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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Were the Ancient Greeks and Romans Colour Blind?

A recent piece doing the rounds at the moment looks at famous phrases in Classical Literature, like 'the wine-dark sea' to describe the Mediterranean in the Iliad. Sea's are not red so what this points out is a difference in how ancient people compared to modern people viewed the world. One difference is probably not so much how they perceived colours they saw, but how they described them. It's quite common across ancient languages to describe things more generally and context fills in the layers of more specific meaning, and terms for colours often refer to a hue eg a modern dictionary will tell you a word means say 'red' but in another language that may refer not to a specific shade but a spectrum of shades bronze like orange, brown-reds to crimson to burgundy or purplish-red colours. There can also be a range of symbolism with a colour as well eg green with envy. It seems there is a tendency for modern languages, and especially in English to try and classify everything more specifically just think how many specific terms there are today for every form and sub genre of music or dance etc.

Another thing worth noteing is then, as now, metaphors, allusions, kennings and poetry may be employed for a powerful emotional and symbolic effect. You cannot assume everything was intended literally, especially when browsing snippets of colour descriptions from a range of ancient texts, and quoting them outside of their original and intended context.

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