Could the ancients not perceive the color “blue”?

Could the ancients not perceive the color “blue”? October 12, 2017

Homer famously speaks of “the wine-dark sea.”  That’s a beautiful description.  Except that wine isn’t blue, and the sea isn’t red or purple.  (Homer describes sheep as also being the color of wine; honey is green; and the sky is bronze.)  In fact, there isn’t even a word in ancient Greek for blue!

Nor is the color “blue” mentioned in the New Testament, though many other colors are.  There are two words in the Old Testament that are translated “blue,” but scholars question which color they are actually referring to.

This odd omission can also be found in other languages of antiquity.  Ancient Japanese used the same word for both green and blue.

What is going on?  Here is an excerpt and link to the article raising this observation..

From Erin Hoffmann,  The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World:

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze.

It gets stranger. Not only was Homer’s palette limited to only five colors (metallics, black, white, yellow-green, and red), but a prominent philosopher even centuries later, Empedocles, believed that all color was limited to four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow. Xenophanes, another philosopher, described the rainbow as having but three bands of color: porphyra (dark purple), khloros, and erythros (red).

The conspicuous absence of blue is not limited to the Greeks. The color “blue” appears not once in the New Testament, and its appearance in the Torah is questioned (there are two words argued to be types of blue, sappir and tekeleth, but the latter appears to be arguably purple, and neither color is used, for instance, to describe the sky). Ancient Japanese used the same word for blue and green (青 Ao), and even modern Japanese describes, for instance, thriving trees as being “very blue,” retaining this artifact (青々とした: meaning “lush” or “abundant”).

[Keep reading. . .]

The author goes on to speculate about the nature of the mind, the need to have a pre-existing concept coded in language before we can precede something, and other possible explanations.

I don’t find those explanations particularly satisfying.

Could there have been some odd spectrum shift in human perception that developed over centuries?

But if we look at Homer’s other strange colorations, there isn’t a consistency that would support such a shift.  Sheep are not the same color of the sea, whatever that is.  Nor is honey green.  A bronze sky?  That might describe a certain effect of bright sunlight.  Then again, how did Homer perceive what bronze looked like?  Or green?

Then again, according to tradition, Homer was blind!

Certainly, to some extent, color is a mental construction.  The many people who are color blind are not perceiving a different reality from everyone else.  Their perception is just different.

And to get all college-student-late-night-bull-session about it, how do we know that all of us are experiencing the same thing when we perceive a color?

I have no idea what this demonstrates, but it is interesting, nonetheless.  What my granddaughter calls a “fun fact.”

(Tip of the hat to my brother, Jimmy Veith, for alerting me to this particular piece of strangeness.)


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