Thursday 20 February 2014

Colour as Synaesthetic Experience in Antiquity

^ "The Wine-Dark Sea" by Randall Stoltzfus (2004)

Dr Mark Bradley writes for us about the broad range of allusive meanings and sensory references mixed up in the delightfully metaphoric & inconstant nature of colour description in the ancient world.

"Colour is about more than just lightwaves hitting the retina. In ancient philosophical circles, colour was often described as the primary object of vision: it was the external ‘skin’ that existed at the surface of an object, and what made the object visible or ‘sensible’ to a viewer. And yet, Greek and Roman literature is riddled with examples of colour categories that do not make sense simply in visual terms: from Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ to ‘whey-coloured’ skin in ancient medicine, from blushing faces to the honey-coloured hair and marbled skin of coveted girls in Augustan elegy, and from the saffron garments of decadent easterners to the expensive fishy-smelling purple robes of the late-antique imperial court, colours appealed not just to sight, but also to smell, touch and taste. This essay suggests that colours in pre-modern societies such as Greece and Rome, because of their close ties to specific objects and phenomena (rather than just parts of the spectrum), were frequently synaesthetic experiences which appealed to multiple senses and mobilized more than just eyesight. Colour was a basic unit of sensory information through which ancients experienced and evaluated the world around them, and the collaboration of the senses in these experiences suggests an approach to perception, knowledge and understanding that could be very different from that employed in the modern west."

Please either use the embedded reader below or click HERE to read the text.

Reproduced with the permission of Acumen Publishing from S. Butler and A. Purves (eds) (2013) Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses (‘The Senses in Antiquity’ series, volume I). Durham: Acumen. See

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