Re: [xmca] Homer's colour blindness

Date: Fri Aug 11 2006 - 09:27:27 PDT

Andy and Mike,
There are also the questions, never completely answered by classicists, of
whether the Iliad and Odyssey were written by one man (or woman, according
to Robert Graves) or represent a compilation of texts and fragments by
multiple authors (all of them color blind?). Moreover, the prevailing
"urban myth" has long been that Homer was totally blind, so then the
question becomes, was he blind from birth, or did he become blind in the
course of his life (as portrayed by Borges). I think some would say that
even more likely than Berlin and Kays' view on cultural differences in
color terms, is the idea that Homer's use of color was a matter of
artistic choice, and perhaps in the oral tradition of the singer of tales
(a la Parry and Lord) a formulaic convention. Thus, Homer, whoever he or
she was or they were, may have been using standard transitional phrases
used for the purpose of calling to mind the next scene, setting that scene
with a unusual and unexpected visual element (thus "the sea, dark as
wine") or establishing closure for a completed scene. In this way,
Homer's many brief descriptions of the sea, for instance, are identical or
almost identical, with very slightly differing phrases, repeated again and
again, and often the depictions take place at dawn or sunset, thus again
the red hues. As to ceramics and the plastic arts, certainly the unfired
pieces which we largely find archeologically reflect the hues of the
locally available clays, but there's also been discussion recently of
evidence that both urns (what colors does Keats describe in his "Ode on a
Grecian Urn?") and sculpture were originally painted in bright colors,
which have since faded or disintegrated with time and in some cases long
burial. When excavated, they may look a bit "unfinished," but were they
always that way?
Lots of questions, including: Is such a dramatic biological
transformation of optic architecture which your philosopher describes
(eyes, for better or worse, do not last long enough for the archeological
record, so we'll never know the answer for sure) possible within the
infinitesimally brief evolutionary moment we're talking about between
Homer's time and now?
Two final questions: Is there really a lack of color vocabulary in
Homer's work? Or in ancient times in general? Is that an argument we can
definitely make even on the basis of the texts that are available to us
Thanks for raising some very interesting questions.

> Andy-- It is MUCH more likely that this is an example of the cultural
> evolution of color terms. See the
> work of Eleanor Heider, Berlin and Kay and others. Homer was a "singer of
> tales" whose work was not
> written down until long after his death, which somewhat complicates
> matters.
> mike
> On 8/10/00, Andy Blunden <> wrote:
>> I suspect this is an urban myth, but since I heard it as part of a
>> course
>> in Hegel from an academic philosopher I wouldn't mind a second opinion.
>> The speaker claimed that Homer was almost colour blind, i.e., he know of
>> only a limited variety of colours, including describing the sea as
>> "blood
>> red". This is well-known apparently. The speaker added that Mycean
>> pottery
>> has also only a very limited palette of colours. For my part, I suspect
>> that this reflects the availability of materials in the ground and
>> proficiency in chemistry, if not the ravages of time. I can also believe
>> that outside of societies with a highly developed and widely used
>> chemical
>> industry providing a wide range of artificial colours in the
>> environment,
>> and a literature which talk about those colours, there is not a large
>> vocabulary of colour.
>> But the speaker claimed that the colour-sensing cones in the eye had not
>> fully evolved in Homer's time. I.e, despite being a philosopher, he
>> provided a biological explanation for the lack of a colour vocabulary in
>> ancient times.
>> He' was wrong wasn't he?
>> Andy
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