Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races

Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races

Do any of you out there ever listen to RadioLab, a radio show that broadcasts on NPR stations? It’s a really fabulous show and podcast that’s best described as similar to This American Life but with stories about science and cool stuff instead of just about people’s inner lives. Except the explorations of science and geeky stuff often also includes stories of people’s inner lives. It’s a pretty sweet show.

The most recent episode is called Colors and is an exploration about a bunch of stuff about color. I know, what a surprise. My favorite section is the last one called “Why Isn’t The Sky Blue?” and delves into why the descriptions of color in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are so… off. The basic explanation is that ancient people saw fewer colors than we see even though they had the physical ability to see more1.

When I first listened to this show I geeked out a bit because I remember hearing this same thing in class back at NYU. How it starts with a long-ago British prime minister noticing that Homer never describes the sky as blue and snowballs into an exploration of how colors come into the human consciousness. My teacher at the time, Scott McPartland, said that the ancient Greeks didn’t see all colors, even though they existed, because they didn’t yet have the imagination to see them. The scientists interviewed on RadioLab have different explanations, but I like Scott’s better.

Scott also stated that two of the traditional rainbow colors are completely made up. That would be Indigo and Orange. These in-between colors were invented to make 7 colors, as 7 is a more perfect or spiritual number.

Yes, this assertion is probably arguable. I remember we argued about it in class a lot. Especially about orange. Apparently before oranges were orange (which they’re bred to be), they were yellow. So we invented oranges to justify orange as a legit color. Fascinating.

Anyway, I bring all this up not just because you should listen to RadioLab or argue with me about the realness of Orange and Indigo, but because I think this is an interesting bit of knowledge to keep in mind if you’re writing about an ancient people. How does your writing change if you can’t use the entire rainbow of colors? Not being able to describe the sky as blue? Or a berry as red or purple? Or the grass and leaves as green? How does that change how your characters see the world and relate to it?

Another cool thing mentioned earlier in the show is that some animals and insects have the ability to see thousands and millions more colors than we can. I’m toying with the idea of an alien race that can see far more colors than we can and how that affects how they relate to us. There is always an assumption that humanoid races pretty much see how we see, but even on our own planet there is a wide range of color seeing ability, thus it’s less likely to be homogeneous across worlds.


  1. Listen to the entire show for an explanation of how our eyes see color. []

11 thoughts on “Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races

  1. How could we know that they couldn’t *see* the colors? Isn’t it possible that they could see them but just didn’t have a variety of words for describing them? Short of acquiring a Tardis to check it out, why interpret it this way rather that the other?

    After all, wild oranges are still orange, though someone may once have called that color yellow. And there used to be no “he/she” pronouns, just “it” but we don’t presume that people did not come in male and female varieties in ancient times.

    I am having difficulty making the leap from the facts to the interpretation of them. But the interpretation indeed does make an interesting path to explore in fiction.

    1. My understanding from the radio show and what I read in college is that people arrived at this theory because it’s so common across so many ancient cultures. The dude who first noticed it did so with Homer’s work and when he said “hey um, there’s a lack of color here!” others said he was stupid and to shut up. It wasn’t until they noticed the same pattern in other cultures and also noticed that the colors arrived in the same order most of the time that it seemed more plausible that ancient folks just didn’t see these colors.

      I think the exception of the Egyptians is what sealed it for me. They saw blue before anyone else did. I don’t know why the people studying this think that is, but I have a hypothesis: blue-skinned gods. One of their earliest gods — Ptah — is depicted as having blue skin. Now, whether or not there really was a blue-skinned dude or god or whatever running around at some point, that his skin was blue is of some importance, otherwise the Egyptians wouldn’t have depicted him that way. I think it’s this importance that is behind why Egyptians saw blue before other peoples.

      Or it was a great need for lapis lazuli…

      Also, wild oranges may be orange now, but the argument I’ve heard is that until we invented orange, people perceived them as being yellow. a slightly redder yellow than pure yellow, but yellow all the same. Think about all those dudes out there who can’t tell the difference between fushia and mauve. Think about how we have names for fushia and mauve when really they’re just various shades of pink and purple.

      1. Well, this interpretation is certainly more interesting. The question of how perception drives language development is fascinating from either starting point as well.

        I am still not sold, but I haven’t sudied the topic at all. TED talks are great but the absence of a question/answer session (at least in the ones I’ve watched) is frustrating. It left me thinking about teaching my sons colors and how we (I) struggle with the variety of colors that have one name.

        What color is this, Mommy?
        That’s blue, honey.

        And this one?
        Uh, uh, that’s uhhhhhhh light blue.

        I can see two colors, but I only have one word.

        It would have been cool to see how Ptah got blue skin or how Horus got a falcon’s head. And it might be surprising if we could see (really see) who and what Egyptians perceived as gods. I am enjoying thinking about it.

        Anyway…aside from our inability to test the accuracy of the original premise, it’s a fascinating one. And I very much look forward to reading what you do with it!

        (apologies for any typos that got through; waiting for new glasses)

  2. Both the fact that color perception is not universal, even if the color receptors in our eyes are, and the fantasy of seeing beyond our visible spectrum are fascinating.

    I often thought about what it might be like to see larger portions of the EM spectrum when I was a child. Certainly, our use of that spectrum would be completely different. Perhaps radio waves would be considered light pollution. Covert communications couldn’t occur via radio. Nothing would ever be dark, as some EM radiation makes it everywhere. We would have had a much earlier understanding of electromagnetism, radioactive elements, and the vast majority of the EM spectrum we can’t see.

    Anyway, yes it certainly is interesting stuff to think about.

    1. Oh wow, I love where you’re going with these ideas. especially radio waves as light pollution. I wonder if that would mean people could read and decipher signals in radio waves by looking? sweet!

  3. Guy Deutscher’s ‘Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages’ starts out with Homer’s colour vocabulary. It’s a really great book!

  4. We are increasingly losing the ability to see indigo as a distinct color because we don’t use it, especially on computer screens.

    Dr. Phil

  5. I’ve always thought indigo was bullshit! It’s just dark blue, people!

    But more importantly, I have a question: is there a way to know whether it was that Homer’s people couldn’t see color, or that color was not considered interesting/important/remarkable enough to write down? I ask because I know that by the time Sappho was writing (considerably after Homer), she was using green, at least.

    1. According to people who’ve researched this, it was common across the ancient world. Apparently humans gained the ability to see colors in a specific pattern. I believe green did come pretty early, and for almost every culture blue was last. The ancient Egyptians were an exception. They were able to see blue early.

      1. That is so fascinating that I don’t know what to do with it. Is it common across the ancient world transculturally? Like, China and India and Mesoamerica as well as the Mediterranean? Did the other ancients think the Egyptians were on drugs? Were the Egyptians on drugs? Why would green come early? But, I guess, why would pink come early (rosy-fingered dawn)? And gray (gray-eyed Athena)? Or would we now think of what they meant by gray eyes as blue eyes?

        My mind is boggling.

        1. hehe, mind boggling is good. To answer your questions, I suggest you listen to the podcast, it’s well worth it. Also, there are books mentioned in the podcast that talk about the research behind this. But yes, this color thing seems to stretch across many ancient cultures. It started with someone noticing it in Homer, then others came along and said “this is the same in many places! weeeeird.”

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