Blue: Story Of The Color That Didn't Exist Until Recently

Would you believe if we told you humans didn’t actually see the colour blue until modern times?

This was a phenomenon William Gladstone, former PM of the UK, discovered in 1858 while studying Homer’s ‘Odessey’. He noticed that there were detailed descriptions of everything – clothing, weaponry, facial features, armour – but no mentions of the colour ‘blue’ anywhere. In fact, there were few mentions of colour at all. And in those few places where it was mentioned, it was quite strange; violet sheep and metal, green honey, wine-dark seas...

Curious, Gladstone decided to study other ancient Greek texts to see if this was a ‘Greek’ thing, or just a Homer thing. Homer’s descriptions of ‘wine-dark seas’ and violet metal could just as easily be an attempt to evoke a particular imagery, or emotion, right?

But anyway, Gladstone studied many other ancient Greek texts and eventually came to the same conclusion. Colours, apart from black and white, were mentioned fewer that fifty times total in the Odessey, and the other Greek texts followed the same theme. There were no mentions of ‘blue’ at all.

A man named Lazarus Geiger (1829 – 1870) was curious about these findings too; now that it had been established that it was indeed a ‘Greek’ thing and not just a ‘Homer’ thing, the next question was whether or not this was limited to just the Greeks. So, he studied the texts of various other cultures – Hebrew, Hindu, Icelandic, Korean, Chinese – and found the same thing. No mentions of blue. There were the reds and oranges of sunsets, the green of leaves, but no blue water or blue skies. It was like our ancestors straight up didn’t see ‘blue’ at all. Geiger actually has a theory that links the development of colour vision to the development of langauge, which is worth a read.

The only ancient culture that could see ‘blue’ (on record) were the Egyptians. In fact, ‘Egyptian Blue’ (which you probably know by its European name, ‘Cerulean’) is probably the first synthetically produced pigment ever, having been made back in 2200 BC.