Last Updated on 24 March 2015

When you visit another town – whether local or far away – tourist gift shops offer a nice table of contents to what you may expect within the destination.

In Athens, gift shops are loaded with items featuring the Parthenon, ancient pottery, owls, items with a Greek zig-zag pattern, and a strange round blue thing that looks like an eye.

The Parthenon and pottery are obvious icons, but what’s with the owls, geometric pattern, and the blue round eye thing?

Some new Greek friends… Georgia, Panos, and Costas explained to me the meaning of these symbols.

The Owl

The owl is an ancient symbol of the wisdom of Athens and is associated with Athena. It appeared on coins in Athens as early as 520 BC.
The coins were called “glaukes” – after “glaux” the ancient Greek for owl. This antique design is the current design for the contemporary Greek 1-Euro coin. The design is actually an image of an old Athenian coin… you can see the irregular stamp outline, the owl and an olive branch.

I have an owl figurine on my office desk. I like to think it helps bring me wisdom.

“Greek Key” Pattern

You’ve seen this pattern a million times, and perhaps have never thought about it. It is a Greek symbol representing infinity and unity. It is often used as a border on Greek buildings, pottery, and… of course… the New York City once-ubiquitous, Greek-themed, blue-and-white, take-away coffee cup.

(According to a New York Times article from 2005, “The classic “We Are Happy to Serve You” cup… design dates to the mid-1960’s, when the Sherri Cup Company of Kensington, Connecticut, designed it to appeal to the hundreds of Greek coffee shops then operating in the city. The cup was named Anthora, a muddled version of Amphora, the Greek word for the ancient jars depicted in its design.”)

The Blue “Eye” (Matiasma)

This symbol – typically round, blue, and made out of glass is used to ward off the evil eye and to block the dangers of envy.

This symbol has been used as early back as the 6th century BC…

The evil eye works like this:

Perhaps there was an occasion that you were dressed up and someone told you how nice you look. A few minutes later you spilled coffee down the front of you or split your pants. Or maybe someone told you how beautiful your new vase was and a while later it fell to the ground shattering in a thousand pieces. That’s the evil eye.
(Source: Greek Tradition Page)

To prevent this, the matiasma would be worn as a necklace or hung in the home. As a popular icon, it is also sold ear rights, bracelets, paperweights, etc…

Pictured is a matiasma pendant with the Greek key symbol on it. This is probably double-good!

Well, there are a few interesting icons for you. You’ll probably never look at a take-out coffee cup the same way again!