Ancient Greek Color Vision
As seen through the eyes of the Ancient Greeks, color perception is a very different thing than our own color perception. Why is this, what is it about our eyes and brains that causes this difference of visual perception from person to person and culture to culture?
In his writings Homer surprises us by his use of color. His color descriptive palate was limited to metallic colors, black, white, yellowish green and purplish red, and those colors he often used oddly, leaving us with some questions as to his actual ability to see colors properly (1). He calls the sky "bronze" and the sea and sheep as the color of wine, he applies the adjective chloros (meaning green with our understanding) to honey, and a nightingale (2). Chloros is not the only color that Homer uses in this unusual way. He also uses kyanos oddly, "Hector was dragged, his kyanos hair was falling about him" (3). Here it would seem, to our understanding, that Hector's hair was blue as we associate the term kyanos with the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, in our thinking kyanos means cyan (4). But we cannot assume that Hector's hair was blue, rather, in light of the way that Homer consistently uses color adjectives, we must think about his meaning, did he indeed see honey as green, did he not see the ocean as blue, how does his perception of color reflect on himself, his people, and his world.
Homer's odd color description usage was a cultural phenomenon and not simply color blindness on his part, Pindar describes the dew as chloros, in Euripides chloros describes blood and tears (5). Empedocles, one of the earliest Ancient Greek color theorists, described color as falling into four areas, light or white, black or dark, red and yellow; Xenophanes described the rainbow as having three bands of color: purple, green/yellow, and red (6). These colors are fairly consistent with the four colors used by Homer in his color description, this leads us to the conclusion that all Ancient Greeks saw color only in the premise of Empedocles' colors, in some way they lacked the ability to perceive the whole color spectrum.
This correlation between Homer and other Ancient Greeks on the subject of color vision suggests some questions about Ancient Greek color vision leading to ideas inquiring into the ability of the Ancient Greek eye to perceive color at all. It is possible, in light of evolutionary theory, that the retina of the Ancient Greek was not evolved to the point of full color perception. Different mammals have varying degrees of color vision and eyes are especially prone to mutation. But besides this evolutionary question there is the question of consciousness, the question of the brain and language in relation to color perception. This color vision particularity could have been caused by a lack of visual consciousness that would lead to the creation of new words that were needed to explain a visual phenomenon. This inability to perceive something because of linguistic restriction is called linguistic relativity (7). Because the Ancient Greeks were not really conscious of seeing, and did not have the words to describe what they unconsciously saw, they simply did not see the full spectrum of color, they were limited by linguistic relativity.
The color spectrum aside, it remains to explain the loose and unconventional application of Homer and other's limited color descriptions, for an answer we look to the work of Eleanor Irwin. In her work, Irwin suggests that besides perceiving less chromatic distinction, the Ancient Greeks perceived less division between color, texture, and shadow, chroma may have been difficult for them to isolate (8). For the Ancient Greeks, the term chloros has been suggested to mean moistness, fluidity, freshness and living (9). It also seems likely that Ancient Greek perception of color was influenced by the qualities that they associated with colors, for instance the different temperaments being associated with colors probably affected the way they applied color descriptions to things. They didn't simply see color as a surface, they saw it as a spirited thing and the word to describe it was often fittingly applied as an adjective meaning something related to the color itself but different from the simplicity of a refined color.
Vision is as much a process of the brain as it is a process of the eye and the outside world. Experiments have been executed in which those blind from birth are proven unable to conventionally see when cataracts are removed from their eyes; it is now known that this is because the brain synapses dealing with sight begin to die at a very early age if they go unused (10). If those who are blind from birth with to see at the event of the technical recovery of their sight, they must first learn to see. The brain effects vision as strongly as the eye does. In Ancient Greece vision is shown, to be a very subjective practice and a different process from our own visual process. The importance of vision and color held a different place in the mind of the Ancient Greek, but this is the truth of vision everywhere. Sight is a gift to us, and it is a gift that we choose to use, it is a sense whose effect on us is in part created by ourselves individually. Whether we use it one way or another is simply a cultural or biological difference, and in studying the sight of others we can grow infinitely in our appreciation of our own vision and the strength of our minds over our biological and physiological processes.
1) Rebecca Bird, Language and Perception of Color among the Ancient Greeks http://www.cooper.edu/classes/art/hta321/99spring/Rebecca.html 1999
2) Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light: the entwined history of light and mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) p. 14, 15
3) Homer, The Illiad, Quoted in Zajonc p. 15
4) Zajonc p. 14
5) Zajoncp. 15
7) Fountain, Proof Positive That People See Colors With the Tongue, Quoted in: Bird
10) Zajonc p. 3, 4, 5, 6