The first mention of blue
“And now have I put in here, as thou seest, with ship and crew, while sailing over the wine-dark sea to men of strange speech, on my way to Temese for copper; and I bear with me shining iron.” Homer – The Odyssey
In all the works of Homer there is no mention of the word blue – instead he describes the ocean as wine dark. This choice of description extends to other ancient civilisations too, from the Hebrew bible to ancient Chinese text, there is no mention or reference to the word blue, whereas black, white, red, yellow and green are mentioned countless times. Why, when colour vision was developed in humans 30 million years ago is this the case?
When linguists analysed this, they found out that in every culture, black and white make there appearance first. They are followed by red, yellow and finally green before blue as a descriptive word enters a given language. There are some strong reasons for this. As black and white distinguish between night and day they initially were the most useful words potentially explaining why they came first. Next, red with its connotation of blood and danger from self wound or the hunting of animals. Early cave paintings are brushed with red pigment. Finally green and yellow taught us to distinguish between ripe and unripe foods. But blue, although notably present in the nature world to us, did not enter our consciousness in the same way until much later.
Blue in Nature
Blue is seemingly everywhere, from clear skies, vast oceans, to tropical birds feathers and flickering butterflies. But are they as they seem? As light refracts across a butterfly or the wings of a bird it is distorted giving our eyes the illusion of blue. The colour is not set. The waters of our oceans are clear as is our air until light works its magic by bouncing through our thin atmosphere and creating a “blue” hue. True blue is very rare and its pigment comes from a leaf first cultivated in India – Indigo.
Experts mostly agree that we began to see blue as a colour when we started making blue pigments around 6000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians loved the the colour blue and used Lapis – a stone mined in Afghanistan mixed with limestone and other ingredients to produce saturated blue pigments. They were the only ancient culture to develop a word for blue before passing on their knowledge to other cultures in the region. However the dye was so expensive that blue remained rare for many centuries. The word started slowly spreading.
It wasn’t until the cultivation of Indigo in Asia and Africa and Woad in Europe that blue started to become more common – indigo being the stronger and more vivid pigment. Until synthesised in the 1900’s it is remarkable that a small green leaf is responsible for all the blue we see now.
Do you remember flash cards when you were learning at school? The teacher would hold up a colour and get you to say it. This process of learning has conditioned us to look for and recognise colours more stronger than we naturally would. Nursery rhymes and other songs sing the greatness of blue and have forever cemented it as the most popular and adored colour of them all.
Lilly and Tom of Kiiro love Indigo and passionately maintain their own indigo dye vats, producing garments and fabrics in true natural blue. From napkins and runners to adorn your table, to natural fabrics such as silk and linen turned into beautiful garments, we cannot get enough of Blue.