In my last blog A Purple Pursuit, I wrote about Browning’s Popularity, in which he referred to shellfish dye in a complex poem on inspiration, skill and genius. What I didn’t say, but others wisely pointed out, was the oddity of Browning referring to the dye as blue throughout the poem. Shellfish dye (from the ‘Tyrian shells’) is quite definitely purple and the colour, history and source of Imperial Purple were well known in Browning’s time. So, why blue?
Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes
Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte’s eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?
I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue. Maybe I have missed something. But the Resident Poetry Advisor says that Browning was more than capable of implying non-existent references, or even inventing them. This seems most perverse, but Browning was a poet and that’s the kind of thing poets do.
Putting Browning firmly aside, I happened across a reference to William Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Gladstone (1809 – 1908) was a British Liberal politician, three times Prime Minister, living at a time when politicians digested more than soundbites.
Gladstone studied the Iliad page by page, and as he did so he recorded the occurrence of words for colour. What he noticed was rather remarkable. He came across much mention of black, some white, less red, very little yellow, tiny amounts of green…but no blue. Was Homer ‘colourblind’, or unable to perceive colours? Were all Greeks the same, and their perception of colours (and the words to describe them) inherited, building over several generations? It left me wondering whether Astarte’s eyes could have been blue if there wasn’t yet a word for it, which was a head-spinning prospect.
Lazarus Geiger (1829-1870), a philosopher and philologist, took Gladstone’s research further and studied other ancient texts (for instance, Icelandic sagas, Vedic literature, and the original Hebrew version of the Bible) finding that none of them contained a word for blue. Geiger concluded that across ancient cultures, words for colour developed in an oddly consistent order. Black was always first, followed by white, red, yellow, green. Blue came next, eventually.
If this intrigues you, I suggest you listen to the Radiolab broadcast linked below. It makes more sense of it than I can here, but still left me wondering what exactly was being said. One of the programme’s guests is linguist Guy Deutscher. Listen, particularly, to the account of his little daughter trying to name the colour of the sky.
My head can’t get itself round the concept that without an object to attach it to, a colour didn’t ‘exist’ and didn’t acquire a name. But that’s partly what is being said and it leads me to dyeing, and the need to name colours. I was dyeing felt last week, trying to achieve a good range of reds. I used different amounts of mordant, varied the percentages of weld, cochineal and madder and overdyed in different sequences. Small variations occurred in the reds and I sought to describe these to a client in words. Colours need adjectives like ‘bright’, ‘dark’, ‘dull’ etc but one inevitably ends up with a comparison to a universally understood coloured object, such as a poppy, a pillarbox, a brick, a patch of rust, a rose. We take this for granted but it’s very sophisticated, relying on a well-established set of understandings. We often need an object when we describe colour.
In her book Tintes y Tintoreros de América, Ana Roquero records the many changes that took place in Central and South American textile practice during the Spanish colonial period. One of the imports from Spain to the New World was an entire vocabulary for textiles. As well as words for machinery, tools, technical terms and cloth and fabric, this included words for colour. These colour words are still alive in parts of Latin America amongst mestizo weavers and dyers, when their use in today’s Spain is long lost.
In this case it’s the itinerant word that has preserved the colour, and I find that fascinating.
Radiolab broadcast ‘Why Isn’t the Sky Blue’ here
The Himba and the perception of colour Anthropology and the Human Condition: here
Roquero, Ana, 2006, Tintes y tintoreros de América: catálogo de materias primas y registro etnográfico de México, Centro América, Andes Centrales y Selva Amazónica, Ministerio de Cultura, España
Deutscher, Guy, 2010, Through the Language Glass, Heinemann
Please also check out the very interesting links offered in comments for this page. Many thanks to those who have written and included them