The Mystery of the Color Blue


When you read a lot of ancient texts (and I have for some reason), you come to realize that no civilization before the Middle Ages has a word for the color “blue.” The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Egyptians, Chinese, Sumerians, Phoenicians, none of them had a word for the color blue. It is one of the more strange things in human history.

Homer described the sky as bronze. The sea as white and more oddly, he described sheep as white. So for some reason, Homer believed sheep and sea water were the same color and that this color was significantly different than the color of the sky. Now, if it were only Homer who made this strange color pronunciation, we’d chalk it up to Homer having some visual color issues.

But it wasn’t just Homer. A Chinese poem dating from the late BCE era describes the sky as “red like blood” during the day. Okay, that’s an issue. And the water was green, like grass. Now, I occasionally have trouble in paintings distinguishing grass from water, it depends on the shades of green and blue used, pastels are the devil in my opinion because I have issues separating color shades and hues. However, only at dusk and dawn have I ever thought the sky and blood were the same color.

Egyptians described the noon day sun in Egypt as yellow as the sand beneath their feet. Well that’s interesting. So we have bronze, red, and tannish-yellow, and one more reference, that of the ancient Japanese who described the sky during the day as white, like sheep, and they believed the sea that surrounded them was green. To Egyptians, all water was black.

It’s not just that none of these civilizations described the sky as blue that’s weird, it’s that water and the sky weren’t the same color. The ocean has basically been the same color for eternity. The Nile can be a muddy mess during flood season, but the Mediterranean is a fairly stable and consistent color, like an ocean.

I’ve read theories that say the ancients just didn’t care about being specific in colors and I’ve read theories that say the ancient civilizations of the world couldn’t see blue. I agree more with the second theory, that for whatever reason, they couldn’t see blue. As someone that struggles with shades of color, I can see how blue might look green. Bronze, yellow, red, black, these are slightly harder for me to understand, but only because I’m a modern human who sees blue.

The reason I don’t buy the first one is because many Greek philosophers did describe rainbows, sans the color blue. And they could see purple… Many things are described as purple. Purple is one of those iffy colors for me, sometimes I see it great, but if something red or blue is nearby, the color appears to match either the red or the blue, not a shade of purple.

Perhaps, the biggest twist is that in 2,500 CE, Egyptians were making blue pigments, but they weren’t described as blue, they were described as the same color as jewelry, in Egypt this could be either gold or blue, as both metals were imported and mined in Ancient Egypt.

My inability to see shades is a problem with the eye structure (cones and rods) as well as a neurological issue about the interpretation of color in my brain. I’m not color blind, I’m shade deficient. Strong colors overpower the “shades” of lesser colors. Impressionist art is my nemesis. Those paintings are like those hidden pictures that have to be seen with relaxed eyes. Monet and Renoir are the worst in my opinion, their dependency on shading using mostly pastels makes my brain short circuit as I struggle to decipher the green and blue blobs. This deficiency is why I hate most art, just FYI.

Oh, the Middle Ages and the sudden appearance of the color blue. Medieval literature suddenly contains references to the color blue. The sky is blue during the day. Clean water is blue during the day. Several important things happened during this time, one being The Black Death. The plague that swept Europe during the early Middle Ages was a highly contagious form of bubonic plague. It killed off more than half the population of Europe. We often forget to mention that it started in Asia and killed about a third of Asia’s population.

One cannot ignore the influence this massive human bottleneck in genetics had on later populations. There were fewer genetic mutations in the human genome being spread around. So it is possible that whatever gene prohibited the ancients from seeing the color blue was eradicated by the Black Death.

And there was Genghis Khan. We think he was born around 1162 CE and died in 1227 CE. We don’t have a firm birth date for him, just an approximation. Same with his death. Roughly, 0.5% of the world’s current male population is descended from Genghis. This doesn’t seem like much, until you start to realize that means during the 1300s, the percentage was probably much higher. It isn’t impossible that some mutation in Genghis’s genes were responsible for the sudden appearance of the color blue. And as his genes became more and more diluted by breeding with people not related to him, the genes were passed to more and more descendents. It’s nearly impossible to guess how much of the world’s female population is descended from Genghis Khan, but again, in the 1300s it would have been a significant amount. Making it not impossible that Genghis Khan’s prolific breeding played a role in the arrival of the color blue.

However, humanity has also undergone several “big bang of the brain” events during the course of human history. Since color is both a physical and mental understanding, it seems plausible that some sudden expansion of the brain’s capabilities made the color blue happen in fairly recent times (700 years ago is really the blink of an eye in historical terms). We don’t know what triggers these sudden expansions of brain capabilities, we only see it much later. I’ve heard that the last 150 years of human history, may in 500 years be another such “big bang of the brain” event as we have more than quadrupled our technological achievements in the last 150 years, compared to the slow progress made in the centuries before it. In 1869, it took 8-10 hours to travel 60 miles by horse and we can now do it in under an hour by car (in 1929 the Duesenberg Model J could travel up to 73 mph and was the fastest car of the time that wasn’t a race car, it was popular enough that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote one into the possession of Jay Gatsby in the Great Gatsby).

That last part does influence my thoughts on the color blue. If, as some suspect, we are experiencing a “big bang of the brain” event, it is possible that in 100 years, people will be asking why we didn’t write about Color X, a color that none of us have ever seen, because our brains can’t interpret the color as it stands now.

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