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An Overview of Greek Culture

Manali Oak
Greece is a country of diverse cultures. The geographical location of Greece and its long history have shaped its culture. Evolving over thousands of years, the Greek culture has influenced the Western civilization. Here is an overview of the ancient and modern culture of Greece.

Greek Contribution to the Modern World

It was Greece that introduced the world to ideas like democracy and equality under law. The Ancient Greeks developed forms such as comedy, tragedy as also epic and lyrical poetry. They were pioneers in fields like mathematics, physics, philosophy, and medicine.
Greek Culture is one of the oldest cultures in the world. It finds its roots in the Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations. The Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires have had a major influence on the culture of Greece. It is distributed across three periods, the classical era (5th and 4th centuries BC), the Byzantine period, and the modern era.
Greeks are proud of their culture and consider it as a representation of their nationality and ethnicity. The following sections of this Historyplex article will give you an overview of the culture of Greece with information about Greek art, literature, music, cuisine, and clothing as also their religion, customs and traditions, beliefs, and way of living.

Greek Art

✦ Remains of ancient Greek architecture exist in the form of documentations. The Greek architecture of today follows modern trends. Their work was appreciated for many years. Lacking proper preservation, the paintings vanished after 4th century A.D. Many of the ancient Greek buildings have been destroyed due to wars and earthquakes.
✦ Parthenon is an ancient temple built for the Greek Goddess Athena, who is believed to protect Greece. The Parthenon is a very important surviving temple of Greece.
Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis
✦ The ancient period can be divided into three artistic periods, namely Archaic, the Classical, and the Hellenistic. The art from these periods did not differ drastically.
✦ Art during the Byzantine period was based on Gods unlike that in the Classical period which focused on man. Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, and saints were the subjects of artworks in the Byzantine period.
✦ Cretan school was a prominent name in post-Byzantine and modern Greek art. It was succeeded by The Heptanese School of painting that added European influences to Greek art. Many 19th century Greek artists went to Munich to study art.
On returning to Greece, they led to the development of a new style that was a blend of Greek and European influences. The Greek Munich School was established. Artists from this school chose daily living, customs, and living conditions as the subjects of their works.
✦ The Greeks used pottery in their daily lives. That in the ancient period used the colors red and black. The designs on the vases evolved from lines and curves to human figures and intricate designs.
Pots in the Protogeometric period had designs of lines, curves, arcs, and triangles. Vases of the 9th and 8th century BC (Geometric period) though built around geometric figures, included some abstract forms. Human figures also began to appear in the designs.
✦ Mid-7th century pottery included black figures on white backgrounds.
✦ Pottery of the middle and late Archaic period (620 to 480 BC) had human and animal figures in black on red backgrounds.
✦ In the late 6th century, the red-figure technique was developed, which meant red designs on black backgrounds. Towards the culmination of 6th century BC, the white ground technique developed. Vases of this period used paints and gilding on white clay, thus allowing more use of colors.
✦ Metal vessels made by the Greeks laid the foundation of the bronze working technique. The Greek coins of today derive their patterns from those of the ancient times.
✦ Panel and wall paintings were among the noted expressions of art by the Greeks. Panel paintings were those done on wooden boards.
The designs included portraits and still-life. None of the famous panel paintings have survived. Wall paintings were mostly done in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Not many famous works have survived.
Ancient Byzantine fresco
✦ Roman frescoes are believed to have been heavily influenced by Greek panel paintings. Greek sculptures often portrayed their Gods and Goddesses, battles, and rulers.
✦ Greek art has inspired artists of many countries around the world.

Greek Literature

✦ Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are two famous works of the preclassical era of ancient Greek literature.

✦ Lyrical poetry and tragedy and comedy in drama arose in the Classical era. Lyrical poets like Sappho and Pindar, and philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates contributed to this period of Greek literature.
✦ During the Hellenistic period, the Old Testament was translated into Greek.

✦ The New Testament and the Gospels were written during the Roman Age. This period also saw works in astronomy, geography, and medicine.

✦ Literature about the Byzantine empire was that written during the Byzantine period or the middle ages. It included chronicles and encyclopedias.
✦ The Cretan Renaissance poem Erotokritos is a major work of Modern Greek literature.

✦ Literature of the pre-independence era had an Italian influence and was characterized by romanticism and nationalism. Post independence, Athens gained importance. Kostis Palamas came to be considered as the national poet of Greece.
✦ In the Classical era, Greek was spoken in the Mediterranean region and beyond. It then became the official language of the Byzantine empire and later developed into Medieval Greek.
✦ Today, Greek is the official language of Greece and Cyprus, and is spoken by over 13 million people. It is among the 24 official languages of the European Union. It is known for its rich vocabulary. Many terms in science are derived from the Greek language.

