Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Colours in Homer #1: the bronze sky

Today's myth owes much of its popularity to the British comedy quiz series QI. Here's the relevant bit, from series 2 episode 1 'Blue' (first broadcast October 2004):
Stephen Fry: What colour was the sky in ancient Greece?
Jo Brand: Blue, if that picture's any good.
Stephen: Oooooh no! It wasn't, I'm afraid, blue. Um, I should have, aheheh, I should have told you that it was ancient Greece. And I did.
Jo: Yeh you did.
Stephen: Yah, yah, and, and they didn't, they didn't take photographs in ancient Greece, so that might have been a hint that the photograph was of modern Greece.
Jo: Well when I know -
Stephen: Yah, no, you fell into our beautifully -
Sean Lock: It could be a very very good carving.
Stephen: It could be, I suppose. Um -
Bill Bailey: Could it perhaps have been darker blue, 'cause it's sort of faded a little bit, over time?
Stephen: Well, yes, in point of fact -
Alan Davies: What we call blue they called something else?
Stephen: Well no the ancient Greeks don't - didn't call anything blue.
Alan: They didn't look up ever?
Stephen: No they didn't call anything blue.
Alan: They didn't ha - have colours?
Bill: No word for blue?
Stephen: They had colours, but they didn't have a word for blue.
Bill: Aaaaah.
Alan: They didn't have a word for blue? Well what did they say? 'The sky.'
Stephen: 'Bronze'.
Alan: Bronze?
Stephen: Yes, they called it 'the bronze'. Homer called it 'bronze-coloured'.
Alan: I've got no time for these Greeks.
[A couple of minutes' dialogue omitted]
Stephen: Now in a similar spirit, ahh, Homer regarded wine, the sea, and sheep as all being the same colour, which is 'red'. To us colours are so obvious that this seems peculiar, but colour is just one way of describing tones.
Screenshot from QI season 1, episode 2 'Blue'
Predictable answer alert!

This idea was revived in March 2015 when a spate of news articles eagerly reported a study claiming that humans two thousand years ago couldn't perceive the colour blue. The popularity of this story was in turn driven by a kafuffle over The Dress that hit internet social forums a couple of weeks earlier. (For reference, news media interpreted the study as supporting the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that cognition is strictly constrained by language; strong Sapir-Whorf is however broadly discredited. Weak Sapir-Whorf is the subject of ongoing research.)

Homeric epic does indeed refer to 'bronze sky' three times: at Iliad 5.504, Iliad 17.425, and Odyssey 3.2. It's just that there isn't the slightest reason to interpret it as a colour term. This becomes a bit more obvious if you look at other uses of 'bronze' as an adjective in Homer. Iliad 5.785:
Στέντορι εἰσαμένη μεγαλήτορι χαλκεοφώνῳ
looking like the great-hearted bronze-voiced Stentor
(This is where we get the adjective 'stentorian'.) Iliad 18.222 likewise refers to Achilleus' ὄπα χάλκεον 'bronze voice'. Next, Iliad 11.241-2 describes the death of Iphidamas as follows:
ὣς ὃ μὲν αὖθι πεσὼν κοιμήσατο χάλκεον ὕπνον
οἰκτρὸς ἀπὸ μνηστῆς ἀλόχου...
In this way (Iphidamas) toppled and fell into a bronze sleep,
pitiful, away from his wedded wife...
And then there's Iliad 5.704, which refers to the war-god Ares as χάλκεος 'bronze'.

It should be pretty transparent that the meaning is figurative in all of these passages. That being the case, it'd be daft to assume that when it gets used of the sky -- and only in the case of the sky -- it suddenly starts being a colour term.

Exactly what shade of metaphor we're looking at in the 'sky' passages is less obvious. The simplest and most likely interpretation is that it's supposed to mean 'pitiless, terrible', as in the Iphidamas death-scene. In that case 'bronze sky' = 'pitiless sky' is a pathetic fallacy. Another, more literalist, reading is to take it as a reference to the 'bronze-pathed house of Zeus', a phrase that appears elsewhere (on the understanding that Zeus lives in the sky). And one more possibility which is unsupported by any other evidence, but nonetheless entertaining, is that it could be a reference to the sky as an upturned cauldron: one word for 'cauldron' was χαλκίον, derived from the word for bronze.

