Colors in Ancient Greek

Stephen Nelson
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Joined: April 28th, 2019, 1:51 pm

Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Stephen Nelson »

I've attempted to put together an Ancient Greek color palette (attached), which I realize can never be totally precise and is likely a mixed bag of anachronisms.

But in the absence of a time machine that would allow me to survey native speakers of Ancient Greek to ascertain how they might name various colors, I thought I'd open this up to the forum for input. Perhaps someone could suggest a website for reference. This doesn't seem to be a common domain for textbooks/grammars of Ancient languages (though, ironically, it's kind of a staple for 'living languages').

I've based my color choices off of various definitions and descriptions from different sources. Here's the general framework that I'm working around. All adjectival forms are neuter à la Modern Greek - as if naming the colors, though I'm not sure if that was ever a thing in antiquity:

1. ῥόδινον - rose colored

1. χλωρόν (χλοερόν) - greenish-yellow, pale-green, light-green, grassy, yellow (of honey/sand), (generally) pale, bleached

1. γλαυκόν - (later) bluish green or grey (of the olive); light blue (eyes), grey
2. χαροπόν - (later) light-blue or bluish-gray; bright eye color
3. κυανοῦν / κυάνεον / κύανον - dark-blue, glossy-blue (sea); dark, black; brunette

1. πορφυροῦν / πορφύρεον - dark-red, crimson
2. ἁλουργές - sea-purple, genuine purple
3. φοινικοῦν / φοινίκεον / φοῖνιξ - purple-red, crimson (Phoenician/Tyrian purple)
4. ἰόεν (masc. - ἰόεις) - dark purple/violet

1. ὄρφνινον - brownish gray, a mix of black, red & white

1. ἐρυθρόν - the color of nectar and wine, blood, copper, gold
2. κόκκινον - (later) scarlet
3. ὑακίνθινον - blackish-red

1. πυρρόν / πυρσόν - flame-colored, yellowish-red

1. ξανθόν - various shades of golden hair, blonde
2. ξουθόν - yellowish, brown-yellow, tawny
3. μήλινον - quince-yellow

1. λευκόν - white, bright
2. λευκανθές - white-blossoming, blanched/bleached

1. φαιόν - dusky, dun
2. πολιόν - (like λευκόν) gray hair, bright, clear, hoary (from age)

1. μέλαν / μελάγχιμον - very black, dark, murky
2. κελαινόν - black, dark, murky, swarthy (race), metallic black
3. ἐρεμνόν - murky

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Barry Hofstetter
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Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Barry Hofstetter »

Not bad. There is a long history of discussion concerning colors in the ancient world, and how precisely the ancients, particularly during the Homeric period (both the time of composition and earlier), actually perceived colors. By Hellenistic-Roman period, though, they seem fairly well defined. This gives an idea of the discussion: ... lor-vision
N.E. Barry Hofstetter
Instructor of Latin
Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy
καὶ σὺ τὸ σὸν ποιήσεις κἀγὼ τὸ ἐμόν. ἆρον τὸ σὸν καὶ ὕπαγε.
Stephen Nelson
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Joined: April 28th, 2019, 1:51 pm

Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Stephen Nelson »

Thank you Barry! That was an interesting link and I got some ideas from the comments. I'm not sure if the theory would hold up under scrutiny - that there was something going on biologically that somehow skewed or stunted the color palettes of the ancients, making them see color differently than we do. Maybe they simply didn't mix colors artificially in the same way.

I feel like I may be remiss to exclude metallic 'colors' such as 'golden', 'silver' and 'bronze'. But I'm having trouble finding concrete references where those colors are referred to separately from the the metals themselves. But the fact that bronze, for example, is referred to as ἐρυθρός (along with blood and wine) does give me pause about my color choice.

One of the comments lists καστανός as a 'dark brown', which is consistent with Modern Greek (i.e. καστανά μαλλιά - 'brown hair'). Although MG prefers the loanword 'καφέ' for 'generic brown'. But where does ᾽καστανός᾽ come from and was it in Ancient Greek, or at least in Hellenistic Greek? It certainly seems like 'generic brown' ('dirt brown') should have been in EVERYONE'S vocabulary/color palette. My Lexicon of Katharevousa-Demotic Greek lists the root with a antepenultimate stress - το κάστανον, which it lists as ΑΚΔ (Αρχαία, Καθαρεούουσα, Δημοτική). I'd love to fill in the blank with a term for 'dark brown' if one is attested. So far, it seems like ὄρφνινον and ξουφόν are as close as it comes.

