern transcends time, and will continue to be a source of inspiration for decades to come.