Was the sky blue back then, too?

re: http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a2_168b.html
Did any smart-ass ancient Greek kid ask Plato and co. “why is the sky a color we don’t know about yet?”

Basically, what color did the Greeks see when they looked up during the day?

(fixed the link - Jill)

[Note: This message has been edited by JillGat]


Color wasn’t invented untill the mid '30s; about the time Ted Turner was born. Before that everything was black and white.

Elmer J. Fudd,
I own a mansion and a yacht.

You dropped the trailing “l” on the link.

Elmer J. Fudd,

I believe you are mistaken. That was once correct, however, thanks to Ted Turner, history has now been colorized.

Elmer, you not only watch Warner Brothers cartoons, you’ve also read Calvin and Hobbes. Good man.


Well. Would it have been better to have sent my OP to Cecil, instead?


As Cecil’s column indicated, the overwhelming consensus is that they would have seen the same color as anyone else. The question is what they would have calledit.

Perhaps the answer to “What color is the sky” in a culture without a category “Blue” would have been something like “It’s black”; “Well, what shade of black?”; “Oh, a very light black, something like the black of a robin’s egg.” :slight_smile:

I’m not being completely facetious- there are parallels to that in how different cultures divide up colors.

For instance, the Russian language has two different words for blue- one for a light to medium, and the other for dark. What we consider different shades of one color, they consider two different colors. Actually, English once made the same distinction I believe. Around Newton’s time, when the spectrum was discussed it was divided into 7 colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Nowadays most people in America if ask to identify the color of an object that was dyed indigo would say it was dark blue.

Similarly, the early Greeks may have had just one word to describe a whole range of shades of blue and other colors.

Oh, to add fuel to the fire knowing I’m going to get knee jerk denials simply because they didn’t know…

Pink is light red.

Brown is dark yellow.

Green, blue, purple, and orange simply come in dark and light. (Although, very dark orange would be called rust and very light orange would be called peach…)


Okay, this bugged me a little when I read it in book form, and then it returned to bug me more later.
FIRST: Cecil Adams spoke of discussions of Homer and others, and the relative poverty of colours in their descriptions. But Homer was blind! Did no-one ever think of this as having a bearing on the discussion?

SECOND: Last year I got roped into seeing a crap movie, Thin Red Line. Anyone else seen it? Well it’s crap. Anyway, there’s a scene in it where Nick Nolte uses the words “rosy-fingered dawn”, and then says it’s from Homer. I just thought, --I’m going crazy here. First of all, Homer was blind, and secondly, I’ve read a discussion where someone who’s never wrong said that Homer never used language like that. But I said this to my friend who’d dragged me to this film (which was Crap, by the way) and he actually found the quotation, Rosy Fingered Dawn, from Homer, on line. It traumatized me deeply, and seriously weakened my position on this film, which he liked, being CRAP.

So… what??? Did Homer say Rosy or didn’t he? And if he did, how did he even know about it?

I’m most annoyed.

First of all, it’s only a legend, or a tradition at best, that says that Homer was blind.

Second, there is a great deal of argument over whether Homer even existed. But whether he existed or not, one thing that’s pretty darn certain is that he didn’t write the Iliad and Odyssey from scratch the way that Baur, say, wrote The Wizard of Oz. A lot of traditional material went into them.

By the way, these questions about language and color also provide a neat Occamish resolution to another Homeric question – what did he mean by the “wine-dark sea”?

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

You weren’t off the coast of Malibu in 1993, were you, John? That’s the only time I’ve seen the wine-dark sea.

It’s caused by a combination of vast amounts of ash in the air during a sunrise or sunset. The surface of the ocean takes on the hue of a rich Merlot. I don’t know the context in which Homer used it (The Ionian Sea as the Greeks sailed away from the smoldering city of Troy?) but Patrick O’Brian used the expression to describe the aftermath of an island-volcano’s eruption.

Well, I don’t know much about Homer per se, but I do know that when The Iliad points out that the sun has risen, it says, “When the child of Morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared…” and then Achilles pouts or Odysseus does something smart or whatever. So Morning and Dawn have being personified or deified (it’s hard to tell which); the phrase is used a lot.

