Ancient Greek Color Vision

Ananda Triulzi's picture

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 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
6) Bird
7) Fountain, Proof Positive That People See Colors With the Tongue, Quoted in: Bird
8) Bird
9) Bird
10) Zajonc p. 3, 4, 5, 6



Serendip Visitor's picture


The poet's name is homophonous with ὅμηρος (hómēros), "hostage" (or "surety"), which is interpreted as meaning "he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow", or, in some dialects, "blind".[26] This led to many tales that he was a hostage or a blind man. Traditions which assert that he was blind may have arisen from the meaning of the word in both Ionic, where the verbal form ὁμηρεύω (homēreúō) has the specialized meaning of "guide the blind",[27] and the Aeolian dialect of Cyme, where ὅμηρος (hómēros) is synonymous with the standard Greek τυφλός (tuphlós), meaning 'blind'.[28] The characterization of Homer as a blind bard goes back to some verses in the Delian Hymn to Apollo, the third of the Homeric Hymns,[29] verses later cited to support this notion by Thucydides.[30] The Cymean historian Ephorus held the same view, and the idea gained support in antiquity on the strength of a false etymology which derived his name from ho mḕ horṓn (ὁ μὴ ὁρῶν: "he who does not see"). Critics have long taken as self-referential[31] a passage in the Odyssey describing a blind bard, Demodocus, in the court of the Phaeacian king, who recounts stories of Troy to the shipwrecked Odysseus.[32]

wikipedia and my tradicion, greetings from Hellas

Serendip Visitor's picture

wine dark sea

Samuel Elliot Morrison (famous historian) led a educational expedition through the Mediterranean for Harvard and Radcliffe Students before WWII and describes watching the sunset one night in the Greek islands and how the sea looked like wine and how he finally understood Homer's description. So, perhaps it is a true description the way the sea looks near the Greek islands under certain light condition?

heteromeles's picture

Is the issue colors? Or words?

One thing that bugs me about this whole thing is that we assume it's about color. Why is that?

If you have no words for color, you have to describe colors in terms of other things in your world. For example, is chloros a green, or is "plant colored?" If you pull up a picture of a nightingale, it's a nice brownish-gray that is the same color as some branches it sits on. Is someone's hair the color of wood or dry straw? It's plant colored. Honey? Dried leaves.

As for wine, what color is it? Purple? Not really, even in modern wines. Colors ranged "from dark, inky black to tawny to nearly clear" ( A wine-dark sea is actually fairly precise, if one uses wine as the referent, rather than a color inferred from a modern bottle.

The sky at dusk or dawn can indeed be brassy, especially if there's a fire blowing smoke into the sky.

How do you describe what you see? Try doing it with references to things you know, and you may well find yourself waxing Homeric.

S. Sengupta's picture

Colour My World with Sunshine Yellow Each Day

I have been fortunate to have near perfect vision, but I when I was a young student I remember being chastised by a teacher for painting a tree black. "Since when are trees black," she criticised. The stupid cow didn't realise that I was painting a view of the woods as they would appear at night.

The point I'm trying to make is that the world and everything in it changes colour depending on factors such as the time of day and the weather. I have seen the sky in blue, grey, black, pink, yellow, and on an overcast evening, even orange (or perhaps a colour that I would more poetically describe as "copper").

That brings me to the other Homer. In "The Simpsons," Matt Groening portrays everyone with yellow skin. He gives Marge Simpson and Milhouse blue hair, like Hector. To the best of my knowledge, Groening isn't colourblind. After all he uses realistic colours in "Futurama," with the exception of Leela's hair (but she also had one large eye instead of two, like everyone else). Groening was using artistic license in giving his Simpsons characters yellow skin and blue hair.

That said, I don't know whether the ancient Greeks were colourblind. Maybe they were, or maybe they weren't.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Language and Color

I know that some cultures don't have all the words for colors that we do, and some have more. I remember my anthropology putting a yellow chair and a red chair in front of us, and asking us what color they were...then he said, if you asked a certain tribe of Native American (forget which), for the yellow chair, he would say "which one?" because in that culture both yellow and red were the same was "dark yellow" (or their word for both colors) and the other was "light yellow." I don't think that means they don't see the colors...but that they just see them as different shades of the same color. Could that be the case in greek?

As for the "sea and sheep" both being described as the color of wine...well, two things come to mind. One of my children has some sort of color blindness. There were a bunch of grey and light pink legos and he thought they were the same color. So I'd be leaning towards color blindness. But all of my children mix up dark purple and black. Now while we are used to seeing wine in a clear cup so that it's red/purple hue is shown, wine in a solid color cup or flagon does look black. It may be that the color most associated with whine then was black...and he was just describing black sheep and a dark sea.

Serendip Visitor's picture

What are you talking about?

