“And jealous now of me, you gods, because I befriend a man, one I saved as he straddled the keel alone, when Zeus had blasted and shattered his swift ship with a bright lightning bolt, out on the wine-dark sea.”
—Homer, The Odyssey, Book V
Wine-dark sea. Ancient Greeks drank blue wine?
No, of course not. Their wine was purple. But, in the Odyssey, and in the Iliad, Homer describes the sea as wine-dark. Which is also how he describes sheep. The sky? It was bronze.
There was a Homeric scholar by the name of William Gladstone. He was slightly obsessed with Homer and his works. Before he entered politics, (elected Prime Minister of England 4 times in the 1800's), he made careful studies of all of Homers works. He read the Iliad more than one hundred times. (I struggled to get through it once).
In all his readings, he noticed something odd. So, he went back through all of Homers works, carefully noting every instance where he described colors.
And what he found was, there was no blue. Not once was blue mentioned. Seas were dark-wine, skies were bronze. He describes Hectors hair as 'kyanos', which we think meant cyan, but since he was talking about hair, he may have meant something else. Honey he called 'chloros', which we think means green.
So, what kind of drugs was Homer on?
None. Well, maybe some, but they didn't cause his messed up colors. And, he wasn't color blind.
The problem was, the Greeks didn't really have a name for the color blue. They had the color blue. Blue had been around for a couple thousand years by the time the Greeks came to the stage. The Afghans were mining Lapis Lazuli as early as 2,500 BCE. It was used by the Egyptians and Mesopotamians. They used it to cover wood, metal or stone artworks.
A little later on, blue dyes started appearing. In Egypt, they used the indigo plant, and in Europe, they used woad. They also started crushing lapis lazuli into powder to make a pigment. (they also used azurite like this).
So, by the time Greece became dominant, the color blue was common-ish. It was fairly expensive. But, no one really got around to naming it.
And, studies have shown that, if something doesn't have a name, humans tend to not see it. This wasn't limited to just the Greeks. No early civilization had a specific word for blue. It wasn't until the middle ages when the French took a Germanic word, blao, and gave us bleu, which was changed into blewe for Middle English, from which we get: blue.
This leads us to the question: "What did they call blue if they didn't have a word for blue?" Well, that's a good question, Timmy. And, I happen to have an answer.
Let's go back to the Greeks. In conversation, if a Greek wanted to say 'light blue', he would use the word 'glaukos'. And if he wanted to say 'dark blue', he would use the word 'kyaneos'.
There's only one problem. glaukos wasn't just used for light blue. It was also used for light green, grey and yellow. And kyaneos meant not only dark blue, but dark green, violet, black and brown.
It was up to the listener or the reader to infer which particular color was being talked about. Did it lead to confusion? Maybe. Probably some. I mean, we did eventually come up with specific words for not only each color, but each shade of each color.
You'll recall I said earlier that if we didn't have a name for something, we ignored it. The Israeli linguist, Guy Deutscher, and his wife decided to conduct an experiment on his daughter. They taught their daughter, Alma, all the colors, including blue. But what they did was, they avoided calling the sky blue. They never applied a color to the sky. They did this for the first four years of Almas life.
One day, when the sky was a bright blue, he pointed up and asked Alma what color the sky was. Alma was stumped. She couldn't answer. She didn't know the sky was blue, even though she could recognize, and identify other blue objects. Every day for a few weeks, when the sky was blue, (they live in London), he would repeat the question. Finally, she assigned a color to the sky.
White. To Alma, the sky was white.
For a while, that was the answer she always gave. Then, he asked her if the sky was blue. At first, she said no, the sky was white. But after a few times, she would flip between white and blue. Eventually, she decided it was, in fact, blue.
What this experiment proves, (kind of, it wasn't conducted properly, and it was only one test subject), is that, if you don't know what color something is, you can't describe it, even if you know the color. So, while the Greeks and other ancient cultures had the color blue, they couldn't differentiate it from other colors because they couldn't name it.
This is one of the reasons our race names each and every thing we can. In earlier, neolithic cultures, language was more limited. Not everything had a name. And without names, how can you function? If the clan asks you to collect wood, do they mean small sticks, or big logs? Green wood or dry? For the fire or for a spear?
It's not a coincidence that as civilizations advanced, the ones who advanced the most and the fastest had the most expansive languages.
It may be worth noting also that, the word blue is not used once in the bible or the torah.
There. I learned you something today.
If any new inhabitants are curious about what exactly Otters Oddities are, I welcome you to click on the tag and read some of the many posts I've made. Some are better than others, and some you may have already known. But I guarantee they'll all be odd.