The Ancient Greeks apparently had no word for blue. Homer didn’t use it, nor the great dramatists of Classical Athens.
This is really strange, when you think about it. In Greece, today as then, the dominant colour is blue. First, the light hits you, bright and luminous, but then the sky above you echoes in its blueness. It can’t be ignored.
Homer was blind, so that might account for him. But Sophocles, though he wrote about Oedipus, a man who blinds himself, could see, as far as we know. He doesn’t talk about blue, either, but no-one can seriously believe he couldn’t see blue.
Blue rolls around the sky in Greece, like thunder. The ancestors must have heard it just as we do. It is like the clapper inside the huge bell of the world.
This kind of blue can make your head ring. Presumably, this is why blue and violet are placed in the head by those who believe in chakras. The Kate Archers of this world.
But the old folk had no word for it.
The sea is a vicious blue as well. How did they miss that? They sailed around all over the place, but never felt the need to describe what they were on . . . or in. Even Odysseus, with his appalling navigational skills that resulted in the short hop from Troy to Kefalonia taking years and years, didn’t seem to notice it.
When he got home, he never once told the long-suffering Penelope about the sea. It makes you wonder if he really took years to sail home. Maybe he spent all that time with Calypso, and just made up all the rest as an excuse.
So, I have always wondered why they had no word for blue. It was not that they could not see it, and even the blind Homer uses colour words, but uses “wine-dark” to describe the sea. He knew it was blue, but had no word for it. To the Greeks, green and blue were shades of the same colour, but, just as we can see the difference between crimson and pillar-box red, so I’m pretty sure Odysseus could tell when he was looking at the field and when he was looking at the sky.
This spring, in Greece, I sat still in the hills above Odysseus’s wine dark sea, and wondered. Everywhere I looked was blue. Blue sea, blue sky. And then I realised that the light itself was blue. All around me was blueness.
Science tells us light is white. Ordinary experience tells us it is colourless.
Counter-intuitively, it became obvious why there was no word for blue. It was everywhere, it was everything. There were shades of it, of course, but these were easy to differentiate. Sea colour. Olive colour. Morning sky colour. Night colour. Wine dark is now the beautiful image it always was.
Just as in England we are surrounded by green, yet have the same word for the bright tenderness of a new beech leaf and for the dark shadows of a yew tree, so the Greeks lived in a blue world, but felt no need to label it. Every colour swam in blue light.
Blue is what pulled their world together.