I didn't have πράσινον, which I didn't realize extended beyond Modern Greek. But I'm not sure if there's a difference between the 'yellow-green' of χλώρον and the 'light-green' of πράσινον. It doesn't seem like there's a term for the 'normal' kind of green that we use to describe vegetation - as modern Greeks use the term πράσινος.

I'm also a bit confused by κόκκινον. This is a generic 'red' in Modern Greek, no necessarily 'scarlet', which lexicons list as intensified; κατακόκκινον, άλικον (from Turkish - which was also borrowed into Russian incidentally). All that said, I honestly can't see the difference between what I think of as a 'generic red', 'blood-red' and 'scarlet' or 'scarlet-red'. So maybe I'm somewhat COLOR BLIND!

If the color 'κόκκινος' (Lat. coccineus) indeed has any association with the 'Kermes oak', with 'Galls' that are bright red, then perhaps my modern 'red' color choice is justified - whereas 'ἐρυθρός' would bee a deeper blood-red color. There must have been some need for the term if 'ἐρυθρός' didn't cut it to describe this scarlet-red. Or perhaps it was simply a form of Roman cultural assimilation.

I've added 'οἶνοψ' to 'ἐρυθρόν' (even though its use seems limited to Homer). I suppose it's a very literal way of saying 'wine-colored'. It also seems like φοινός would fall under the 'blood-red' category, distinct from its association with the root color of Phoenician/Tyrian PURPLE (φοινικοῦν, φοινίκεον, φοῖνιξ).

So here's the revised Ancient Greek Color Palette. Any suggestions? Should I add explicitly metallic colors? Also, would it be easier on the eyes if I were to flip the orientation to landscape? Does anyone think I should cross-post this to other AG forums like Textkit or Reddit for more feedback?

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Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by MAubrey »

If I may, I would suggest that you read the following books (or, at least, the first two) before you continue on your project:

Linguistic Categorization
Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution
The World Color Survey
Color Ordered: A Survey of Color Systems from Antiquity to the Present
Mike Aubrey, Linguist
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Joined: May 13th, 2011, 4:01 am

Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by RandallButh »

I second Michael's suggestion, without having read the references.
Color terms are notoriously language/culture specific and related to biology as far as we can tell.
There are also universals, for example reddish will be the third color after white/light and black/dark, followed by a greenish category.

Meanwhile, Greek.
Here is what Louw-Nida list:

79.26 μέλας, αινα, αν — ‘black, dark color.’ ἰδοὺ ἵππος μέλας ‘there was a black horse’ Re 6:5; ὁ ἥλιος ἐγένετο μέλας ‘the sun became black’ Re 6:12.
Expressions for a number of terms for color differ on the basis of the object which is designated as having such a color. For example, a term for black as applied to a horse may be a different term from what one would use in speaking of a black box.

79.27 λευκόςa, ή, όν— ‘white, light color.’ αἱ τρίχες λευκαὶ ὡς ἔριον λευκόν, ὡς χιών ‘his hair was white as wool or as snow’ Re 1:14.
The term λευκός also occurs in Jn 4:35 in speaking of fields being ‘white for the harvest,’ but in a number of languages it would be quite impossible to use the same term for the ripe condition of a harvest as in the case of the color of wool or snow. Furthermore, there may be a serious difficulty in speaking of wool as being ‘white,’ since in many parts of the world, wool is not regarded as being particularly white.

79.28 λευκαίνω: to cause something to become white — ‘to make white, to whiten.’ λευκὰ λίαν οἷα γναφεὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς οὐ δύναται οὕτως λευκᾶναι ‘whiter than any bleacher on earth could make (them) white’ Mk 9:3; ἔπλυναν τὰς στολὰς αὐτῶν καὶ ἐλεύκαναν αὐτὰς ἐν τῷ αἵματι τοῦ ἀρνίου ‘washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ Re 7:14. This statement in Re 7:14 may raise numerous difficulties for receptors, since blood would not be regarded as an instrument for making anything white. It may be necessary, therefore, to introduce a marginal note explaining the figurative language and suggesting the rendering ‘to make them pure.’

79.29 κόκκινος, η, ον — ‘scarlet, red.’ χλαμύδα κοκκίνην περιέθηκαν αὐτῷ ‘they put a scarlet robe on him’ Mt 27:28. In Mt 27:28 ‘scarlet robe’ may have implied high military rank.

79.30 ἐρυθρός, ά, όν — ‘red.’ διέβησαν τὴν Ἐρυθρὰν Θάλασσαν ‘they crossed the Red Sea’ He 11:29. In a number of languages it may be necessary to use a term in He 11:29 which means ‘reddish,’ since an expression meaning ‘bright red’ might seem entirely inappropriate in speaking of a body of water.

