Ancient Egyptians and Greeks: Left Foot Forward!

Metropolitan Kouros, c. 590-580 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last fall, when I taught about the Archaic Period in ancient Greece, a student pointed out that many of the kouroi figures were standing with their left foot forward. We discussed how Egyptian figures often are striding forward with their left foot as well, and perhaps the Greeks simply adopted this composition due to compositional balance. But my student pressed, “But why the left foot? Was the left foot itself important for some type of reason?”

Menkaure and Queen (perhaps his wife Khamerernebty II), 2490-2472 BCE. Graywacke with traces of red and black paint, height 54.5″ (142.3 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I have puzzled over this student’s question for several months, particularly as to whether there is significance with the advancing left foot in Egyptian culture, and whether that same type of significance would have carried into Greek culture. We can see that a large number of Egyptian statues, including male and female figures, adopted the “left foot forward” stance; Menkaure and his Queen (shown above), the colossal statue of Queen Tuya (Vatican Museum), Karomama (Louvre), and wooden tomb statue of Tjeti (British Museum) are just a few of the many examples that exist. Some sources argue that Egyptian females are typically represented with both feet together, but I am increasingly wary of that generalization.1

Did the left foot hold special significance for the Egyptians, since this convention appears throughout ancient Egyptian history? I haven’t come to a conclusive answer by any means, but I have come across a few ideas. One idea was presented to me through Twitter: Ma Magdalena Ziegler (@ZiZiChan) wrote to me that for the Egyptians, the “left side is where the heart resides & it’s the house of will, emotions & consciousness, the center of life itself.” A similar idea was presented in an online forum on Egypt, where writer Al Waze-look King wrote, “The real meaning behind the position of the statue [with the advancing left leg] is esoteric. The left side of your body is where the heart is. The Egyptians believed you stepped with the left foot to trod out evil so the heart could proceed.” Another online forum (which actually is dedicated to Freemasons) claims that the left foot is represent the power of Isis, a fertility goddess who is associated with life and new beginnings. Another possibility shared by a tour guide in Egypt is that the left foot forward could suggest that the figure represented in the work of art had been involved in the military.2

Apart from these online exchanges, I haven’t come across any published scholarship to support these ideas, let alone any direct historical document that connects this idea to Egyptian sculpture itself. (If anyone knows of scholarship that supports these ideas or presents an alternative view, please let me know!) Regardless, though, I do think that the question of the left foot needs to be taken further when it comes to Egyptian influence on archaic Greek sculpture. The connection between Egyptian sculpture and ancient kouroi/korai has long been established by scholars.3 Scholars even argue that some kouroi (specifically the Metropolitan Kouros, shown at the top of this post) was based off of the Egyptian canon of proportions.4

Kouroi examples, culminating with the Kritios Boy from the Early Classical period. Note that the “Piraeus Apollo” is a “transitional sculpture” that is different from the others, since his right foot advancing.

But did the ancient Greeks adopt the “left foot forward” stance for similar reasons as the Egyptians, if Egyptians had symbolic reasoning in the first place? Unsurprisingly, I suppose, I haven’t found a conclusive answer either. If anything, the evidence that I found is contradictory to my Egyptian ideas and a little bit too late historically to coincide with many of the archaic kouroi: Aristotle (writing in the Late Classical period), wrote that the right side of the body was the naturally stronger and more active than the left!5

Archaeologist and art historian Gisela Richter, who published technical analyses on the kouroi and korai, notes the tradition of the advancing left foot in several types of kouroi and korai.6 However, Richter is quite silent as to the reasoning of compositional stance, only suggest that an evolving interest in naturalism and the artist’s desire to suggest “the asymmetry of the two sides of the figure” led to the forward placement of the left leg.7

The Euthydikos Kore, c. 480 BC. Acropolis Museum, Athens. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Dorieo

When I started to write this post, I hoped to come up with specific ideas and reasons behind the leg positions of the kouroi and korai. Instead, I hope this post will serve more as a forum and generator of ideas as to the stances of these statues. If you have any ideas as to why left leg was positioned as advancing in either Egyptian or Greek sculpture, please share!

Korai examples, ranging from c. 640 BCE to c. 480 BCE. Several of these korai have their feet placed close together. The exception is the c. 500 BCE kore, who has an advancing left leg

I also may also never find a reason as to why some korai are depicted with their legs together (see above). Is there an “active male” vs. “passive female” being expressed through some of these works of art? I’d love to learn what others think on this topic, too.

