In the Ancient Greek epic Odyssey, the author Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea“. It’s a very peculiar colour choice, since nowadays we consider the ocean to be dark blue or green – two shades very distinct from the dark red wine we know. However, this wasn’t the only instance of unconventional colour-naming in Odyssey. Homer describes the colour of iron and sheep with the same word. Honey is also curiously labelled with a word that means green.
So what was going on in Ancient Greece? Were people colourblind then, unable to differentiate between red and blue? Or is there a more complicated reason having to do with how language affects the way we see the world?
First, it’s important to realize that different cultures label colours in different ways. Take the word chloros. Homer not only uses this colour in his description of grass, but it also refers to the bright yellow colour of honey. Even modern languages have differing distinctions. A colour that is considered light blue or sky blue in English has a specific word in Japanese: mizu. But when historians analyzed ancient languages across different cultures, they saw one thing in common: none of them had a word to describe blue.
Searching for blue
In the 19th century, Lazarus Geiger, a philologist (someone who studies language through texts), made a discovery. Across many ancient Icelandic, Hindu, Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew texts, none of them mentioned anything about blue. The first mention of blue only popped up in Ancient Egypt, the first civilization able to make a blue pigment. What does this mean?
The first baffling conclusion one might come up with is that ancient people couldn’t see blue. At least, not until it popped up more often in their daily lives like for the Egyptians. But we know that colour vision in humans developed 30 million years ago, so ancient people could physically see blue. Why didn’t they have a name for it?
An eye-opening experiment
In a study published in 2006, the psychologist Jules Davidoff traveled to Namibia to perform an experiment with the native Himba tribe. Like all the ancient languages, the Himba culture never developed a word to describe blue. When presented a circle with 11 green squares and 1 blue square, they had a very hard time picking out the blue square.
However, the Himba people have many different words to describe varying shades of green. When they were presented the same circle with 11 green squares and 1 square with a lighter shade of green, they could identify the different square right away. English speakers could not. See for yourself if you can, and check out the right answer.
So there seems to be a connection between how a culture labels colors and their ability to differentiate between them. The Ancient Greeks were able to see the dark blue ocean, but not notice any difference between that and the color of red wine.
It’s worth noting that the method we use to sort out colours has evolved over time. In 1858, William Gladstone analyzed Homer’s use of colour in his writing. He noticed that the Homer gravitated the most towards the simple shades of black and white, with those being mentioned around 200 and 100 times respectively. Other colours like red, yellow, and green appeared less than 15 times. Gladstone concluded that the Ancient Greeks perceived colours based on their lightness or darkness, rather than the colour or tone itself. As pictured in this graph, the mention of hue in texts gradually increases as we near modern ages.
There is still a lot we don’t know about this phenomenon – which factors cause this change in perception? Why does this happen? It’s interesting how something as universal as colours can be perceived differently just because of a difference in words. At least we can rest easy knowing that the Ancient Greeks were in fact perceiving the same blue sky as we are – they just didn’t have a word for it.