Archaic Greek Statues and Their Smirky Smiles

Say Cheese!

The smiling face of a kore from a statue, circa 530 B.C. DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images

If you’re a pretty young female (kore) or male (kourous) statue in ancient Greece, what’s your face going to look like? It’s sure to be bedecked by a smile, figured artists in the archaic period – a.k.a. pre-Classical Greece at the start of the seventh century B.C. to 480 B.C. Although the korai all depict young folks, whether epitomized or realistic, they vary greatly in physical appearance, perhaps indicating they represented individual people, rather than idealistic views of women.

From votive offerings to funeral monuments, from Athens to Ephesus, they all had that tiny grin on their faces, dubbed the “archaic smile” by scholars. But why are all of these young people smiling? Surely life in Greece wasn’t that perfect all the time.

I Go Ahead and Smile

Academic explanation of the smile varies. Perhaps it shows the behavior of an idealized woman.  an ideal woman’s behavior. The slight smile indicates appropriately restrained contentment, not unladylike and exuberant joy. Or maybe it supposes women in Athens were content much of the time – or should have been. In a time in which figures were becoming increasingly naturalistic, it only makes sense that artists also showed facial expressions. Perhaps the smile, which emphasized prominent cheekbones, showed off the feature the Greeks considered particularly attractive. Or it was a natural result, a “technical difficulty” caused by carving in stone or wood!

  

Another option is that, as Jeffrey Hurwit suggests, the blank smile is not “a sign not of joy or happiness, but of transcendence.” The smile puts the kore or kourous at a distance from us mere mortals, one that “that deflects any attempt to search for emotion or thought behind the surface of the face.”

Maybe the smile came about as a natural extension of Greek artists exploring the possibilities of human facial expressions as depicted in their work. Some have theorized that the smile serves as a sign of the statue’s metaphorical ability to speak, just as its striding position indicates motion. 

The Ori-Grins

Maybe looking at the origins of this smile can help us understand its origins. Some scholars trace it to the early seventh century B.C. sculpture in the Daedalic style.  That type of sculpture bears the name of the famous Cretan inventor Daedalus, and it contains “Eastern influences." The archaic smile does demonstrate noticeable similarities to a style from the Egyptian Saite period (664-525 B.C.), roughly contemporary to the archaic period  - and there were smiling pharaohs from even earlier. Kouroi and Saite statues even have similar measurements. How did an Egyptian expression make its way to Greece? Well, trade and contact between these two regions was very well-established by the first millennium B.C.

Others have identified the foundations of the archaic smile from elsewhere in the ancient Near East – in Assyria, to be precise. A series of ivories from Kalhu, a.k.a. Nimrud, demonstrates the same hint of a smirk.

Again, contract between these two areas had existed for millennia, so the artistic style theoretically could have originated in either space. Traders may have brought over wares from one place – statues bearing that little smile – and inspired local artists to copy the design.

The archaic smile didn’t stop in Greece. It spread to pre-Roman Italy, where the Greeks founded many colonies. The Etruscans used the mini-grin on their statues. Perhaps the expression was just too infectious!