Traces of Synaesthesia in Antiquity
In general, sounds and colours involve two different senses of perception: sounds are heard, whereas colours are seen. Yet in rare cases there seem to be exceptions. An example is the phenomenon known as synaesthesia, which describes a condition where the stimulation of one sense simultaneously triggers a reaction that makes it seem as though a second sense has also been stimulated. The most common example of synaesthesia involves the involuntary connection of colours with sounds – or more precisely, with alphabetical letters that express particular sounds. A famous example is seen in the sonnet Voyelles (“Vowels”), composed by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91) in 1871/2:
A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu, voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes.
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombillent autour des puanteurs cruelles,
Golfes d’ombre; E, candeur des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombelles;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes;
U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides
Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;
O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges:
— O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux!
In George J. Dance’s 2015 translation this reads:
Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O: you vowels,
Some day I’ll tell the tale of where your mystery lies:
Black A, a jacket formed of hairy, shiny flies
That buzz among harsh stinks in the abyss’s bowels;
White E, the white of kings, of moon-washed fogs and tents,
Of fields of shivering chervil, glaciers’ gleaming tips;
Red I, magenta, spat-up blood, the curl of lips
In laughter, hatred, or besotted penitence;
Green U, vibrating waves in viridescent seas,
Or peaceful pastures flecked with beasts – furrows of peace
Imprinted on our brows as if by alchemies;
Blue O, great Trumpet blaring strange and piercing cries
Through Silences where Worlds and Angels pass crosswise;
Omega, O, the violet brilliance of Those Eyes!
Rimbaud is not alone in this: his slightly older contemporary Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) also explores this kind of experience, most famously in his poem Correspondances, which was first published in his collection Les Fleurs du Mal (“The Flowers of Evil”) in 1857. The painter Wassily Kandinsky (1886–1944) also experienced synaesthesia, as is well documented; this inspired some of his most famous paintings, which attempt to capture the effect of music.
More importantly for us as Classicists, Mark Bradley draws our attention to a similar but much shorter passage written in around AD 180 by the Roman author Aulus Gellius. In a chapter of his Attic Nights, he describes the letter ‘H’ as viridior (a comparative form from the adjective viridis that may be translated expansively as “more intense in the colour that also denotes the greenness of plants”):
H litteram, sive illam spiritum magis quam litteram dici oportet, inserebant eam veteres notri plerisque vocibus verborum firmandis roborandisque, ut sonus earum esset viridior vegetiorque.
The letter H, or it may be more appropriate to name it aspiration than letter, our forefathers introduced it to strengthen and reinforce the pronunciation of many words, so that their sounds may be fresher and more vivid. (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 2.3.1; tr. J. C. Rolfe (1946) slightly adapted)
Although Aulus Gellius provides only one example, we have some evidence that it was common in those days to use this sort of formula to speak about sounds and letters. Even Aristotle (384–322 BC), whose surviving philosophical reflections on senses do not include such synaesthetic experiences, acknowledges that colours and sounds may often be designated with the same terms. As examples he uses the adjectives “white” (λευκός, leukos) and “black” (μέλας, melas):
φωνὴ γὰρ λευκὴ καὶ μέλαινα λέγεται, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ χρῶμα. τοῖς μὲν οὖν ὀνόμασιν οὐδὲν διαφωνεῖ· τῷ δ’ εἴδει κατάδηλος ἐν αὐτοῖς εὐθέως ἡ διαφορά· οὐ γὰρ ὁμοίως τό τε χρῶμα λευκὸν λέγεται καὶ ἡ φωνή. δῆλον δὲ τοῦτο καὶ διὰ τῆς αἰσθήσεως· τῶν γὰρ αὐτῶν τῷ εἴδει ἡ αὐτὴ αἴσθησις, τὸ δὲ λευκὸν τὸ ἐπὶ τῆς φωνὴ καὶ τοῦ χρῶματος οὐ τῇ αὐτῇ αἰσθήσει κρίνουμεν, ἀλλὰ τὸ μὲν ὄψει τὸ δὲ ἀκοῇ.