1 For example, more “left foot forward” female statues can be seen in Gisela M. A. Richter, Korai: Archaic Greek Maidens (London: Phaidon, 1968), Plate I.

2 Tom Cheshire, A Tourist in the Arab Spring (Bradt Travel Guides , 2013), p, 180.

3 Ibid., p. 4. See also Gisela M. A. Richter, Kouroi: Archaic Greek Youths: A Study of the Development of the Kouros Type in Greek Sculpture (London: Phaidon, 1960), p. 2.

4 For some discussion on the Metropolitan Kouros, see http://academic.reed.edu/humanities/110tech/kouroi2.html. For a more comprehensive analysis of kouroi proportions, see Eleanor Guralnick, “The Proportions of Kouroi” in The American Journal of Archaeology 82, no. 4 (1978): 461-472. Article available online here: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/504635?uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21104058982547

5 Geoffrey Earnest Richard Lloyd, Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1991), p. 44. Source available online here: http://books.google.com/books?id=zCg4AAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA43&ots=BnHcQOB55o&dq=greek%20left%20side%20of%20body&pg=PA44#v=onepage&q&f=false

6 See Richter, Korai: Archaic Greek Maidens, p. 4. See also Richter, Kouroi: Archaic Greek Youths, p. 25. It should also be noted that several Greek korai are depicted with their feet together.

7 Richter, Kouroi: Archaic Greek Youths, p. 2-5, 21.

  • heidenkind says:

    Pure speculation here, but maybe it also has something to do with dance? One of the lines of research I haven’t had a chance to pursue yet is the connection between the French monarchy, labyrinths, and dance–specifically ballet, which I believe is a descendant of the ancient labyrinth dance. Modern ballet was actually born in the Capetian court. For example, this portrait of King Louis XIV: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5f/Louis_XIV_of_France.jpg shows him in one of the basic balletic poses. Notice his left foot is forward!

  • That’s an interesting idea, Heidenkind, especially with your idea about the ancient labyrinth dance. I’ve never thought about dance before, perhaps because today art historians tend to describe Egyptian and archaic Greek figures as very stiff and rigid (especially the upper body, since the arms are held straight down on either side of the torso). But, perhaps we focus too much on the stiffness of the upper body today. Now that you mention it, there is kind of a “Riverdance” type feel when you look at all of these sculptures together, isn’t there? ;)

  • Anne says:

    I’ve often wondered about this while teaching survey. I agree that it must have some kind of symbolic meaning, but I’ve also wondered if it’s related to right-hand dominance thing, since the military still starts marching with its left foot forward (so right arm swings forward).

  • Two explanations (not mutually exclusive) come to mind:

    (1) Greek kouroi imitated Egyptian standing statues of males, which always step forward with the left foot. Also, from the Palette of Narmer onwards, victorious Pharaohs tend to stride from left to right, leading with the left leg, which is carved directly against the background. An Egyptologist may be able to clarify whether this pose was considered particularly auspicious, as later in Greece:

    (2) In ancient Greece, one’s right side was the side of good omen: see, e.g., Xenophon’s Anabasis and its multiple accounts of bird omens from either the left (bad) or right (good). Thus, Archaic Greek kouroi step out with the left foot in order to leave any passer-by or potential opponent to their right; in battle scenes the (eventual) victor is generally placed on the left, and also strides or lunges rightward with his left leg against the background, as in Egypt. An exception that proves the rule is the late sixth-century bronze Apollo from Piraeus: an Apollo Alexikakos or Averter of Evil, he steps out with his right foot, bow at the ready (correctly, held in his left hand), explicitly to counter any threat from the left.

    See, e.g., Xenophon, Anabasis 6.1.26 (an eagle calls to him from the right), etc.; compare Cicero, de Divinatione 2.82 (on birds): nobis sinistra uidetur, Graiis et barbaris dextra meliora. When observing bird flight, the Greeks faced north, so a bird appearing on the right (east), especially an eagle, heron, or falcon, was a favorable sign; on the left (west) an unlucky one.

  • Hi Andrew! Thanks for your comment! I think you have a really interesting idea about the left foot moving forward in order to better show the right (“good omen”) side. Perhaps there is something to that!

    I’m interested in looking at more examples from the Archaic period which could perhaps tie into this theory. Since you mentioned battles, the first example which came to mind was the Gigantomachy frieze from the Treasury of the Siphnians. A detail of this scene depicts the gods striding forward with their right legs, while the giants run away with their left legs in the lead:

    http://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/875/flashcards/1789875/jpg/janson_chapter_5-211352174775840.jpg

  • Doug says:

    I looked at some Minoan art and the figures there (animals and people) seem to be pictured with the right foot forward. I only looked at a small sample, though.

