THE GREEK KEY PATTERN HAS BEEN AROUND FOR CENTURIES – AND HAS YET TO GO OUT OF STYLE. LET’S DISCUSS WHY, SHALL WE?
The Greek key pattern is the decorative, border-lying design seen on countless earthenware Greek pots as old as 300 BCE. For thousands of years, it adorned everything in Greek life—architecture, floor tiles, painting
While Greek key is a common name for the pattern, it has had aliases from its many incarnations. The winding, geometric pattern has at least a dozen names from a dozen (or more) cultures that employed it: rolling thunder, fret, stepped fret, meander, key, running dog, labyrinth, jigsaw, and more.
The Greeks felt this squarish design looked a lot like an old key. But, many Greeks also called the pattern Meander (as Homer did, in The Iliad) due to its backwards and forwards, decidedly indirect path. (The word meander come from a twisting river in Turkey called the Maender.)
In every culture where the pattern showed up, its creators added their own visual flourish and imbued their own meaning to it. Greek culture used the Meander prolifically in much of their art and architecture for thousands of years. After it appeared there, we can trace the motif directly to Rome, then to Europe at large. But, much longer ago, this pattern arose in some unexpected places.
THE MEANDER’S PALEOLITHIC ROOTS
Think of the stone age. Mammoths roamed the earth, specifically the earth in the Mezin area of Ukraine. There, in 20,000 BCE, on wide ivory bracelets made of mammoth tusk (which look like chic cuffs even today), there were carved designs of this fret pattern. The design is mind-bogglingly old.
We don’t know what the ancient Ukraine community called this pattern (if anything), and it’s impossible to trace it directly from the paleolithic period straight to now (because relics have a way of going unpreserved). But, it was there.
We pick up the Meander pattern again centuries later. Still long before Greece adopted it, it appears on graceful borders in Egyptian tombs from the fourth dynasty (roughly 2600-25—BDE). It’s the same arrangement of squared geometric lines elegantly carved into Egyptian stonework. The communities of paleolithic Ukraine and fourth dynasty Egypt (separated by millennia) obviously could not have had conversations about this pattern. But, the Meander is curious like this. It performs disappearing and appearing acts, then pops up after long absences, inexplicably having traversed time and space.
EMERGING IN ANCIENT CHINA
Crossing to yet another continent, we find the fret pattern next in China at around the same time. Here, it is called Rolling Thunder, as the lines are said to represent clouds (and are a good omen for crops because clouds bring needed rain).
The motif is delicately carved into ancient Chinese bronze vessels as old as 2,000 BCE. Rolling Thunder is drawn exactly as the Greeks later drew it (as we know it now), but some Chinese variations sport a few closed ends that make it look a bit like a Chinese language character, or like Chinese lattice designs of the future.
Whichever ways the Chinese accented this design, once it shows up in their culture, the pattern never leaves. A millennia later, Rolling Thunder motifs are painted on richly decorative Chinese caves from 1038-1227 BCE.
The pattern is also revealed centuries later on a scrap of wool trousers dating 800 BCE (the oldest pants in the world).
The design is so deeply entrenched in China’s history that even now, more than two thousand years later, you can go to an old-school Chinese restaurant in the U.S. and see the same design snaking its way around a ceramic Chinese plate. The fret pattern has legs (and a hidden time machine).
THE GREEK KEY IN THE ANCIENT AMERICAS
In the next leg of the Greek key journey, the pattern shows up in Central America around 900 BCE. The world is still a place where communication between disparate geographies—Central America, Greece, China—is unlikely. So the pattern may not have been passed from one of those cultures to the other, but somehow there it is in Mexico, at the Mitla ruins from 900BCE.
Mitla shows abundant use of the stepped fret pattern. The design winks at us in masterfully carved stonework. It stuns in at least one pyramid with a weight-bearing fret pattern made from stone so well-notched it needed no mortar.
One and then another Central American cultures (Zapotecs, Aztecs, and more) used the stepped fret patterns in endless variety, scale, and medium. They created jagged jigsaws, delicately tendrilled frets, wide geometric blocks of it.
CROSSING TIME AND SPACE WITH THE MEANDER
Not yet halfway to seeing how pervasive the fret pattern is, we must jump back and forth in cultures, and hop continents to see its full story.
Stone architectural beams in India from 2 AD sport a meander design. Ancient Celtic knot patterns clearly resemble the same pattern. Middle Eastern ruins have strong similarities to the Meander. Norse metalwork from the 10th century shows prolific use of the motif, as do Peruvian textiles and Japanese textiles from the 18th century.
Countless and memorable Persian and Native American rugs—two cultures positioned nowhere near each other—weave the Meander pattern into rug edges and artwork to stunning effect. African Sona sand drawings (a visual language of the Chokwe people) have gobs in common with the Greek key.
This pattern, whatever name you call it, never stops reincarnating. It’s a tale of human attraction to one continuous geometric line. No one knows how so many people, separated by so much history, created the same design.
THE GREEK INFLUENCE
The Greek Influence
As the Greeks go crazy with their prolific use of the Meander pattern, they insert it into everything: mosaic floors, plaster murals, art, architecture, ceramics, jewelry. As relics from this time have been documented, we can finally see the motif begin to travel intentionally.
In the 1500s, it moves from artists in Greece to nearby artists in Rome. Romans incorporate the pattern in marble altars, frescoes, paintings, temples (including a Raphael painting int eh Vatican). It grows in popularity via Roman architecture, all the way through the 1700s. Carved stones hold the pattern, as do wooden church doors, metal shields, jeweled tiaras, robe edges, upholstery, even dinner plates.
During the Regency period in England (1811-1820), the fret pattern enjoys a resurgence in popularity. The same can be said for the fret pattern incorporated into Art Décor designs (1920s and 30s), and in Hollywood Regency (1920s – 50s), when set designers brough the pattern onto the silver screen.
Every time there is a slight Greek revival, the key is there. This maze-like, snake-like, boxy meander always has something meaningful to say to someone. Some of the cultures that embraced the fret pattern felt it mimicked a snake. Others thought it depicted lightning or said it symbolized infinity and unity (because the line folds in on itself so perfectly). To some, it was a symbol of waves and the eternal flow of life, or a good harvest.
BUT WHY THE KEY PATTERN?
Many scholars believe the fret pattern naturally evolved from the spiral. The spiral was drawn first but, at times, could be hard to create. (Depending on tools and materials, it can be challenging to draw/carve a perfect circle.) Ancient man might have decided—it they were working with a tough material or an imprecise tool—to make a Meander instead, because it was easier.
To imaging the connection between a spiral and a Meander, think of a round spiral with not too many whorls. Now, in your mind, square the edges of those whorls, turn them blocky and right angled. If you do, the Greek key certainly seems related to the spiral.
Historians have spent time on this evolution because spirals are thought to be amongst the earliest designs man has ever made. Maybe the Greek key came next?
As the Greek key pattern stayed in favor over time, it found its place in increasingly more modern items across Europe and North America. The fret was adopted for design edges and countless decorations. It landed on picture frames, mantle surrounds, shelf brackets, throw pillows, carpets, table legs, sconces, and finally, on paper coffee cups from Greek diners.
The Greek key knows more lives than most. It will likely never be erased.