Homer refers to the “wine-dark sea” over and over again, as easily as a speaker of English would use “deep blue sea”. I think everything up to and including space aliens has been invoked as an explanation, but a simple lack of color terms in Archaic Greek is the best I’ve seen to date.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

The names of colors do change meaning sometimes. For example, in Christ’s time, “purple” was the color of blood, not a mixture of red and blue.

“I had a feeling that in Hell there would be mushrooms.” -The Secret of Monkey Island

Diceman wrote:

I hope this is a troll. I really do.

Moriah: with you on the pink=light red thing, but brown is actually much more complex than that. Brown is a “tertiary” color. Everybody remember the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue? (Im talking pigments here - lets not obfuscate this any more than we have to by bringing the light scale into it.) Anyway, a primary color is a color that cant be obtained by mixing - it exists only in the pure pigment form. Kinda the same idea as a prime number. When you mix two primary colors together, you get a secondary color - orange, purple, or green. When you mix two secondary colors together, you get a tertiary color, so called because theyre at the third level of mixing. But we only have one word for these three technically distinct colors: brown. People tend to call them a “kinda purplish brown” or “brown with a little green in it” or stuff like that. I could also get into tints, shades, and neutrals, but the only point would be “See? I like to brag about my knowledge of color theory.” So I’ll shut up about that.

Gratuitous Nit-Picking Dept. part 2:
John W. Kennedy: The Oz series was my favorite when I was younger, so I need to point out that the author’s name was Baum, not Baur. L(eland) Frank Baum. FWIW, the title of the book (as opposed to the movie) is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. enthusiastically, bouncing up and down in her chair I got lots more trivia facts about the books, too. Wanna hear 'em?

the Artist Formerly Known as Kara

a thought of mine actually having something to do with the OP: why would anybody need to ask what color the sky was? They’d be able to see what color it was. It’s sky-colored. Or, in a more Zen-like manner, it is the color that it is. Okay, a blind person might need to ask, but would they have a concept of color at all? A more reasonable phrasing of the question by a blind person might be, “What does the sky look like,” in which case telling them that it’s the color of a robin’s egg wont help them much.

the Artist Formerly Known as Kara

I know. (Heck, my wife and I co-chaired the 1996 Munchkin Convention.) I had originally picked another novel with another author, and was typing over it, and the phone rang, and… Blech!

Actually, the question of the title of the novel is more complex than that; its official title over the years has been The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The New Wizard of Oz, and The Wizard of Oz.. (And Baum had about six more titles for it while it was a work in progress, too.)

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Getting back to the color issue, I think this deserves some additional discussion. There appear to be two possible explanations; (1) ancients were physiologically unable to “see” the variety of colors modern man can, and (2) ancients could see just as modern man, they just didn’t have the terms to describe the colors.

There appears to be a more fundamental questions here though. How does ones’ perception of color compare to another persons perception (such as ancient man).

The color names are just arbitrarily assigned. When a child looks at the sky (or any object), and asks their parent what color it is, they will get an answer such as “it’s blue”. The answer has little to do with the actual color of the sky. It’s all in the perception. The child may be perceiving it as green, but he is told that it is blue, and so that is filed away in memory, and becomes part of the rules they use to name the colors of things. The point is we do not know how others perceive colors any more than we know how ancient man perceived colors.

As a child you also learn the primary colors and the combinations to create the secondary colors, and so on. Again all of these are learned, and have nothing to do with how each individual actually perceives the colors. I think it was Locke who posed the inverted spectrum question. Something like; “If two individuals were discussing the color of an object, how would you know the were both perceiving the color the same if one individual spectral perception was inverted from the others.” I think the simple answer is, you wouldn’t. They would be calling the colors by the same names, just perceiving them differently.

Now I want to bring color variant (or deficient) vision (or color blindness in the common vernacular) into the discussion, which is interestingly hereditary. Perhaps in ancient man, color deficient vision was the norm versus the exception. Perhaps evolution has resulted in increased color vision (perception) over time.

This would appear to satisfy both theories. Color vision (perception) evolved from ancient man, and subsequently, additional color terms were created to describe them.
“Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye” - Lennon/McCartney

See the following for additional information:

From what I’ve heard Newton purposely divided the spectrum into 7 colours because he was religous. 7 being a mystical number and all that…

loser: You saw The Thin Red Line? What did you think of it?