Colors in Ancient Greek

Stephen Nelson
Posts: 66
Joined: April 28th, 2019, 1:51 pm

Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Stephen Nelson » January 18th, 2020, 4:53 pm

This on topic article seems to be causing some controversy online: ... HBACDZgLTQ

The title says it all - "Is it true that the ancient Greeks could not see blue until modern times?"
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Peng Huiguo
Posts: 93
Joined: April 28th, 2019, 2:02 am

Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Peng Huiguo » January 19th, 2020, 12:48 am

Color in ancient chinese (and in general) is a complex topic. Western commentaries haven't even scratched its surface and are often wrong about it. I won't attempt to discuss it here, but I should point out that I-Ching mentioned "sky is black and earth is yellow". That "black" and "yellow" are loaded words that don't mean what they apparently mean today. I suspect Homer's seemingly haphazard description of colors is a similar problem. Think about the difficulty folks have in describing the smell of durian, let alone putting it into various types (which connoisseurs are able to do). Or can we categorize pains into a spectrum? Pleasures? Has the literature engaged on ideasthesia?

This problem may have wider significance, I don't know, probably extending to the concept of time in ancient greek tense.
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Brian Gould
Posts: 31
Joined: May 26th, 2019, 6:30 am

Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Brian Gould » January 19th, 2020, 9:31 am

“Blue” in the OT is usually תְּכֵלֶת (tekelet) in Hebrew, which in the LXX is generally translated as either ὑάκινθος or ὑακίνθινος. In some passages, however, these Hebrew and Greek terms can appear in English as either “violet” or “purple”.

In addition, ὑακίνθινος is also sometimes used in the LXX as the translation of an unrelated Hebrew noun, תַּחַשׁ (tachash), denoting a kind of leather or skin, thought be that of the porpoise. It sometimes happens that the same Greek word appears twice in the same verse, as for example in Numb. 4:6:

καὶ ἐπιθήσουσιν ἐπ’ αὐτὸ κατακάλυμμα δέρμα ὑακίνθινον καὶ ἐπιβαλοῦσιν ἐπ’ αὐτὴν ἱμάτιον ὅλον ὑακίνθινον ἄνωθεν καὶ διεμβαλοῦσιν τοὺς ἀναφορεῖς
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Stephen Nelson
Posts: 66
Joined: April 28th, 2019, 1:51 pm

Re: Colors in Ancient Greek

Post by Stephen Nelson » January 19th, 2020, 2:45 pm

I only recently discovered this video presentation, which gives a rather balanced perspective on ancient color theory:

At the 4:00 minute mark the presenter quotes Odyssey 9.465 as describing "purple sheep". Does anyone know where this so-called 'purple' reference is actually from? All I'm seeing in the vicinity of verse 465 is "fine-fleeced sheep (καλλίτριχα μῆλα)" -

Odyssey 9.465-470
πολλὰ περιτροπέοντες ἐλαύνομεν, ὄφρ᾽ ἐπὶ νῆα
ἱκόμεθ᾽. ἀσπάσιοι δὲ φίλοις ἑτάροισι φάνημεν,
οἳ φύγομεν θάνατον, τοὺς δὲ στενάχοντο γοῶντες.
ἀλλ᾽ ἐγὼ οὐκ εἴων, ἀνὰ δ᾽ ὀφρύσι νεῦον ἑκάστῳ,
κλαίειν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐκέλευσα θοῶς καλλίτριχα μῆλα
πόλλ᾽ ἐν νηὶ βαλόντας ἐπιπλεῖν ἁλμυρὸν ὕδωρ.

The baseline assumption of the article I posted earlier is that Homer conflates the color of wine (οἶνοψ) with both the color of the sea (cf. Iliad 23.316 and Odyssey 2.421, 5.132) and the color of oxen (cf. Iliad 13.703 and Odyssey 13.32), and presumably with sheep (citation?).

On another note regarding "blue" - Poseidon does have the epithet, ‘dark-haired’ (κυανοχαίτης) with a form of κυανοῦν. But Zeus is also described in the Iliad 1.528 as having 'dark eyebrows' of presumably the same color (the verb form "κυανέω").

For example, Iliad 13.563:

κυανοχαῖτα Ποσειδάων βιότοιο μεγήρας ... lJ5mm_kNlc

Later in the Iliad you have a reference to a ‘dark-maned’ stallion that has no association with the sea.

For example, Iliad 20.224:

ἵππῳ δ᾽ εἰσάμενος παρελέξατο κυανοχαίτῃ ... izUyAY3n64

And again, in Hesiod, you have a ‘dark-maned’ or ‘black-maned’ horse named Arion.

For example, Shield of Heracles 120:

ὣς καὶ νῦν μέγαν ἵππον Ἀρίονα κυανοχαίτην ... NfgnvBPbp4
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