Index --- style --- turns --- designs --- compare keys --- corners --- 2 dimensional --- modern --- triangular --- copying
A Greek key is a decorative border. There are a surprising number of different versions. This website explains how the keys are different from each other and allows you to compare keys against each other.
•style - introduction to making Greek keys
•turns - making the keys more complicated
•designs - a list of all designs on this website
•compare keys - produce different patterns in different sizes
•corners - including various ways to colour Greek keys
•2 dimensional patterns
•modern designs - including tilted and progressive Greek keys
•triangular designs - including 2 dimensional patterns and borders
•copying patterns from this site
The Greek key pattern is called that because the square pieces sticking out in the pattern look rather like a key. The pattern is also known as a meander or a Greek fret.
Meander means twisting and turning, It is named after the River Meander, now called Büyük Menderes River, in South Western Turkey. This river is mentioned in the Iliad, by Homer. Part of the river is shown on the right. As you can see, it is a very twisting river! The U shapes are oxbow lakes, made when the river changes course. So a meander pattern is a single path which twists back on itself. This is a good description of the Greek key.
Fretwork is a design cut out with a fretsaw. A Greek key is geometric and simple and you could imagine that it has been cut out, which explains its other name, Greek fret. Also it is one colour against a neutral background, so it is easy to carve or cut.
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.
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. 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.
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 left), 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. The one below 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.