Music and Dance of Greece

✦ The dance culture of Greece began in the Minoan period. Dance was believed to cultivate physical and mental well-being and was hence incorporated into their education system.
Greek women performing traditional dance
Syrtos, a group of folk dances of ancient origin and Mantilia of the Byzantine period, were among the popular Byzantine dances in ancient Greece. They are performed even today. Dance is a part of many Greek celebrations and is performed on auspicious occasions.
✦ The guitar and the flute were some of the musical instruments that originated in the Byzantine period. String instruments like Lyre were prominent during the classical period.
✦ Greek music can be classified as traditional and byzantine. Traditional or folk music varies across different parts of the country. Byzantine music consisted of songs and hymns that were sung during worship, festivals, or formal ceremonies. Today, it is mostly associated with the Church.
✦ The most famous musical instrument of Greece is the bouzouki, a plucked string instrument.
✦ Greek music is proud to bear the names of many world-famous musicians right from Alypius, a music director from ancient Greece to the singer, songwriter, and musician Christos Dantis of the modern times.

Greek Cuisine

✦ The food of Greece included grains, figs, breads and cakes. The Greeks relished seafood and drank wine. Honey was largely used as a sweetener. Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines have impacted the Greek food culture. Greeks mostly use olive oil for cooking.
✦ Moussaka made from lamb, eggplant and topped with white sauce is famous. Fasolada is regarded as the traditional Greek dish and known as the national food of the Greeks. It is a white bean soup that contains tomatoes, carrots, and celery.
✦ Desserts like galaktoboureko and ravani, a golden-yellow cake are also popular among the Greeks.
✦ Greek food is an example of a healthy diet of the Mediterranean region.

The People of Greece

✦ In the olden times, men worked away from home. They worked on fields or were engaged in hunting and sailing.

✦ Ancient Greeks developed crop rotation and irrigation systems to compensate for the infertility of land.
✦ Women led a somewhat restricted life in the ancient times. Their job was to look after their family and children.

✦ Slavery prevailed in the ancient Greek civilization.
✦ The ties in Greek families are strong and supporting others in the family is considered as an individual's responsibility. Many small businesses are run by families.

✦ Since the 1980s, the concept of civil marriage has been established. Divorce has been made easy and dowry system has been abolished.
Traditional Greek clothing
✦ The clothing of Greeks was loose and flowery. Garments were often not sewn together and were made out of wool or linen. The clothing for men and women was not very different. Women wore ankle-length dresses, while men wore knee-length dresses. Clasps or pins were used to secure the clothes and belts or sashes would be worn around the waist.
✦ Bright colors and rich patterns characterized the clothing in the Byzantine period. Clothes were made from silk and were embroidered or printed. People of the lower class wore bright-colored tunics. People from the royal families exclusively wore purple.
✦ During the Ottoman period, there were legal regulations on clothes, and each area of the Ottoman empire had a separate clothing style.
The islanders wore the Vraka. Rural people as also the klephts and the armatoloi wore the fustanella. It is still used by members of the Presidential Guard. Clothing of the urban Greeks was influenced by the Western-European style.
✦ The Amalía dress is a national Greek costume. It can be described as a loose-fitting shirt (of silk or cotton) having lace at the neck and handcuffs, worn under an embroidered vest or jacket.
✦ Modern Greek clothing is influenced by European fashion.

Greek Religion

✦ A large population of Greece is composed of Orthodox Christians. The rest of it constitutes Muslims, Roman Catholics, and Jews.

✦ Greece can be considered as a religious country as the Orthodox Church holds a place of great importance in Greek culture. It has an influence on the religious beliefs of people, as also the education system and political affairs of the country.
✦ Ancient Greeks were very religious. They worshiped Gods as forms of strength and beauty. Mostly, they worshiped the gigantic ivory and gold statue of Zeus at Olympia. (Zeus is the King of Gods, the Ruler of Mount Olympus, and the God of the Sky and Thunder.) They also worshiped the pair of deities like Demeter, Goddess of Grain and Fertility, and her daughter, Persephone.
✦ The Gods interacted with humans, battled against each other, and had the vices that human have.

✦ Greeks believed in the idea of afterlife and held a notion that the spirits of the dead went to the underworld. They thought it was important to perform the death rituals to keep the spirits of the dead from haunting the upper world.
✦ They believed in reincarnation. Even philosophers like Plato held on to the belief. But philosopher Epicurus discarded this idea and did not believe in existence after death.

✦ Greek mythology consists of many Gods and their interactions with humans on earth. It has been written down in the form of plays and epic poetry.
✦ Greek worship included animal sacrifice to Gods. This was mostly practiced on important occasions or in times of danger.

