A Brief Lexicon of Greek Terminology

This lexicon is not class specific. It has been used by classes on Greek history and mythology. Some of the terms may be relevant to your class, some may not. This chart is to serve as a study and memnonic aid. This lexicon is brief not only in the number of terms offered but also in the definitions. Relevant terms will be discussed at greater length in class. For further information, check out also the Oxford Classical Dictionary.

If you are linking to this page from another website, most terms have an anchor of the same name.

acropolis, (akropolis)

upper or higher city, hence the citidal or fortified part of the city. frequently holds major sanctuaries which serve as the treasury and archives of the city. Used esp. in reference to the Athenian Acropolis (plan; photo).


a place "not to be entered"; the inner-most sacred shrine. Frequently, such shrines are associated with chthonic deities. One existed in the temple to Apollo at Delphi, perhaps a left-over from Gaia's worship there (cf. the Oresteia).


This is Zeus's shield of power. Athena gets to borrow it and is frequently depicted as wearing it around her chest. The name implies that it was made of a goat skin and is depicted as fringed. These fringes develop into snakes on Athena's aegis, possibly as a result of her placing the head of Medusa, the gorgon, in the middle. As you may know, Medusa had snakes in place of hair.


The Spartan system of military education introduced by Lycurgus during the Archaic age. Beginning at age 7, children left their families and entered disciplined military training. This weakened family loyalties while increasing group solidarity among peers who would serve together in the military.


literally, a struggle or contest. agon can refer to athletic contests, such as the Olympics. It can also signify a battle or a trial (a legal battle). Thus it may also be a speech delivered in a court or the main argument of a speech. From this, it becomes the technical term for the main debate or rhetorical argument/contest in an Old Comedy.


marketplace and place of public assembly. Used esp. in reference to the Athenian Agora. cf. the Roman forum.


shame, respect


"undying, unperishing;" see kleos aphthiton


a "defense", referring to books 9-12 of the Odyssey in which Odysseus recounts his adventures and defends why he is the sole survivor. Cf. Plato's Apology (the defense speech of Socrates from his trial) and the early Christian Apologists (defending their faith).


annual magistracy at Athens; there were several different archons, though their numbers and organizations differed over time. The lead civic magistrate was called the eponymous archon (or just "the" archon) as he gave his name to that year (thus the Athenians reckoned dates).


heroic deeds and the reward for such; in heroic epic: a formulaic type scene in which a hero performs his greatest battle


folly, blindness, delusion esp. as sent by the gods; ruin (i.e., the results of the folly), destruction; personified as Goddess of mischief and destruction. Cf. (in Iliad ) Agamemnon; Phoinix's allegory in book 9. In tragedy, the final consequence of koros


Council or assembly; a governing body, e.g., the boulé of 500 at Athens which met at the Pnyx.


A pejorative term used to refer to non-Greek foreigners. This notion of Greek superiority seems to have been a by-product of the Greek-Persian wars of the early 5th cent. B.C.E. Prior to this time, the word xenos (stranger) was used to refer to both Greek and non-Greek strangers/foreigners. This language shift is noted by both Herodotus and Thucydides.


Hermes' "magic" wand, pictured with two snakes wrapped around it; now the symbol of the AMA


(adj.) having to do with the earth, fertility, the underworld, death


local territorial districts or the villages throughout Attica which Cleisthenes used as the base of his reforms and thus can also refer to official or constitutional demes; membership in the latter became requisite for Athenian citizenship. Demes were the center of local religious life and had their own assemblies. The main magistrate of a deme was the demarch. An example of an attic deme is Thorikos. Citizens were identified by the demotic rather than patronymic (i.e., Outis of Thorikos rather than Outis son of Laertes).


ek = out; phora = carry; the carrying out of the body from the house during a formal funeral procession. Cf. the end of Sophocles' Ajax.

ephebes, ephebeia

Athenian citizen-youths between 18-20 years old, fulfilling a required military service, manning the border forts of Attica. There is much debate and controversy over the origins of the institution ephebeia and how far back in history it may be dated.


