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The Ancient Greek Ideal for Beauty

Kallos: The Ancient Greek Ideal for Beauty

17 January 2022

The ancient Greek word "Kallos" means "beauty" and is associated with both women and men. However, the meaning of "Kallos" in its ultimate dimension, is not just a word that means only "beauty". It is an ideal that developed in ancient Greek thought, was expressed through the epic (8th century BC) and lyric (7th - 6th century BC) poets and was gradually crystallized in the texts of the philosophers of the 5th / 4th c. BC. who, from then on, referred to it as a combination of physical appearance and the virtues of the soul.

Image after introtext
Marble statue of Artemis, Roman copy of an original work of the 4th c. BC. (ancient Messina, ca 2nd c. BC.) - Photo credit: Irini Miari / Ephorate of Antiquities of Messinia

Archaic and classical beauty

"Kallos" as a concept that includes natural beauty and mental virtues begins to crystallize in ancient Greek philosophical thought during the Archaic period (6th century BC) and then during the Classics (5th - 4th century BC) and Hellenistic times (3rd - 2nd century BC). Through a series of works of exceptional art, mainly sculptures, of the Archaic and Classical period, the rendering of the human form and its ethos is given. The statue of a Kore, the Kore of Chios, stands out, among others, as well as the bust of a female figure from a burial monument of Rhodes.

Statue of the Kore of Chios

Divine kallos

Beauty always derives from the gods, who possess it to the absolute degree. Even the most beautiful mortals are considered equal in beauty to the gods and are never superior to them. Also, each god has his own feature in Greek mythology and is attributed with it to the works of antiquity: Zeus the magnificence, Hera the solemnity, Aphrodite the beauty of the face and body, Athena the wisdom, Ares the vigor, Poseidon the power of nature, Apollo the serenity, Artemis the austerity…

Marble head of a supernatural statue of Dionysus

Kallos of mortals

Kallos thrives and declines with age. Beauty withers away and strength gives way to weakness. However, according to ancient Greek thought, the kallos of humans is inherent in every age, and thanks to this, many mortals became immortal. Such examples are mythical and real figures of antiquity, well-known for their natural beauty, like Adonis or Helen of Troy on the one hand, and Alexander the Great on the other.

Xenophon reflects this perception, saying that "we should not underestimate kallos because it disappears quickly. Because as we recognize beauty in a boy, so we do in a teenager, an adult or an elderly person." Similarly, Aristotle, who states that "beauty is different from age to age."

The praise of the natural beauty of young people, men and women of everyday life in ancient Greece by their contemporaries is given through inscriptions engraved on vases or written in color on stone architectural members, etc.

Marble head of a statue of Alexander the Great

Kallos in sports

The athletic kallos is about the physical and mental strength and vigor that makes humans capable of coping with the hardships and demands of the competitions, in combination with their noble rivalry and their wonderful achievements in the stadium.

Two athletes wrestling

Heroic kallos

This is about the spirit of self-sacrifice for the sake of the common good, acts of heroism in war and peace, sometimes in combination with natural beauty. The heroes are one level above the common mortals and often become demigods. Such examples are the greatest hero of ancient Greek mythology, Hercules, the hero of Troy, Achilles, but also Atalanta, the famous and beautiful hunter, or the great female warriors, the Amazons.

Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion for his 1st labor

Abductions in Greek Mythology due to kallos

The attraction from the beauty of beautiful mortal people leads gods and heroes to chase them and abduct them, for sexual encounters or to have them as their own forever. There are many references to myths in such cases: Zeus and Ganymede, Theseus and Antiope, etc.

The abduction of Antiope by Theseus

Divine beauty competitions

Paris, prince of Troy, is called upon to decide who is the most beautiful goddess and to give her an apple as a reward for her victory (the famous ‘apple of discord’). The competition is won by Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, who promises Paris to give him the most beautiful mortal woman, Helen, queen of Sparta. This decision laid the foundations for the events that would lead to the Trojan War.

See about: The Apple of Discord and the Fairest of Them All 

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Featured photo: Marble head of a supernatural statue of Dionysus (from the sanctuary of Dionysus in Thassos island, second half of the 4th c. BC) - Photo credit: Orestis Kourakis / Ephorate of Antiquities of Kavala.

About the author: Our team at Greek TravelTellers consists of academics and lovers of Greek culture. Our vision is to convey our knowledge and Greek values through unique tours and experiences. Through our blog, we hope to bring Greek history and culture closer to you. Feel free to learn more about us.

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