79.31 πυρρός, ά, όν — ‘fiery red’ (probably with a tinge of yellow or orange). ἐξῆλθεν ἄλλος ἵππος πυρρός ‘another horse came out, a fiery red one’ Re 6:4. As in other instances of color terms, it may be necessary in Re 6:4 to use an expression which is particularly applicable to a horse. δράκων μέγας πυρρός ‘a huge, red dragon’ Re 12:3.

79.32 πυρράζω — ‘to be fiery red.’ πυρράζει γὰρ ὁ οὐρανός ‘because the sky is fiery red’ Mt 16:2.

79.33 πύρινος, η, ον — ‘fiery red.’ ἔχοντας θώρακας πυρίνους ‘they had breastplates which were fiery red’ Re 9:17. One may also render ‘fiery red’ as ‘red like fire’ or ‘the color of fire.’

79.34 χλωρόςa, ά, όν— ‘light green, green’ (typical of plants).5 ἀνακλῖναι … ἐπὶ τῷ χλωρῷ χόρτῳ ‘sit down … on the green grass’ Mk 6:39.

79.35 χλωρόςb, ά, όν— ‘pale greenish gray’ (evidently regarded as typical of a corpse, since the color is used as a symbol of death).5 ἰδοὺ ἵππος χλωρός ‘there [p. 698] was a pale-colored horse’ Re 6:8.

79.36 θειώδης, ες — ‘sulfureous yellow, yellow as sulfur.’ θώρακας … θειώδεις ‘breastplates … yellow as sulfur’ Re 9:17. Note that in Re 9:17 the three colors parallel three plagues, fire, smoke, and sulfur, and it may therefore be useful to translate the latter part of Re 9:17 as ‘they had breastplates red as fire, blue as sapphire, and yellow as sulfur.’ See also 79.37.

79.37 ὑακίνθινος, η, ον: pertaining to being the color of the flower hyacinth (see 2.41), probably a shade of blue — ‘blue.’ ἔχοντας θώρακας … ὑακινθίνους ‘they had breastplates … blue as hyacinth’ Re 9:17. Since in some languages the flower hyacinth may not be as well known as precious stones such as sapphire and turquoise, it may be possible to render Re 9:17 as ‘blue as sapphire’ or ‘blue as turquoise.’ The justification for this is simply that the Greek term ὑακίνθινος had become primarily a designation for color.

79.38 πορφυροῦς, ᾶ, οῦν — ‘purple’ (having the symbolic value of royal status). ἱμάτιον πορφυροῦν περιέβαλον αὐτόν ‘they put a purple robe on him’ Jn 19:2. In Jn 19:2 the use of πορφυροῦς may refer more to the symbolic value of the color than to the color itself. Therefore, it may be important to include some marginal note indicating the significance of the color.

Please note that they limited themselves to the New Testament which skews their system. ξανθός (not listed) was what any kid would have called "yellow" and θειώδης was a special color.
Also note the problem with blue. ὑακίνθινος is not basic blue. we have texts like:
ὡς τῷ πυρὶ ξανθῷ εἶναι, καὶ τῷ αἰθέρι κυανῷ
where κυάνους/κυανοῦς seems to be blue.

A person also need to be careful with plants, since they may come in various colors. e.g., ancient carrots were not orange.
Stephen Nelson
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Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Stephen Nelson »

Wow! First of all, Mike's book recommendations are likely going to get me stuck in a rabbit hole for a while. Thanks for that! ;) So I'll have to rework everything when I come out of the other end. I've started with the 'Linguistic Categorization' title, which is just what the doctor ordered.

And Randall's 'Louw-Nida' list was very helpful, and inspired some revision to the palette (below). Though I'll certainly need to do some more tweaking. I haven't yet bifurcated ξανθόν and θειῶδες, but I may need to do so.

I'm not sure about the forms 'κυάνους/κυανός'. It seems like the ultimate stress on κυανός may be limited to Modern/Byzantine Greek... perhaps? Or did the stress shift forward earlier? And it would seem that 'κυάνους' might simply be the masc. acc. pl. form of the paradigm of 'κύανος'. The AG forms I've listed are κυανοῦν, κυάνεον, κύανον. But maybe there's reason to tack-on 'κυανόν' as a somewhat later form...

'Blue' is one of the most interesting example to me. My specialty language, Russian, has two words under our 'umbrella term' - "blue" (light-blue/sky-blue - голубой vs dark blue - синий). They simply don't have an umbrella term for both of them.

