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"Ancients couldn't see colours..." Topic

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3,082 hits since 28 Feb 2015
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GarrisonMiniatures Inactive Member28 Feb 2015 3:28 a.m. PST

Well, the colour blue anyway…

And I quite believe it having taught someone who had trouble telling the difference between blue and green. I've put this on painting guides because if you can't distinguish between two colours and scroll down the article for a good example how do you use it? It has the possibility that two Greeks would paint their shields, one blue and one green, to them they would both be the same colour.


platypus01au Supporting Member of TMP28 Feb 2015 3:38 a.m. PST

The RadioLab podcast referenced in the article was very good.

But to answer the question, and from the podcast, the issue was that they simply could not have painted the other side of the shield blue….

They didn't have the paint.


Personal logo Swampster Supporting Member of TMP28 Feb 2015 4:19 a.m. PST

It isn't so much about not seeing the colour. It is whether you can distinguish that colour from others or even whether you have a separate word for that colour.
Some languages have a word which covers a range which other languages might describe as including blue and green. Yet others subdivide blue into separate colour. Not just different shades sky, Prussian, royal etc but actually different colours.

The Minoans and the Egyptians (for example) certainly knew they were painting something when they were using silicate of copper. They also deliberately mixed together this and ochre to give green which would have been pointless if they couldn't distinguish them as at least different shades. They may have been altering the brightness, but they did at least see something.

There are times where one person's eyes may be unable to see the colour. Daltonism colour blindness is well known but it may be that some people especially some women have an additional colour receptor in the eye. So they really can see the difference between all those different types of beige :)

Personal logo Doms Decals Sponsoring Member of TMP Inactive Member28 Feb 2015 6:12 a.m. PST

What Swampster said – colours are a semi-artificial construct (even now there's debate as to whether indigo really merits inclusion in the spectrum, or whether it should have 6 colours rather than 7) so the labelling not matching doesn't mean their perception was different, only that their ability to describe it was. Blue simply wasn't in their vocabulary (in Homer the sky is invariably "bronze") but that doesn't mean they couldn't see it.

Mugwump Inactive Member28 Feb 2015 7:24 a.m. PST

The Greeks had no word for Blue, example from The Odyssey: "a wine dark sea." I've never seen the Mediterranean Sea where it looked any thing like the color of wine.

GildasFacit Sponsoring Member of TMP28 Feb 2015 7:28 a.m. PST

Indigo dyed cloths have been identified in prehistoric sites so his basic premise of not having anything blue to see is wrong.

Also I think it may be that these philologists are simply not recognising the references to blue – the Greeks may have known when Homer meant blue even if they don't.

Great War Ace Inactive Member28 Feb 2015 8:03 a.m. PST

This is malarkey. I can't see any difference in those green squares, but it isn't because I can't come up with phrases to differentiate between shades, very subtle shades of green or any other colors. My 'puter screen displays the green squares differently depending on the pov/angle that I hold my eyes….

Pedrobear Inactive Member28 Feb 2015 8:34 a.m. PST

The Chinese word 'cang' can mean either green or blue, and intriguingly also deep or pale.


Jeigheff Inactive Member28 Feb 2015 8:38 a.m. PST

I can't vouch for the absence of the word "blue" in ancient languages. But since Hebrew was mentioned in this article, I decided to check something.

In the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, God tells Moses what offerings are required for the tabernacle. In chapter 25, verse 4, blue is mentioned along with purple and scarlet. These colors are also mentioned later on.

So if the events of Exodus took place in the vicinity of 1500 B.C., the color blue was known to the ancient Hebrews.

Ivan DBA28 Feb 2015 8:58 a.m. PST

The Greeks didn't have a word for "blue?" I find this hard to believe.

The Byzantines had a "Blue" chariot team, with gangs of supporters. So at some point they had one.

Personal logo Doms Decals Sponsoring Member of TMP Inactive Member28 Feb 2015 9:17 a.m. PST

Dunno when it first came in, but in Homer the sea is wine and the sky is bronze.

Cerdic Supporting Member of TMP28 Feb 2015 9:53 a.m. PST

It is nonsense. People have always had the same range of vision that we have today.

What does vary is language, and the ability of different languages to describe different colours. For example, in English the word 'orange' to describe the colour orange is fairly recent. Before that the colour orange was referred to as 'red'. It was normal for them to have more shades of red than English speakers do today.

This is why people with ginger hair, which is an orangey colour, are called red-heads. And robins are called robin red-breasts even though they are orange when you look!


Tacitus28 Feb 2015 11:54 a.m. PST

Well posted, Cerdic!

