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Seeing color through Homer's eyes

For someone used to contemporary academic writing, reading the chapter on color in William Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858) comes as rather a shock—the shock of meeting an extraordinary mind. It is therefore all the more startling that Gladstone’s nineteenth century tour de force comes to such a strange conclusion: Homer and his contemporaries perceived the world in something closer to black and white than to full Technicolor.

No one would deny that there is a wide gulf between Homer’s world and ours: in the millennia that separate us, empires have risen and fallen, religions and ideologies have come and gone, and science and technology have transformed our intellectual horizons and almost every aspect of daily life beyond all recognition. Surely one aspect that must have remained exactly the same since Homer’s day, even since time immemorial, would be the rich colors of nature: the blue of sky and sea, the glowing red of dawn, the green of fresh leaves.

Gladstone says things are not the same, for many reasons. One, Homer uses the same word to denote colors which, according to us, are essentially different. For example, he describes as “violet” the sea, sheep, and iron. Two, Homer’s similes are so rich with sensible imagery, we expect to find color a frequent and prominent ingredient, and yet his poppies have never so much as a hint of scarlet. Three, Gladstone notes, Homer uses “black” about 170 times, “white” 100 times, “red” thirteen, “yellow” ten, “violet” six times, and the other colors even less often. Four, Homer’s color vocabulary is astonishingly small. There doesn’t seem to be anything equivalent to our orange or pink in Homer’s color palette; most striking is the lack of any word that could be taken to mean “blue.”

What is more, Gladstone proves that the oddities in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey could not have stemmed from any problems peculiar to Homer. “Violet-colored hair” was used by Pindar in his poems.

Gladstone is well aware of the utter weirdness of his thesis—nothing less than universal color blindness among the ancient Greeks—so he tries to make it more palatable by evoking an evolutionary explanation for how sensitivity to colors could have increased over the generations. The perception of color, he says, seems natural to us only because humankind as a whole has undergone a progressive “education of the eye” over the last millennia. The eye’s ability to perceive and appreciate differences in color, he suggests, can improve with practice, and these acquired improvements are then passed on to offspring.

But why, one may well ask, should this progressive refinement of color vision not have started much earlier than the Homeric period? Gladstone’s theory is that the appreciation of color as a property independent of a particular material develops only with the capacity to manipulate colors artificially. And that capacity, he notes, barely existed in Homer’s day: the art of dyeing was in its infancy, cultivation of flowers was not practiced, and almost all of the brightly colored objects we take for granted were entirely absent. Other than the ocean, people in Homer’s day may have gone through life without ever setting their eyes on a single blue object. Blue eyes, Gladstone explains, were in short supply; blue dyes, which are very difficult to manufacture, were practically unknown; and natural flowers that are truly blue are rare.

Gladstone’s analysis was brilliant, but completely off course. Indeed, philologists, anthropologists, and even natural scientists would need decades to free themselves from the error of underestimating the power of culture.

Adapted from G. Deutscher, Through the language glass: why the world looks different in other languages. ©2010 Metropolitan Books.