Just because a language has different words doesn't mean it's wrong. Aramaic doesn't differentiate between green and yellow either. Homer may simply, as my uncle does, have perceived blue and purple as being the same. When we know so little about a society, who are we to critique it?

ty nolan's picture

I'm American Indian--

My mom's community speaks 3 unrelated languages (because we are a "confederated tribe," which means the federal government decided it was cheaper to stash unrelated tribal nations into one land base. I suppose we were lucky--a couple of other reservations in our area had more than 10 tribal nations forced by gunpoint into the same physical space.

For a lot of researchers, they will bring out a "color chart" and ask Native speakers what these colors are called in their language. In Sahaptin, we distinguish between objects that are animate or inanimate. Just so, if you point to a square on the color chart that's "White," we'll use a different term to describe a "white" horse, than we would to talk about the color chart.

We also use pluralization in a different way, where we will pluralize only with three or more objects/subjects rather than with two or more.

We lack a Native word for the color purple, and consider it a shade of blue.

Serendip visiting's picture

Wine Dark Sea

The Wine dark sea is not translation but rather a traditional gloss of oinops - a compound of wine and face/expression.
the sea can be peaceful, quiet, sleepy, seductive... or suddenly tipsy, off-kilter, ...or violent and irrationally destructive.
That is indeed the appearance of someone under the influence of wine.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Across languages and

Across languages and cultures, you can never translate exactly. Looking at a spectrum, colours don't suddenly become something else, they change gradually. In Japan, green is considered a shade of blue; they'll tell you the light that means "go" is blue, which by your logic means Japanese people are colorblind or linguistically impaired... They can still distinguish the colours/shades and specify with language if they have to. Russian has an opposite example. Dark blue is generally considered a completely different colour from light blue with two unrelated words. I've heard Koreans say deoxygenised blood is black. I've heard that black people are green or yellow (although we say black even when they're brown). The PIE root for English "black" comes from the same source as French "blanc" which means white! Of course I can't say for sure the Greeks didn't have a linguistic relativity, but it seems less likely than simple cultural difference, distinguishing colours and shades differently. This article explains this well:

Herr_Garrett's picture

This was a nice article, but

This was a nice article, but fullof speculation.
The problem is not specifically Greek, Indo-European languages in genereal had a pretty shaky grasp on colours. Consider 'blue', for instance: in quite a number of languages from its root came adjectives which nowadays can mean just about any colour, from black to yellow.

'Brown', too, is nowadays considered a dull colour (not that I agree with that), even though originally it also meant 1shining, radiant'.

Methinks the Ancient Greeks saw the colours all right, just our perceptions have changed, that's why "blue hair" seems to be out of place.

By the way, I'm colour blind, so for all I care it could be a colour out of space. :D

Elisabeth's picture

colors for Greeks

Color for the Greeks and many other cultures has the possibility of being a description of the color itself, a symbolic reference, or a double entendre of the two. Color usage customs can be misunderstood when viewed from a different cultural frame of reference resulting in an incorrect interpretation of the meaning. Has anyone bothered to check with Greek scholars on the matter of the usage of colors in the Homeric context?
On the matter of hair, I've heard people describe blond as blue and red hair as yellow. American color description probably sounds odd to them.
It is important to remember to move beyond ethnocentricity.

Anonymous's picture

colours in ancient greek

Guys please... read the Illiad!!!
When Homer speaks about "dark wine coloured sea" he only uses a poetical metaphore.. we have to suppose that he wants to describe the sea during a SUNSET... we can easily imply that, reading the passage of the Illiad.

The metaphore is also ordinary: the common base between the wine and the sea at the sunset is (of course) the color (dark red) and the cultural justification for choosing the wine (there are lots of other red things suitable for the comparison) is that wine (with oil) was one of the most important foodstuff in Greece.

And then, saying that "Greeks did not have words to call colours" you are not so right. (Better choice that of the guy who has read the Liddle-Scott!!)
If we consider ancient greek in comparison with other indoeuropean languages, we can easily see that its lessical system of colours is quite normal.

Just one example.

The indoeuropean root
*rudh- = [idea of "red"]
has the following results in different i.e. languages:
greek => e-rudh-r-o-s > erythros
latin => rudh-er (this is streamlined) > ruber
sanskrit => rudh-ir-a
proto-german => rod > rot (german)
> red (english)
etc, etc, etc...

Hope to have been usefull to the discussion.
(I'm sorry for my english... you see... I'm Italian!)

