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The great kouros of Samos, the largest surviving kouros in Greece (Samos Archaeological Museum)

A kouros (plural kouroi) is a statue of a male youth, dating from the Archaic Period of Greek sculpture (about 650 BC to about 500 BC). The earliest kouroi were made of wood and have not survived, but by the seventh century the Greeks had learned from the Egyptians the art of carving stone with iron tools, and were making kouroi from stone, particularly marble from the islands of Paros and Samos. Modern art historians have used the word to refer to this specific type of male nude statue since the 1890s. Kouroi were also commonly known as "Apollos," since it was believed that all kouroi depicted Apollo.

The Ancient Greek word kouros meant a male youth, and is used by Homer to refer to young soldiers. From the fifth century the word connoted specifically an adolescent, beardless male, but not a child.

Archaic kouroi were created at a time when Greece was under the cultural influence of Ancient Egypt, as can be seen by their characteristic frontal rigid pose, reminiscent of statues of Egyptian kings. Greeks would have seen such statues when visiting Egypt as merchants or mercenary soldiers hired by Egyptians. Kouroi nearly always stand with their arms hanging straight at their sides fingers curved, thumb foremost, although a few show one arm extended forward from the elbow, holding an offering. Like their kingly Egyptian prototypes, the kouros figures are often in the act of striding forward, head erect, eyes front, a faint smile (the "archaic smile") on their lips.

Kouroi are always naked, wearing at most a belt and occasionally boots. Their faces and heads show a cultural influence from Crete: they wear their hair long and braided or beaded in the Cretan fashion, and their eyes sometimes have a recognisably Egyptian aspect, which was copied in Cretan art.

Their female counterparts in sculpture are the Korai, invariably dressed, who also exhibit the restrained "archaic smile". At the end of the sixth century, kouroi begin to show more relaxed poses and their hair styles become more typical of mainland Greece.

By the seventh century, the earliest period for which full-size sculptures exist, kouroi had come to serve two purposes. They were presented to temples as devotional offerings by prominent Greeks, as is shown by the inscriptions which frequently appear on their plinths. They were also placed in cemeteries to mark the graves of prominent citizens. In cemeteries, kouroi showed the deceased as the Greek ideal of masculinity. In very early times, it is likely that kouroi were thought to possess magical properties, and to be inhabited by the daimon of the gods.

Kleobis and Biton, (Archaeological Museum, Thebes)

Kouroi, however, were never intended to be representations of individuals. One of the best known kouroi is the grave-marker of Kroisos, an Athenian soldier. The inscription on his statue reads: "Stop and show pity beside the marker of Kroisos, dead, whom once in battle's front rank raging Ares destroyed." The word "marker" (sema) tells us that this is a symbolic representation of Kroisos, not a portrait.

A well-known example is the double kouros of Kleobis and Biton, found at Delphi. These statues date from about 580 BC and are representations of two legendary heroes of Argos in the Peloponnese. Although an inscription identifies them as Kleobis and Biton, they are typical kouroi, representing the Archaic Peloponnesian virtues of filial piety and physical strength rather than actual persons. Another well-known archaic kouros is the sixth-century Kouros of Melos, which retains archaic frontality in the standardised pose.

The Kritios Boy, a kouros attributed to Kritios from about 490-80 BC (Acropolis Museum, Athens), exemplifies the change from Archaic to Classical sculpture at the time of the First Greco-Persian War; his realistic proportions and details are based on visual experience rather than the schematic ideals of the preceding generation or mathematically derived ideals, such as those established by Polyclitus.

Kouros in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Side view of a kouros in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, showing the characteristic archaic hairstyle
Head of a kouros in the Thebes Archaeological Museum

In the sixth century kouroi grew larger as the Greeks became richer and more confident with marble sculpture. Some were three or even four times lifesize. Some of the largest were made for the Heraion of Samos, a great sanctuary of the goddess Hera on Samos, which was lavishly endowed by the tyrant Polycrates. One of these giant kouroi, at five metres tall the largest ever found, was unearthed in 1981 and is now in the Samos Archeological Museum, which had to be rebuilt to accommodate it. An inscription on its left thigh tells us that the statue was dedicated to Hera by an Ionian nobleman called Isches.

Most kouroi were commissioned by aristocrats as offerings to temples, or by the families of aristocrats to place over their graves. Marble sculpture was very expensive and only the wealthiest could afford to pay sculptors to create these works. Kouroi are therefore a representation of the wealth and power of the Greek aristocratic class, and as this class lost its power in the sixth century, so the kouros went out of fashion both politically and artistically.

By the end of the sixth century, the kouroi were giving way to naturalistic sculptures of living people. Among the earlier representations of real people are the statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, erected in Athens in about 500 BC. These figures (see the illustration at the Harmodius and Aristogeiton article) still show some of the formality of the kouros tradition, but are generally more lifelike. It is significant that these statues were a memorial to the establishment of Athenian democracy. They thus represent the replacement of both the kouros and the system of aristocratic rule which it represented.

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