Most doubts over the 'pitiless, terrible' interpretation can be dispelled by looking at parallels in contemporary ancient Near Eastern sources. Exactly the same trope appears in the succession treaty of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon, written in 672 BCE, almost exactly contemporary with the Iliad (known to Biblical scholars as the 'vassal treaty of Esarhaddon' or VTE):
528 qaq-qar-ku-nu ki-i AN.BAR le-pu-šu me-me-ni
529 ina ŠÀ-bi lu la i-par-ru-’a
530 ki-i šá TA* ŠÀ AN-e šá UD.KA.BAR A.AN la i-za-nun-a-ni
531 ki-i ha-an-ni-e zu-un-nu na-al-šû ina ŠÀ A.ŠÀ.MEŠ-ku-nu
532 ta-me-ra-ti-ku-nu lu la [i]l-lak ku-um zu-un-nu
533 pe-e’-na-a-ti ina KUR-ku-nu li-iz-nu-na
May they (the gods) make your ground like iron (so that) nothing can sprout from it. Just as rain does not fall from a brazen sky so may rain and dew not come upon your fields and your meadows; instead of dew may burning coals rain on your land.
Succession treaty of Esarhaddon §§63-4 (ed. and transl. Parpola and Watanabe)
And here it is again in the Hebrew Bible, about half a century later:
וְהָי֥וּ שָׁמֶ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־רֹאשְׁךָ֖ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת וְהָאָ֥רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־תַּחְתֶּ֖יךָ בַּרְזֶֽל׃
יִתֵּ֧ן יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־מְטַ֥ר אַרְצְךָ֖ אָבָ֣ק וְעָפָ֑ר מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ יֵרֵ֣ד עָלֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד הִשָּׁמְדָֽךְ׃
The sky over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you iron. The LORD will change the rain of your land into powder, and only dust shall come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed.
Deuteronomy 28:23-4 (Westminster Leningrad text + NRSV)
(No one has ever tried to interpret this as having anything to do with colours!) The figure of speech in Homer is unlikely to be independent, especially considering how the trope appears in the Iliad 17 passage:
ὣς οἳ μὲν μάρναντο, σιδήρειος δ' ὀρυμαγδός
χάλκεον οὐρανὸν ἷκε δι' αἰθέρος ἀτρυγέτοιο.
So they fought one another, and the iron din
reached as far as the bronze sky through the barren ether.
Iliad 17.424-5 (ed. West)
Terrestrial iron, heavenly bronze: this is no coincidence. The image must have been borrowed from Near Eastern literature relatively recently: (a) the earliest evidence of iron smelting in Greece dates to ca. 900 BCE, and the poetic image wouldn't make much sense if the material wasn't available; (b) all our attestations, Akkadian, Greek, and Hebrew, come from the 600s BCE. The original intent is likely to have been more or less the same as in the Hebrew and Akkadian passages.

And for reference, Homeric Greek did have two words that can mean 'blue': kyaneos and glaukos. Greek colour terms divided up the spectrum differently from how English and most modern western European languages do. Kyaneos covered the area of the spectrum ranging from black towards dark blue, and was also used for what in English would be called 'black' hair. Glaukos included light shades of green and blue with relatively low saturation. Other colours that don't line up with English categories are melas (conventionally translated 'black'), porphyrios ('purple'), and chlōros ('green'): in reality melas covered the range from black to brown to dark orangey-red, porphyrios referred to a range of deep vivid colours; chlōros and glaukos divide up pale colours between them. Erythros ('red') and leukos ('white') are just about the only ancient Greek colour terms that mostly line up with their conventional English translations. There's nothing especially weird or wonderful about this: if you think of English colour terms that revolve around the prototypical 'blue', like cyan, azure, indigo, navy, turquoise, and aquamarine, and try to think of their equivalents in another language, you're not going to come up with a set of one-to-one correspondences.

What of Stephen Fry's comment about Homer regarding wine, the sea, and sheep as 'red'? More on that next time: that will take us into the wacky world of Homeric formulas.


  1. I thought the sky might have actually been copper due to some environmental difference - in the thickness of the ozone perhaps or due to a major volcanic eruption somewhere, as there was more volcanic activity at that time.

    1. Certainly in the case of a phrase like the "wine-looking sea" there's a lot of scope for that kind of thinking-outside-the-box. But there's no solid basis for suspecting a differently coloured sky -- plus, the trope of "bronze sky, iron earth" does rather strongly suggest it's a standard poetic and metaphorical image!

  2. Might 'bronze' mean 'flawless', in the sky context? In other words, cloudless? Without shade, such a sky could easily be considered pitiless. Similarly, a flawless sleep might mean death.

    Also interesting how several Greek terms line up with medical terminology (as you might expect), particularly in relation to blood - porphyria, leucocyte, erythrocyte.

    1. Ed,
      Good points in your 1st paragraph. Adding that to the point below by Thomas, one can see the power of the 'bronze sky' trope.
      Thank you!

  3. Just a quick note, aged and weathered bronze turns a greenish blue (or "glaukos", if you prefer) - which might add to the poetry of the phrasing, and also helps to explain it somewhat.

    1. Thomas,
      As with Ed just above, very astute comment. You two have definitely enriched the Gains of Peter on this topic.