A-Word-Maka's picture

I cannot believe that the

I cannot believe that the whole theory of "under-developed eyes" of the ancient Greeks is still promulgated as well as the theory of linguistic relativity. As the ideas of the ancient Greeks existed even before Plato so too did the ideas of Emmanuel Kant in German before he coined new terms for his philosophies. But I digress, the point is, colour perception and colour naming are very different things (the two may not be mutually exclusive, but they are perceptually and qualitatively different between languages). The theory of the evolutionary development of the ancient Greek eye (as for colour perception) has been disproved on any number of accounts, particularly in light of a few points: 1.) the person who decided that the ancient Greeks were not as developed in sight was altogether an amateur philologist and the then Prime Minister of England in 1858, Gladstone, who posited that the paucity of colour terms in Homeric Greek must equate to them being colour blind. Right, so we have a NON-Scientific approach which is completely unfounded - bravo! I suppose he could find some retinae lying about from 800-500 BC and perform a rod and cone analysis of the retina, which would be the scientific approach. This smells of the same 19th Century approach that the Germans used, for denigrating the modern Greeks... positing that all Ancient Greeks were blonde and blue-eyed and so the moderns were no longer heirs, (apparantly the Germans were heirs-apparent)... smack of "Aryanism?" (SIC) by Fallmeyer?! Sorry this is just utter crap, And 2.) The ability to distinguish 7 colours in a rainbow (from Aristotle's De Anima in which he states the 7 colours of a rainbow reflect the 7 tones of musical notation and possibly the 7 heavenly spheres, and explanations on refractivity of light in Ptolemy's Optica, to name but a few). This point espouses the ability of the ancient Greeks to finitely determine the seven colours of the visible spectrum of light (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet).

It is however true in my personal opinion, that the sea is wine-coloured (as per Homer) whereby if you have ever seen the swirly waves of seas during storms, which appear dark/hazy and sometimes dark blue almost purpley. The wine-coloured aspect must be thought of as swirling wine in a cup (not distilled) that is more akin to a Ribena berry juice colour rather than a brilliant red. Don't think of the coast of the Mediterranean as being aquamarine, journey further into the sea under stormy weather and then see if it's brilliant blue!). C'mon these people were seafarers, not coastal amateurs!

A quick read through Liddle and Scott will show a plethora of colour terms or colour associated terms in ancient Greek, and just like chloros is yellow-green, there is prasinos = green from prason = leek (the vegetable). Even in English, green and grow are from the same root word (in accordance with J. Pokorny and his PIE linquistic theory) which imply a young growing plant or shoot/shrub, so too the ancient Greeks applied their colour terms. So language develops the need to describe colour as it applies to the situation and that is what Ancient Greeks did...
FYI a few colour terms in Ancient Greek (Homeric to 5th C Attic)
Melanos = black, mauros = dark,
leukos = white, pelios = grey
chloros = yellow/green
prasinos = green
chyrsos = golden
xanthos = blonde/yellow
phoinos = red (compare phoenix, crimson red dye of the Phoenicians)
erythros = red
kokkinos = scarlet
glaukos = blue, light blue
kyanos = dark blue
porphyros = purple
rhodos = pink/reddish pink, as in Rhododactylus Eos (from Homer = Rosy-fingered dawn)
khalkos = bronze coloured
and possibly kastanon = the chestnut to describe the colour dark brown

Then you have metallic colours as khrysos, phaeo, argyron, etc. to describe shining brilliant colours.

Well that was my 2 cents worth.

Serendip Visitor's picture


well said

Dante Ardenz's picture

Colors Of Greece

Sorry, not to be politically correct,but the ancient Greeks were very racially consciouse,particularly during the Hellenistic period:400-800 B.C.Plato believed his theoretic REPUBLICs survival would be based on racial unity.Plus,fossils, and certainly the magnificent sculptures,reliefs,and pottery of the that period are Nordic types.The DORIANS are referred to as blonde,and so is the legendary Helene Of Troy.This is not "Aryanism";whatever that means,but fact.The Greek racial stock changed later,with the importation of slaves,and freeman,who were eventually granted full citizenship.

