Ancients perceived color differently?

Anglo-Irish proto-hippie and Aldous Huxley associate, Gerald Heard speculates:
In Homeric Greek the same rudimentary colour vocabulary is evident, Homer having half a dozen words for red, but no clear terms for blue and green. The eyes of his generation seem to have picked out the slight tinge of red in the purple of the Mediterranean, and to have been blind to the blue — hence his strange but constant epithet for the sea, "wine-dark." The painting of the deities' hair blue and calling such locks hyacinthine also seems due to a confusion in their colour sense. As most blues appear white in an ordinary photograph taken without chromatically corrected negatives, it is possible that the Greeks thought they were making all their gods platinum blonds. Nor did this limitation disappear even at the high noon of Greek culture. Their pottery, in spite of the increasing mastery of form, remained black and red.
I don't entirely buy this (and I notice at least one error in the surrounding discussion), but it's an interesting thought. Longer excerpt within:

[Heard, G. (1939). Pain, sex and time: A new hypothesis of evolution. London: Cassell. pp. 80-82]

Secondly, sight having become in man the dominant sense to which all the others are subordinate, the range of sight is steadily increased., It is possible in the growth of pictorial art to trace how, as man's freedom from immediate cares grew greater, so he literally extended his perspective. Primitive art is solely concerned with close-ups. Then, to add to the importance of the foreground, figures and incidents are worked into a middle distance. The interest in true perspective is significantly a modern development. Is there any reference in a classical author before Cassiodorus, to someone going out of his way to gain a view ? We know that not until Uccello are Western artists interested in perspective, and that then the discovery appears so revolutionary and so fascinating that Uccello's wife cannot get him to come to bed. Even then the advance is gradual, and it is not until the Baroque has superseded the true Renaissance and the abstract speculation of pure science has begun, that a landscape art in which the view is on a scale to dwarf all human figures, begins to engross the principal attention of painters and patrons.

It would seem that the same slow expansion of attention marks the development of Chinese painting, and that it is a final development when extensive landscapes become the main interest of artists.

Thirdly, colour develops in the same way. Dissection of the eyes of apes and monkeys seems to show that they are provided with, as well as the retinal rods, the cones on which the apprehension of colour is said to depend. Experiments in testing them with coloured wools also seem to show that they can probably discriminate between the primary colours if they wish. The fact remains that this biologically unnecessary attention is not employed. Colour tests on young children seem to show that the child attends first to red and last to blue — following in the growth of his taste the shortening of the wavelength of light. In this the child would seem to recapitulate the expanding experience of the race. We know that paleolithic man, though a consummate draughtsman, only employed as his colours red, yellow and black, the Bushman artists worked under the same colour restriction, and all primitive races to-day appear to have a partiality for red and an indifferent apprehension of the other colours. The Nepalese did not perceive blue until their attention was called to it by Europeans, when they called it blu-blu, but still it remains doubtful whether they perceive it as a colour or only, as do the colour-blind, as a difference in tone. Rivers pointed out that the Fellahin had no clear words for blue, and that the name, the " Blue Nile " really means the Dark Nile ; and that they confuse brown wools with blue.

In our own ancestry also, the uses of colour words show how rudimentary was our colour sense until comparatively lately. In Welsh, the word for the blue or white of the sky, the background, of field or wood or hillside, is glas — a neutral tinted word for the transparency of the distance, and which we have therefore taken over as the word for the most transparent and colourless of materials. Alternatively, the word for colour in Russian also means red.

In Homeric Greek the same rudimentary colour vocabulary is evident, Homer having half a dozen words for red, but no clear terms for blue and green. The eyes of his generation seem to have picked out the slight tinge of red in the purple of the Mediterranean, and to have been blind to the blue — hence his strange but constant epithet for the sea, " wine-dark." The painting of the deities' hair blue and calling such locks hyacinthine also seems due to a confusion in their colour sense. As most blues appear white in an ordinary photograph taken without chromatically corrected negatives, it is possible that the Greeks thought they were making all their gods platinum blonds. Nor did this limitation disappear even at the high noon of Greek culture. Their pottery, in spite of the increasing mastery of form, remained black and red. Blue and green glazes, though easy to make, are never employed. Far more remarkable than this, however, is the fact that such an apparently modern genius as Aristotle declares that the rainbow has only three colours. To the red and the yellow he can add the green, but even he was evidently unable to perceive the violet. [That last is incorrect, as far as I know.]

We can then conclude that in man's expansion of attention first the farthest ranged of all the senses becomes dominant. Then this sense increasingly takes pleasure in attending to distance, to experiences which cannot be enjoyed by any of the other senses. Finally this sense, having established not merely its predominance, but its independence, develops a new faculty, a faculty of little physical use, the appreciation of colour.

So much for the clear historical and contemporary evidence that modern man's senses have grown, that there is psychological evolution, and that that evolution is in the direction which leads man to the apprehension of a larger world. Man's sight becomes his predominant sense : using it he becomes increasingly interested in the distance, in ranges which are outside the limit of his appetites, and sight itself is continually enriched by the growth of the colour sense.

6 comments:

ziel said...

"To the red and the yellow he can add the green, but even he was evidently unable to perceive the violet. [That last is incorrect, as far as I know.]"

What is incorrect - ie., are you saying that Aristotle did indeed comment on violet in a rainbow?

n/a said...

Yes. E.g.:

The Aristotelian Explanation of the Rainbow
by AM Sayili - 1939 - Cited by 17 - Related articles
ARISTOTLE considers that the rainbow contains three colors red, green, and violet. He sometimes also mentions yellow. (or orange), but this color is not to


Or:

let R stand for the red colour, G for green, V for violet; yellow appears at the point Y.

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Anonymous said...

Homer described the rainbow only with one colour - purple (Iliad 17.547) - an interesting parallel recalling the rainbow riddles of Balto-Finnic folklore. Xenophanes mentioned three: 'purple', 'yellow' and 'crimson'. http://www.folklore.ee/Folklore/vol6/rainbow.htm

Anonymous said...

Pure speculation, but, wine was normally watered before drinking in ancient Greece and so "wine dark" may not be as deep a shade as we imagine.

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