(adj.) localized, in or related to a specific location or region. Contrast with panhellenic

eranos (pl. eranoi)

a feast or festival, a wedding banquet, a sacred banquet, a subscription dinner (i.e., one to which each participant has contributed), a permanent religious association or club


strife, quarell, debate, rivalry, discord, jealous; but also good meaning: zeal for something. Cf. Hesiod and Perses in Works and Days and Agamemnon and Achilles in Iliad.

ethnos (pl. ethne)

a nation, a people, a caste, an ethnic group (i.e., one with a shared heritage and {mythological} geneology). sometimes used of non-Greek or marginally Greek people as opposed to poleis of the Greeks)


an interpreter of oracles, dreams, or omens, also, at Athens, one who interprets sacred rites or customs, modes of burial, expiation, etc., a religious expert


The modern name for Greece, used also in ancient times to refer to the all the Greek peoples or the Greek geographical country (but the Greeks mostly thought of themselves in terms of more localized ethnic and political groupings: the Athenians, the Spartans, the Dorians, etc.). Originally just the name for one small district in Greece. It housed a religious confederacy associated with the Delphic oracle (a sort of U.N.) and through that may have come to be used in its wider sense. See also Hellenes (below) and panhellenic.


The modern name for the Greek people. In ancient times, originally referred to one small group of Greeks, but at some point came to be used as a general term for all the Greek peoples. See also Hellas (above) and panhellenic. Our word 'Greek' comes from the Latin 'Graeci' used by the Romans.


a boundary marker, frequently with the head of Hermes, Dionysos, or Herakles on top of a square pillar with ithyphallic genitalia below. click here for a vase depicting herms.


a shrine to a hero, usually identified with his tomb or a cenotaph (empty tomb, no body); many were founded around the remains of bronze age tholos tombs (click here for an example of a tholos tomb, the so-called treasury of Agamemnon). Cf. Lefkandi

hetaira (pl. hetairai)

also spelled hetaera, -ae. Female companions or courtesans. Educated prostitutes (slave, freed, or foreign women) (cf. porné a term used of lower class prostitutes -- a class but not legal distinction). Some hetairai were quite wealthy and influential (e.g. Aspasia). Click here for a brief article on hetairai.


private social clubs of hetairoi (male comrades, usually elite citizens and not to be confused with hetairai above). While these were drinking and dining associations, they frequently had political connotations. In Athens, they were associated with the multilation of the herms and the profaning of the Mysteries in 415 B.C.E. and the oligarchic coups of 411 and 404.

horns of consecration

a frequently found Minoan symbol, often rendered in stone, interpreted by Sir A. Evans as sacred bull's horns. Here pictured on the Hagia Triada sacropagus:


pride, arrogance, insolence, violent transgression, outrage, gross insult, assault (including sexual assault, i.e. rape). In tragedy, the initial result of koros.


the term for the Cleisthenic constitution: iso= equal; nomia = law -- i.e., all citizens are equal under the law; our term demokratia only came into vogue later. cf. the eunomia of Sparta and Solon.


a descent, journey downwards. a technical term for a trip to the underworld

kleos, kleos aphthiton

fame, undying fame: the goal of heroic epic and counterpart to timé. This formulaic phrase (kleos aphthiton) appears also in Sanskrit in a Vedic epic.


satiety, excess, and the consequences thereto (insolence)

labrys, labyrinth

a labrys is a double axe, a frequent Minoan symbol. It is found in many forms, from minature golden versions to rough inscriptions on pillars (purpose of the latter unknown, one of a number of inscriptional signs which lead Sir A. Evans to theorize a "pillar cult" in the Minoan world {now largely dismissed}). Here are some pictured on the Hagia Triada sacropagus. The non-Greek suffix -nthos is thought to mean "the place of," hence the word labyrinth (which has come to mean a maze) originally may have meant "the place of the double axe." Labrys was also a non-Greek word. It has been suggested that it comes from Lydian (?) and is related to the weapon of Zeus Labraundeus worshipped at Labraundea in Caria (cf. Plutarch, Quaest. Graec. 45. and Hdt.1.171-173).


see mythos + logos


Used as an architectual type of building with a front portico with columns and an inner hall. Picture taken from the main hall at Pylos. Click here for more info on the Megaron.


pollution, defilement (esp. by murder or other crime), the taint of guilt


mnestro = suitor; phonia = slaughter, the killing of the suitors at the end of the Odyssey. You find the same stem in Klytemnestra's name. Can you take her name apart? What does it mean? Keeping in mind her sister, Helen's story, do you see a familial significance in this name?

mystes (pl. mystai)

an initiand, one who has been initiated

mythos + logos

mythos = anything delivered by word of mouth, word, speech, conversation, story, tale (esp. poetic tale). logos = thought, reason, word, language, "study of." Mythology = the study of tales/stories


indignation or anger at injustice; vengence or jealousy at undeserved good fortune (esp. of the gods); reapportioning/redistribution (of disproportionate goods/fortune; the goddess of retribution


Visiting the dead; usually part of a katabasis


anything assigned, a usage, custom, law, ordinance. It comes from a verb neimô meaning to deal out, distribute or dispense. Notably, much of our early Greek poetry is concerned with the just distribution of goods and honors (cf. Iliad and Works and Days). Another related word to both nomos and neimô is Nemesis, goddess of retribution and vengence who takes care of any unjust distribution.
Hesiod, an early Greek poet, suggests that one's own customs or culture controls one's perceptsion of the world (Custom is the King of all).


literally "belly-button;" refers to Earth's (Gaia's) belly button which is centered at Delphi (she is an "out-y") and represented by a domed stone. Cf. the opening scene of the Eumenides.