A-word-Maka's picture

Actually Nordic types is

Actually Nordic types is anachronistic. It's your "today" view and projection on an ancient Greek racial stock. The ancients were conscious of their racial stocks and the three criteria that satisfied them - it had nothing to do with whether they were brown skinned/tanned blue eyed or dark (note that Zeus was Dark eyed - ironic that... eh?). The blondes reference here, are honey coloured (again Xanthos doesn't mean simply Bleach blonde... but light or rather fair... it's more akin to honey brown than it is to blonde). The ancient colours you so eloquently portray as blonde for the Dorians is actually more brown (if you see the Pella mosaics) or if you see the tombs of the kings (At Vergina ancient Aigai, the pictures clearly protray very subtle brown/dark haired individuals in this case and as we know the first Dorians according to Herodotus and Thucydides were the Macedonians). I am not sure where you get the information pertaining to "slaves" intermarrying and the like... Slaves to be precise were captives from internecine warfare or inter-state warfare (for eg. the spartan helots were obtained from the northern tribes to the Lacedaimonians... see for eg. Antiochus of Syracuse who writes: "those of the Lacedaemonians who did not take part in the expedition were adjudged slaves and were named helots". They were "slaves" in servitude to a state... they were not foreigners... In deed there could have been foreign barbarians used as war booty and slaves to work the silver mines of Laurium (Laurion) but I very much doubt they survived their demise or allowed to "procreate" by virtue of their inability to be citizens or take citizen wives. The racial stock of the ancients changing smacks again of the False 19th C German view of not owing the Greeks anything due to their continuance to the ancients being broken (by the same virtue of them not being blonde, blue eyed and the like). Laughable to say the least because genetic studies show the continuance through Genetic studies and stability of certain markers (see Cavalli-Sforza and the like). The word xanthos again pertains to the shining qualities rather than an actual colour and can range from red to brown to golden yellow. It's a quality after all isn't this the whole point of this article? In fact to the ancient Greeks the invading Kelts were portayed as barbarians for being fairer than the Greeks themselves - they were called Galatoi = galatians = milky ones... (hrmm Nordic you say? why would the Greeks call them this if they too hailed from a Nordic substratum... funny don't you think?). The only Goddess in ancient Greek myth with blue eyes was Athena (described as glaukopis = which no doubt is dubious due to its' double entendre meaning, that which is both bright/blue eyed and owl eyed/faced). The mycenaean painted statues tell otherwise ofcourse but let's ignore those shall we and oh those frescoes with the painted dark black hair with curls... well they certainly weren't martians now were they?). The point is Helen of Troy was called Xanthe because she was beautiful and sought after by all who gazed upon her... her hair was golden (sic) and she shone... to say she was blonde haired well you would need to interpret that without a doubt to what it meant to be Xanthos/Xanthe... Achilles too... of the golden-haired... notice the pattern... heroes of the Greeks were given "glowing" reviews by the poet Homer as he needed to as that was something that distinguished them from the rest. I am of the opinion that there were blondes in ancient Greek city states, as in any given modern population but they were not all blonde (no founder population here, thank goodness for genetic diversity). In the Iliad as you eloquently pointed out ofcourse Achilles the hero is bright/blonde and Hector or Paris has dark enamelled hair... can you see the patterns of dark vs light which have not got to do with colour per se but with metrical cadence, poetic licence and most importantly the "us" vs "them" or good vs evil/stealers etc.

My two cents worth again.

Anonymous's picture

read Berlin and Kay: basic

read Berlin and Kay: basic color terms, 1969. that could help. thanks for the detail about hair in bosnian, very interesting.



drawing's picture

I believe that those days the

I believe that those days the people are really unable to differentiate the things with the colors ,because the colors were not invented and the Greek peoples are very good in astrology and other ancient sciences thats why they have figured out the things with different meanings in the form of colors,in India also people differentiate the things with imaginary objects,colors and ancient in the rocks and walls.

Nilimnian's picture


Homer was blind. He was born blind. Didn´t you knew that?

Anonymous's picture

Hello, In my country,


In my country, Bosnia, which is close to Greeks geographically and in some ways culturally, we refer to people with yellow hair as having "blue hair". No one will ever say that man/woman has yellow hair, it's always blue. That's just how it is, and it is quite possible that Home described Hector as being blonde, their culture was simply different. I think the evolutionary theory is quite a stretch since it wasn't that long ago.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Fellow, I agree with you! I

Fellow, I agree with you! I am a biologist too, and do not believe that 2,700 years can do this much.

lulipenna's picture

And how about the sea. Do

And how about the sea. Do you still say the sea is dark wine colored?

Dana's picture

In reality the ancient

In reality the ancient Greeks could see all the colors (blue, purple, brown, etc) but did not have words for them (I believe that color word progression moves something like white, black, red, yellow/green, blue and brown.) and simply used the words they did have as a description of the spirit of the objects they were trying to give color too; in other words, they used the same color for blood, tree sap and the ocean-- they all had something to do with life. As for calling the sky bronze, he'd be referring to the energy produced by the sky, so it comes out more as 'the sky was shining' than 'they sky was bronze'. there are still languages today that don't have words for the colors blue and brown. But, just the same, there are languages that have two words for the color blue (Russian) and some that don't have a big distinction between green and blue (Thai, until recently).

Anonymous's picture

The Bible's Book of Job also

The Bible's Book of Job also describes the sky as 'strong as molten bronze'; this is often used to 'prove' that Biblical authors thought the sky was a solid roof, but comparing it to a liquid substance seems a poor way to imply that - the metaphor is clearly the heat and brightness of a desert sky. Homer was in similar latitudes, and the same metaphor makes sense.

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