The History and Meaning Behind the Greek Key Pattern

Greek Key Pattern Hero

Whether or not you know the name, you’ll recognize the pattern. The ‘Greek key’, also known as the ‘meander’, is a repeating geometric motif that has been used across buildings, decorative arts, jewelry and even clothes for centuries. The pattern can be found in a variety of forms. At its most basic, it is a band consisting of short horizontal and vertical lines, connected at right angles. But it can be more complex, forming labyrinths and interlocking key patterns.  

The Origins of the Greek Key Pattern

The Greek Key’s exact origins are unclear, with traces of its usage appearing in relics found from Etruscan, Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman and Byzantine cultures. One such early example is the ‘guilloche’ (a pattern created through interlacing curved lines) on the depiction of the Investiture of Zimrilim, dating back to the 18th century BC. Although a pattern made of curves rather than geometric shapes, this instance of the guilloche is thought by many to be a predecessor to the Greek Meander, or Key. 

Investiture of Zimri-Lim

The Investiture of Zimri-Lim, from the Amorite palace at Mari, via Wikimedia Commons

The key pattern is most frequently associated with Greece thanks to the Ancient Greeks’ commitment to employing it prolifically. The motif was employed with abundance across temples and monuments in Ancient Greece as much as it was on domestic pots and vases. 

Why do we call it the key pattern?  

Many think that a small section of the pattern in isolation resembles a rudimentary, traditional key.

Greek Key Pattern

For others, the motif recalls the twisting, winding course of the Meander River in Asia Minor, now present-day Turkey. Etymologically, the word ‘meander’, meaning to take an indirect path, derives from this river. 


For the people of Ancient Greece, Meander (or Meandros) was thought to symbolize eternity and the undulating flow of human life through reproduction. The unbroken, interlocking pattern turned it into a symbol of both unity and infinity, whereupon it became one of the most important symbols in Ancient Greece. 

According to Psychology Today, recent discoveries have revealed that the meander was more than simply a decorative symbol for use in art. It was also a form of hand grip employed in ancient Greek gymnastics, wrestling and the “pankration”, (a Greek form of martial art) that was a popular event in the earliest Olympic Games, as well as in battle.

pankration grip

This grip had two meanings. On a physical level, it was a powerful way to hold fighters or performers securely. On a metaphysical level, it was considered a manifestation of the heroism and resilience of the Greek spirit, symbolic of the Ancient Greeks’ capacity to overcome adversity. In this way it is thought that the meaning of the Meander has been misinterpreted for many years, not representing directionless wandering as the name “meander” suggests, but instead purpose, determination and strength. 

What connection does the Key Pattern bear with labyrinths and mazes?

A labyrinth can be created using the repeating patterns of a Greek key. And thanks to the myths of Homer and the Ilyad, the Ancient Greek people are commonly associated with mazes and labyrinths (the original being the Cretan labyrinth built to hold the Minotaur). 

Common uses of the Meander/Key Pattern 

Vases and Pottery

Greek vases constitute the main reason for the widespread use of meanders in decorative art, but the key pattern can be found throughout many styles of pottery and ceramics across different cultures. 


An Attic Black-figured Column-krater, realized $37,500 via Christie’s, New York, NY (June 6, 2013)

Greek Attic Black-Figure Vessel

Greek Attic Black-Figure Vessel, £22,500 via TimeLine Auctions, London, United Kingdom (September 4, 2018)


The Greek Key has been symbolically used in jewelry consistently for centuries. 


A Greek Gold Ring, £187.50 via Chiswick Auctions, London, United Kingdom (June 27, 2019)

Antique Victorian Coral Cameo Brooch 18K YG

Antique Victorian Coral Cameo Brooch 18K YG, $900 via Abington Auction Gallery, Fort Lauderdale, FL, US (May 21, 2020)

An early 20th century sapphire and diamond bow

An early 20th century sapphire and diamond bow, £1,240 via Dreweatts 1759, Newbury, United Kingdom (November 27, 2013)


Important Seed Pearl and Diamond Tiara, Cartier, circa 1909, realized CHF802,000 via Sotheby’s, Geneva, Switzerland (November 11, 2015)


A Belle Époque Diamond ‘meander’ Tiara, by Ansorena, circa 1900, £162,500 via Bonhams, London, United Kingdom (September 26, 2018)


Meanders are also commonly found on the pavement mosaics found in Roman villas throughout the Roman empire. They are also frequently used in soft furnishings, among contemporary interior design pieces. 

SOUTH PERSIAN RUG with Greek Key Border, early 20th century

South Persian Rug with Greek Key Border, early 20th century, realized $5,750 via Grogan & Company, Boston, MA (April 22, 2006)

A Navajo Crystal Rug

A Navajo Crystal Rug, 108 x 73 inches, $3,750 via Hindman, Chicago, IL (November 13, 2014)


While perhaps less prominent than its use in decorative art, the influence of the Greek Key can be felt across numerous examples of contemporary and vintage fashion,

Anderson Watch

Andersen Watch with Greek Key Pattern Outer Ring realized HKD300,000 via Sotheby’s, Hong Kong (October 6, 2010)

Doctor Who - The Fires of Pompeii, 2008 Phil Davis as Lucius Petrus Dextrus

Doctor Who – The Fires of Pompeii Costume, realized £375 via Bonhams, London, UK (December 15, 2011)


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