Did The Color Blue Exist In Ancient Times? An Investigation

Researchers have found a distinct absence of mentions of blue in ancient texts, but does that mean the color didn't exist?

man wearing a toga standing in front of ancient Greece pick-uppath / Getty Images via Canva

It’s hard to imagine a world without the color blue. What would come of the skies and the oceans? And what about people born with blue eyes?

A TikTok account called Psychopoly raised the question of whether blue existed in ancient times, based on the research of former British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who held the role four separate times during the years 1868–1874, 1880–1885, 1886, and 1892–1894.


After reading Greek poet Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, Gladstone wondered why there was no mention of the color blue. He was intrigued to notice Homer describing things a modern person would expect to see as blue in terms that would suggest a different color to us now, such as “wine-dark sea.”

After counting all references to color in the poem, Gladstone also noted the color black was mentioned almost 200 times and white about 100, while red appeared less than 15 times, yellow and green showed up fewer than 10, and there was not a single mention of blue.

Searching through other ancient Greek texts, Gladstone found the same pattern, leading him to suggest that perhaps Greeks may have been color-blind, living in a humdrum world, free of vibrant color and covered in black, white, and metallics, with a red or yellow glimpse here and there.


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Did the color blue exist in ancient times?

The answer seems to depend on who you ask, as well as what you consider evidence of a color's existence.

Around the same time period, philologist Lazarus Geiger decided to test Gladstone's theory across other cultures. After pouring through sagas from Iceland, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, Hindu Vedic hymns, and the Hebrew bible, he determined the color blue did not appear in any of the writings.


“These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines," he wrote, "are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently... The sun and reddening dawn's play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolding before us, again and again... but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs... and that is that the sky is blue."

However, words for blue did appear in languages of some ancient cultures.

Despite Geiger's findings, languages from several ancient cultures did have words for the color blue.

  • Ancient Chinese used the word Qīng as "the traditional designation of both blue and green," and the word lán to refer to the dye of the indigo plant.
  • Ancient Egyptian used the word wadjet to describe a range of hues including blue, blue-green, and green. They also used the word wedjet for the shade of blue used in faience ceramics. The people actively incorporated blue into temples, sarcophagi, burial vaults, sculpture, art, jewelry, and more.
  • Ancient Greek had the words γλαυκός (glaukós) for clear light blue or turquoise (often used to describe Athena's eyes) and κυανός (kuanós) for dark blue or green.
  • In the Hindu Vedas, the Sanskrit word nila is used to describe the feathers of a peacock (used in many religious ceremonies), as well as the dark hue of a snake’s back and the deep sea." The word however, is often used interchangeably with black, so there is some debate as to whether ot not it really means blue.

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Mentions of the color blue appear in the bible and the Quran.

While Gladstone and Geiger may not have recognized them, the color blue does appear in these two ancient texts.

Blue in the Bible

The text of the Hebrew bible includes several mentions of the color blue, including references to sapphire stone and tekhelet, sometimes referred to as "biblical blue". In biblical symbolism, blue represents the heavens and the healing power of God.

Tekhelet, named for the cerulean mussel from which dye in this color is obtained, is the color God commands the Israelites to use for the wool tassels they are instructed to hang from the four corners of their prayer shawls. The word is mentioned 49 times throughout the text.

Some notable verses in which blue is mentioned include:

  • Exodus 24:10: “and they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity."
  • Numbers 15:38: “Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner."
  • Ezekiel 1:26: "And above the expanse that was over their heads, like the appearance of a sapphire stone, was the likeness of a throne, and on the likeness of the throne, was a likeness like the appearance of a man upon it above."
  • Esther 8:15: "And Mordecai left the king's presence with royal raiment, blue and white and a huge golden crown and a wrap of linen and purple, and the city of Shushan shouted and rejoiced."

Blue in the Quran

The Quran mentions the color blue once. In Surah Ta-Ha 20:102, it says, "The day when the Trumpet shall be sounded and we shall muster the sinners, their eyes turned blue with terror."

Modern studies have found additional instances of languages lacking a word for the color blue.

In 2006, psychologist Jules Davidoff conducted an experiment with the Himba tribe in Namibia. As was the case in other ancient cultures, she found that the Himba lacked a word to describe the color blue.

Davidoff showed participants in her study a circle featuring 11 green squares and one blue square. She learned that members of the tribe had difficulty telling the difference between the two colors. However, when shown a different circle in which the blue square was replaced with a lighter green color, they were able to easily identify the color of that light green square.

Human perception of color has changed overtime.


We have evolved from seeing only how light or dark colors are to differentiating between tones and hues, developing what is known as the hierarchy of color names. This change in perception is not due to any physical change in the human eye, but rather to changes in our cultures and languages. As we come to associate certain colors with certain meanings, our perception of those colors also changes.

Several languages first used words for black and white. Next came red, the color of wine and of blood. Yellow was next and then green, although there are languages where the color green preceded yellow. Blue was the last of the primary colors to be added to many languages.

This may be because blue is a relatively rare color in nature, and it was not until humans developed the ability to create blue pigments that it became more widely used.



The lack of the term “blue” in ancient texts does not necessarily mean the color itself did not exist, but rather that the cultures at the time did not have a specific word for it or perceive it in the same way that we do today. It is also important to keep in mind that the perception of color is subjective, and what one person sees as blue may be seen as a different color by another person.

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NyRee Ausler is a writer from Seattle, Washington, and author of seven books. She covers lifestyle and entertainment and news, as well as navigating the workplace and social issues.