At Athens, a sort of election using ostraka or pot-sherds to write on; the "winner" (the most popular man in Athens) would then be exiled for 10 yrs, but upon his return he would receive all property and rights back again. Used as a tool to prevent tyranny.


(adj.) pan = allhellenic = Greek; having to do will all Greeks or all of Greece; contrast to epichoric


a diviation or digression. In Old Comedy, parabasis was when the Chorus came forward to directly address the audience in the Poet's name. Similar "asides" can be found in post-classical drama as well.


lit. "brotherhood", a group theoretically based on kinship ties which served as the basis for citizenship in Athens before the Cleisthenic reforms (ca. 508 B.C.E). A father would present his sons (and daughters?) to the phratry for recognition as legitimate offspring. Remained important religiously even after the reforms.


lit. "tribe;" a major political unit at Athens into which the demes were divided under the Cleisthenic reforms; the basis of organization for the boulé, the military, and the choruses at the dithyrambic festivals at the Greater Dionysia.

pithos (pl. pithoi)

a large storage jar. Click here for a fun scene of Eurystheus hiding in a pithos when Herakles brings Cerebus, the hound of hell, to him (the snakes at the edge of the scene are part of Athena' aegis)

polis (pl. poleis)

city-state, the body of citizens which comprise a state, the right of citizenship. Sometimes taken as abbrev. for acropolis, as opposed the the rest of the city. Asty was the term for "city" as an urban location opposed to chora (the "country" or rural outlining areas).

potnia theron

lit. "mistress of wild animals," godess of the whole of wild nature: fish, birds, land-animals. In historic period, used in reference to Artemis, but seems to go back even to the Paleolithic.


the laying out of the body and preparing it for burial. click here for illustration.

proxenos (pl. proxenoi)

a local citizen who would serve as a sort of official diplomatic representative of a foreign polis. It developed out of earlier practices of hopitality (see xenia) in which families would form hereditary relationships with foreign families. The proxenos would be a citizen of the state in which he served, not the one he represented but honors would be bestowed upon the proxenos by the state he represented in return for his (and his family/descendants) services. Both Cimon and Alcibiades were proxenoi of Sparta.


executive committee of boulé at Athens (50 men), organized by phylé and rotating, one phylé per Attic month; also name for the building in agora manned by the prytany


psych = soul, pomp = escort; a title and function of Hermes as escort for the souls of the dead to the underworld


the female priestess to Apollo at Delphi who gives prophecies while in a mantic or ecstatic state


soundness of mind (as opposed to mania or insanity), prudence, discretion, a sense of shame and decorum, moderation in sensual desires, self-control, temperance, (for women) chastity. Can be used politically, of a moderate form of government.


an enclosed, sacred precinct or marked-off plot of land


thalassa = sea, cracy = rule: a maritime empire. Used esp. of the Minoan control of the Aegean basin and mainland Greece, until the revolt by the latter. Mythologically represented in the story of King Minos, Theseus of Athens, and the Minotaur.

theos + gonos

theos = god+ gonos = birth; Theogony = Birth of the Gods


that which is laid down or established; law, justice, what is right. Sometimes specifically divine or natural law as contrasted to nomos. Also, a divine goddess who, according to Hesiod, is married to Zeus. Through his marriage to Themis (Justice) and Metis (Wisdom), Zeus was able to establish a lasting reign and avoid the problems of oppression which plagued his father's and grandfather's rule.


attendant, comrade in arms, servant; ritual sacrificial substitute (e.g. Patrokles for Achilles)

tholos tombs

circular buildings, frequently cut into a hillside, with a "beehive" roof (corbelled vault) and a corridor (dromos) leading to the entrance. Used in Mycenean times (Bronze Age, 15th cent B.C.E.) for burials. Later (in the Archaic and Classical ages) frequently the site of hero worship. (click here for images). For more on the tholos tombs, click here.


honor in which one is held, respect (for mortals), worship (for immortals and heroes in cult); position or rank of honor; compensation, penalty or payment for wrong doing; counterpart to kleos


the sacred guest-host relationship and gifts presents as part of it; xenos = stranger/guest

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