Personal logo miniMo Supporting Member of TMP28 Feb 2015 12:41 p.m. PST

kuanos = cyan, dark-blue, blue cornflower.
glaukos = blue-grey or blue-green.

platypus01au Supporting Member of TMP28 Feb 2015 2:06 p.m. PST

There is no point in looking at modern translations of the bible to see if the Hebrews had a word for blue.

It is hard to believe, but it seems to be true. While our cones have some variability between individuals and groups, essentially they are similar. But perception is quite another matter. Trust me on this, I used to be a visual neurophysiologist.

There is no point in regurgitating the podcast. If you want to learn about this issue, download it and listen.



GarrisonMiniatures Inactive Member28 Feb 2015 3:28 p.m. PST

Words describe the world we experience. How many times have you come across things like 'the XYZs tribe has 125 words to describe …. while we have one'. The article isn't describing something in theory; the guy checked everything out. He didn't look at modern works or translations; the Byzantines were centuries after the times described and by then Egyptian experiences, for example, would have done the job. Likewise' when was the bible (Old and New Testaments) actually written down? Answer long after te time covered.

It is easy to see things without recognising them. I deal with a couple of deaf people and can sign to a very limited extent. Some of their signs are obviously dfferent to them I don't see the differences. Likewise, I have had experience of someone who finds it difficult to tel the difference between blue and green. Interestingly, it's nearly always thinking the blue is green, not the other other way round.

As stated in the article about a current tribe: 'When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they couldn't pick out which one was different from the others or those who could see a difference took much longer and made more mistakes than would make sense to us, who can clearly spot the blue square.'

So yes, I do find this article believeable.

jowady Inactive Member28 Feb 2015 7:31 p.m. PST

Blue was used in the decorations at Knossos around 2100 BCE. The Egyptians made a synthetic blue dye before that, in fact blue was looked upon as a color that protected one in the afterlife. It is true that the ancient Greeks had no word for blue. They also didn't have a word for red. They classified colors by lightness or darkness, not by hue. The idea that somehow they couldn't see blue is simply ridiculous.

Sundance01 Mar 2015 10:22 p.m. PST

This whole discussion is just silly. Everyone knows that before the 1930s or so everything was black and white and shades of grey. Just look at the photos!

Pedrobear Inactive Member02 Mar 2015 6:23 a.m. PST

Well I'll be…


JJartist18 Mar 2015 3:05 p.m. PST

Macedonians and Athenians had blue paint. This is a bunch of nonsense.


Once again this image reveals that blue is a color used


I reckon they just used blue because it was un see able:


Alexander the Great had one brown eye and one blue eye… not one eye the color of the "wine dark sea"

spontoon27 Jun 2015 2:30 p.m. PST

Seems to be a reasonable assumption to me. Especially since most of the writing was by males who suffer from colour-blindness more than females. Even today most folk have an erroneous perception of what the colour purple actually looks like!

Borathan Inactive Member10 Jul 2015 10:16 p.m. PST

Wine dark might also not be a description of color per say, but a description of the way the water was handling or even the more silty combined with the specifics of the daylight which I have seen taking it water to look dark purple

Deuce03 Inactive Member03 Jun 2016 9:01 a.m. PST

Homer being a poet, I'm not entirely surprised to see him describing the sea in poetic terms. To refer constantly to "the blue sea" would in some ways be rather embarrassing for the father of western verse. Homer also has a tendency to repeat phrases again and again, possibly because his verse was to be delivered orally. That he persistently refers to the sea as "wine-dark" doesn't necessarily mean much more than that he liked the sound of it, I suspect.

It's also worth pointing out that Homer lived a long time before the Classical era. If we take the view that the Greeks had no knowledge of blue in the time of Homer 1000-800 BC) but did in the time of Byzantium (AD 325 onwards), that doesn't actually tell us anything about whether the classical Greeks or Mycenaeans had knowledge of the colour.

Of course we run into all the usual difficulties with trying to prove a negative, and while some of the evidence is relatively persuasive there's also a tendency to ascribe too much importance to anecdotes. I'm rather more persuaded by the linguistic evidence than I am by Homer.

I find it hard to believe they couldn't see the colour blue, as Cerdic mentioned above. However I can also believe that they drew a different distinction between colours than we do, and that their idea of green (and/or grey or black) might have extended into what we would call blue, to the extent that "true blue" was rare or even unheard of in their daily experience. For an obvious counterpart, see the Roman use of "purple" to (apparently) describe a dark red. At the end of the day it's really just a definitional distinction.

spontoon07 Aug 2017 3:34 p.m. PST

Why do all of you keep using Homer as a reference for colour? He's noted as being blind!!!!

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