  • jenny says:

    At the San Diego Museum of art there is a sculpture of Ramesses II with a description beside it saying this: “The striding pose- One of the most common types of three-dimensional image used for Egyptian rulers is the striding pose which depicts….(it gets blurry). The position of the remaining left thigh indicates that the left foot was advanced in accordance with convention”. What does this mean? Not too sure.

  • Riad says:

    look no further…

    its symbolic of a hierophants suppresion of chaos in favour of maintaining the cosmic order.

    in the Books of Overthrowing Apep. there´s a chapter alluding to this very fact!

    chapter 2 titled “defiling apep with the left foot”

    you can read about it here

    http://books.google.se/books?id=6UrCAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA325&dq=Defiling+Apep+with+the+Left+Foot&hl=sv&sa=X&ei=Ip76U4qWMoW6OMu_gWg&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Defiling%20Apep%20with%20the%20Left%20Foot&f=false

    you can also read about here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apep (scroll down to the worship section)

  • UPDATE: My friend Courtney found this information in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It could be that the left foot forward relates to the right-oriented inscriptions of Egyptian writing:

    “And as one might expect for a distinctly pictorial script, the preferential right-to-left orientation of the Egyptian writing system had an effect on the development of three-dimensional art as well. For example, the striding male stance used for statuary requires that the left foot be placed forward, a visual pose that derives from the prescribed stance of the human hieroglyphic figure in preferred right-oriented inscriptions.”

    See: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/265021/hieroglyphic-writing/53619/Christianity-and-the-Greek-alphabet#toc53620

  • Jim Lesko says:

    My speculation is that leading with the left allows the right leg/foot to be cocked and ready to strike if necessary. These were military, trained to be ready to use force if necessary.

    A boxer leads with the left, jabbing until he sees an opening while his right is cocked and ready to use when he sees an opening. If he led with the right he would have to pull back and cock his power right- meanwhile the left is rather useless and the boxer would not only lose an opportunity, but probably be struck by his opponent during the time it takes to pull back and strike with the right. Also in kick boxing we see the same – lead with left foot until there is an opportunity to do damage with the right.

    In football the linemen extend the left arm to the ground, the right arm is positioned on the right knee, slightly back, ready to strike the opponent, when the signal is called by the quarterback.

    In the army, in hand to hand combat with a bayonet attached, the solider is trained to hold the rifle with the left arm extended and the right cocked back ready to strike. If the soldier strikes with the bayonet he then pulls back and the lunges forward swinging his right holding the rifle trigger and extending the rifle butt into the opponents face.

    As a sculptor, if I created a Kouros for the memory of a great warrior I would do exactly the same- left foot forward with the right ready to strike. A position of power and kinetic strength.

  • Jim Lesko says:

    Alsos in football – In the kickoff and extra, field goal and extra point, the kicker leads with the left foot, then kicks with the power right foot. The quarterback also has his left foot forward, the during the pass follows through bringing his right foot along with the pass.

    Obviously in shaking hands you lead with the left foot to approach, then extend the right hand as you also advance to greet the person.

    I can think of no situation when you lead with your right in an encounter.

  • Thanks for your comment, Jim! Yes, perhaps the left leg moving forward has something to do with combat and kinetic strength. I wonder if this preference for the left leg in combat, football, etc. has to do with the fact that many people are right-handed today (so they might prefer to lead with their left leg in order to use their right leg or right arm for some type of sweeping gesture?). This makes me wonder if there was a dominant hand in ancient Egypt or Greece. Thanks for the thought-provoking ideas!

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  • In “Ritual Texts for the Afterlife” (Graf) the initiate is instructed not to go the the right where deceased souls drink from the waters of Lethe (Forgetfulness), but to continue on (presumably to the left) to drink from the waters of Memory and then enter the Elysian Fields.

  • ken Mcdonal says:

    This one is a little bit out there but in this documentary I watched they talked about the feet signified which side of the brain they were stronger with. The right side of the brain is the female side represented by the left side of the body. The left side of the brain is the male side represented by the right side of the body. So the further out the person left or right was showed they are much more female brain dominant. I think this is why people seem to have either two left or two right hands as well.

    The documentary I mentioned can be found here if you’re curious. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugWCRliG4Rg

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.