Podcast: Radiolab on Homeric Colours

I keep hearing about Radiolab’s stuff of late, and here’s one that is largely within our purview … the

William Gladstone
William Gladstone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

official blurb:

What is the color of honey, and “faces pale with fear”? If you’re Homer–one of the most influential poets in human history–that color is green. And the sea is “wine-dark,” just like oxen…though sheep are violet. Which all sounds…well, really off. Producer Tim Howard introduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last. Jules Davidoff, professor of neuropsychology at the University of London, helps us make sense of the way different people see different colors in the same place. Then Guy Deutscher tells us how he experimented on his daughter Alma when she was just starting to learn the colors of the world around, and above, her.

via: Why Isn’t the Sky Blue? (Radiolab … go there for the very interesting podcast)

If you want to read Gladstone’s chapter, click here (move the slider to page 479 in the digital version (457 in real life).
… by the way there’s a pile of advertising in the first minute or so of the podcast, then it gets down to business.

2 thoughts on “Podcast: Radiolab on Homeric Colours

  1. Classicist here. Colors is ancient Greek were indeed quite different, but there is a very simple explanation to these apparent idiosyncrasies. In most modern languages, our color words refer to hue. In Greek they refer to value and opacity. That’s why it makes sense to call wine and the sea the same color, different from sheep and flowers. This is why translations, and statements that honey and faces pale with fear are green are so misleading that I would even call them wrong.

  2. Since first hearing this program I’ve done some thinking about the use of color by Homer, and re-read the Odyssey for the first time in 30 years. What really jumped out at me this time is a possible explanation I haven’t seen elsewhere: artistic effect. The closest analog I can think of is the highly stylized use of color in movies like “300″ (golden skies and high contrast) to or “Excalibur” (shining armor reflecting emerald light) give the scenes a more alien appearance. That’s how I’ve explained the description of blood as black to my kids, as well as the constant refrain “wine dark sea”. If that’s the real reason for why Homer described things as he did it indicates yet another level of sophistication in what everyone already agrees is a masterfully crafted epic poem.

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