Festivals, Events, and Holidays in Greece

✦ Ancient Greeks celebrated religious festivals honoring their Gods. There were different festivals for different deities, such as Chalceia devoted to goddess Athena and Haloa devoted to Demeter.
✦ Easter is an important festival in Greece. The traditional meal consists of lamb liver and wild greens with egg and lemon sauce. Magiritsa or Easter soup, an Easter cake, and red eggs are served. The Greek island Corfu is famous for its Easter celebrations.
✦ The New Year's Day, which is also St. Basil's Day is celebrated in Greece. On this day, Greeks bake a cake called Vasilopita which has a coin hidden inside. It is believed to bring good luck.
✦ The Patras Carnival consists of a series of events that begin on January 17 every year and continue till Clean Monday. It is the largest event of its kind and has a history of more than 100 years.
✦ Thessaloniki was a Greek Song Festival celebrated between 1959 and 1997 and then from 2005 to 2008. It was originally hosted at Athens and later shifted to Thessaloniki.

✦ The Rockwave Festival is a famous music festival held in Greece. The Olympus Festival celebrates Greek music and theater. The Plisskën Festival is another music festival.
✦ Art Athina is an international contemporary art fair held annually in Athens. The Athens - Epidaurus Festival held annually in Athens and Epidaurus from May to October celebrates Greek music and theater and has cultural events.

✦ The Mykonos Biennale held every odd year on the island of Mykonos is dedicated to art and philosophy.
✦ Beginning in 2006 in Ikaria, the Icarus Festival for Dialogue between Cultures is an international music festival that hosts multicultural events in music.
✦ March 25, the Greek Independence Day is a national holiday in Greece.
On this day, flag parades are held in towns and villages wherein school children wear traditional Greek costumes and march with the Greek flags in hand. A parade of the Armed Forces is held in Athens.
✦ October 28 is celebrated as the Ohi Day in memory of Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas who rejected the ultimatum given to him by dictator Mussolini on this day in 1940.
✦ When talking about Greek culture, one cannot forget the Olympic Games. The Greeks started holding athletic contests in honor of their Gods. The ancient Olympics began in 776 B.C. in honor of Zeus. These games expanded to five days and later started including many sports events.

Greek Customs and Traditions

✦ People from some villages in Northern Greece perform a fire-walking ritual which is known as Anastenaria. These people are descendants of refugees who came to Greece from Eastern Thrace after the Balkan wars.
✦ Many Greeks are named after religious saints. A name day is celebrated in honor of the saint one is named after. It is celebrated in a way similar to a birthday, where near ones give wishes and gifts.

Amphidromia was a rite of passage in Ancient Greece. It is a celebration held on the fifth or seventh day after the birth of a child.
✦ Engagement before the wedding is a Greek custom. During the engagement, rings are exchanged.

✦ A few days before the wedding, Krevati is organized where money and young children are put on the couple's new bed. This symbolizes prosperity and fertility for the couple.
✦ The wedding ceremony is held in the Church, where the groom and the bride drink red wine from the same glass. As they leave the church, the guests throw rice and flowers. After this, a wedding party is hosted in which the groom dances the zeibekiko and the bride dances ciftetelli.
✦ At traditional Greek weddings, traditional music is played and local food is served. Another Greek wedding tradition is to pin money to the bride's dress.

✦ The death rituals are based on the Greek Orthodox beliefs, which do not allow cremation or organ donation as they mean destruction of the body.
✦ The priest offers a prayer service to the dead. It is known as Trisagion.

✦ Traditionally, a wake is held after the funeral. Apart from funerals, memorial services are also held.
✦ According to the Church, the mourning period is of 40 days during which immediate family members of the deceased wear black clothes and do not take part in social gatherings or celebrations.


✦ Some Greeks believe that a person may catch evil eye (matiasma), due to a jealous compliment from someone. Wearing a charm (a blue bead with an eye painted on it) is used to stay away from catching evil eye. The color blue is believed to ward off evil. People with blue eyes are believed to be able to give matiasma.
✦ If one compliments someone, he is supposed to spit three times. Similarly, if someone talks about something bad or unfortunate, the others spit thrice. This action of mild spitting is believed to help one avoid misfortune.
✦ Two people saying the same thing simultaneously is believed to lead to a fight between them. This is why, if two people happen to say the same thing together, they say piase kokkino meaning touch red.

✦ Spotting a black cat or the breaking of glass or a mirror is believed to bring bad luck.

✦ Tuesday the 13th is considered unlucky in Greece.
✦ A part of Greek folk stories, Kallikantzaroi are imagined to be little black ugly-looking humanoids with tails. They are believed to stay beneath the ground sawing the 'world tree'. It is believed that this would eventually cause the Earth to collapse. According to Greek folklore, these creatures come to the upper world during the period after Christmas.
The Greek culture today stands as an example of a beautiful blend of the 'ancient' and the 'modern'. Greece is where the East meets the West. And this country has a long and rich history. The ancient traditions and the present-day developments make the Greek culture unique. The Greeks share a sense of belonging towards their cultural heritage and are proud of the contributions they have made to the world.