Modern Greek, however, has adopted μπλε, with the 'dark blue' connotation. They have γαλάζιος for light-blue. And it seems that κυανός is synonymous with γαλάζιος in MG, even though it seems to be dark-blue in AG. MG also has "καταγάλανος" for a kind of 'intense blue', which I believe is still on the light side of the spectrum.

Then again, Randall's example (from Justin Martyr?) does seem to document κυανός as sky-blue - ὡς τῷ πυρὶ ξανθῷ εἶναι, καὶ τῷ αἰθέρι κυανῷ. I have "χαροπός" in the light-blue box, since it seems to refer to 'bright eyes". This seems to have been subsumed in MG with χαρωπός - merry, cheerful. So maybe I should re-think that distribution.

Ultimately, I get that all of these colors should be on a spectrum. Maybe I'll adjust the palette to incorporate gradients to illustrate that. I could totally surrender to the idea that this is all subject to a kind of cultural relativity that inevitably veils the accuracy of our understanding of ancient color schemes. I do get that. But here are my 2 ultimate goals with this little project:

1 - Come up with specific colors (or color spectra) that represent (with a reasonable degree of accuracy/objectivity) the descriptions we encounter in Greek texts in order to visualize (with a reasonable degree of accuracy/objectivity) what various authors had in mind (without consideration for symbolism and metaphor).

2 - Be able to label colors (or color spectra) in the real world (with a reasonable degree of accuracy/objectivity) using the available Ancient Greek terms in a way that might comport with how an ancient would label them, hypothetically.

For instance, even though there is certainly a disconnect between my English idea of "blue" (as an umbrella term) and the way that a Modern Greek speaker, for instance, uses "μπλε" and "γαλάζιος" - or how a Russian speaker uses "синий" and "голубой" - I nonetheless can convey the general ideas of those languages colors in English using 'dark blue' and 'light blue'.

However, the opposite is not quite true, since the English term "blue" is non-specific - and thus can be meaningless to a Modern Greek or English speaker without further specification (or without identifying a concrete object like the 'sky' or the 'sea'), or specifying "light..." vs "dark...".

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Stephen Carlson
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Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Stephen Carlson »

Stephen Nelson wrote: December 6th, 2019, 1:03 pm Wow! First of all, Mike's book recommendations are likely going to get me stuck in a rabbit hole for a while. Thanks for that! ;) So I'll have to rework everything when I come out of the other end. I've started with the 'Linguistic Categorization' title, which is just what the doctor ordered.
Yeah, the basic lesson is that you'll need to distinguish between basic color terms and other terms referring to colors. Right now, everything is looking like a palette in a paint store.
Stephen C. Carlson, Ph.D.
Melbourne, Australia
Stephen Nelson
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Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Stephen Nelson »

How's this for an update? Perhaps this is a bit closer to the end goal...

Obviously, I've flipped the orientation and blurred the color boundaries with gradients. It may get a little cramped here in the forum layout. But the high resolution version looks better.

I've also bridged some of the color sample boundaries with certain categories. Conceptually, I imagine more of the categories could be split between two (or more) color samples.

I'm still doubtful of certain distinctions, like "κόκκινον" vs "ἐρυθρόν". Perhaps there's no evidence of a discernible difference between the shades (i.e. that "κόκκινον" is conceptually any 'brighter' than "ἐρυθρόν"). Maybe they're synonymous...

This layout is advantageous because I could, theoretically, add text (or footnotes). But I'd prefer not to if I can avoid it - to keep things simple.

Hopefully this new format represents the vagueness/fluidity of the categories a little better.

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Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by RandallButh »

Your chart is starting to look more on target and ready for simpler tweaks. Ι like using οὐδέτερον forms in order to match χρῶμα.

κύανον should be removed because it is the stuff (accusative) rather than the color. You might want to document spellings of κυανοῦν and κυανόν by time periods.

θειῶδες is "sulphuric" rather than a basic color. It's purity would also affect exactly how you place it on the scale.

I am suspicious of ὑακίνθινον, but mainly because of Louw-Nida placing it in a blue category.

and the blue-yellow band should go through a fuller green in the middle. Both πράσινον and χλωρόν can be used for green leaves φύλλα, if I remember corrrectly. I would put χλωρόν on the side of full green towards ξανθόν and πράσινον on the side toward light blue.

Next you will need to footnote examples and discuss in which periods the words are common or rare. You can get a head-start by published studies: ... gories.pdf
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Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by RandallButh »

PS: You might want to list the bands as
to match Greek descriptions of the rainbow and to capture the generic categorization that red is the first hue to be distinguished universally among languages.
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