For sound is said to be “white” and “black”, as is colour too. Indeed, on the level of the words, there is no discrepancy, but the difference in their kind is immediately obvious; for the colour is not called “white” in the same way as is the sound. This is evident also through sense-perception. For the same sense-perception is stimulated by things of the same kind, and we do not judge the whiteness of the sound with the same sense-perception as the one of the colour, but we judge the former by sight and the latter by hearing. (Aristotle, Topics, Book 1, 106a 25–30, tr. E.S. Forster (1960), slightly adapted)
In rhetorical contexts such uses are indeed common: high-quality oratory is often compared to a colourful picture in which the artist skilfully combines his pigments to captivate his viewers and evoke a wide range of emotions in them. One telling example comes from Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek scholar from the Augustan era (second half of the 1st century BC) who lived at around the same time as the Roman orator and statesman Cicero (106–43 BC). In one of his works, on the literary qualities of Thucydides, he attributes appropriate “colour” to the historian’s finest passages of writing:
ὑπὲρ ἁπάσας δὲ τὰς ἐν ταῖς ἑπτὰ βύβλοις φερομένας τὴν Πλαταιέων ἀπολογίαν τεθαύμακα παρ᾽ οὐδὲν οὕτως ἕτερον ὡς τὸ μὴ βεβασανίσθαι μηδὲ κατεπιτετηδεῦσθαι, ἀληθεῖ δέ τινι καὶ φυσικῷ κεκοσμῆσθαι χρώματι. τά τε γὰρ ἐνθυμήματα πάθους ἐστὶ μεστὰ καὶ ἡ λέξις οὐκ ἀποστρέφουσα τὰς ἀκοάς· ἥ τε γὰρ σύνθεσις εὐεπὴς καὶ τὰ σχήματα τῶν πραγμάτων ἴδια.
Above all speeches transmitted in the seven books, it is the apology of the Plataeans that I admire most, for nothing else than because of its lack of anything unnatural and artificial and because it is adorned with truth and with a natural colour. For the arguments are full of feelings and its diction does not distort the listening. For the composition is melodious and the figures of speech are adapted to the content. (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Thucydides §42; tr. S. Usher (1974) slightly adapted)
But what do these rhetorical ruminations on colours and sounds have in common with Odysseus and his brilliant rhetoric skills in the Homeric poems?
Odysseus’ Oratorical Skills in the Iliad
Most prominently, the hero’s talents are described in a well-known simile from Book 3 of the Iliad. In this passage, Odysseus’ speech is compared with the snowflakes of a winter storm:
ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ πολύμητις ἀναΐξειεν Ὀδυσσεύς
στάσκεν, ὑπαὶ δὲ ἴδεσκε κατὰ χθονὸς ὄμματα πήξας,
σκῆπτρον δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ὀπίσω οὔτε προπρηνὲς ἐνώμα,
ἀλλ᾽ ἀστεμφὲς ἔχεσκεν ἀίδρεϊ φωτὶ ἐοικώς·
φαίης κε ζάκοτόν τέ τιν᾽ ἔμμεναι ἄφρονά τ᾽ αὔτως.
ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ ὄπα τε μεγάλην ἐκ στήθεος ἵει
καὶ ἔπεα νιφάδεσσιν ἐοικότα χειμερίῃσιν,
οὐκ ἂν ἔπειτ᾽ Ὀδυσῆί γ᾽ ἐρίσσειε βροτὸς ἄλλος.
But when the astute Odysseus arose, he stood still and looked down, directing his eyes towards the ground. He moved his staff neither backwards nor forwards, but held it immobile like an ignorant man. One would have said he was thoroughly offensive, and merely a fool. But when he let out his voice from his breast, and uttered words like the snowflakes of a winter storm, then no other human could compete with Odysseus. (Iliad 3.216–23, my translation)
In the Homeric text of the Iliad, this simile is in fact the second part of a longer passage where Odysseus is compared to Menelaos. It comes from a verbal report given by Antenor, one of the Trojan counsellors of King Priam, who recalls his first encounter with the two heroes. Early in the decade-long Trojan War, Menelaos and Odysseus went to Troy as envoys to reclaim Helena from the Trojans. Each hero delivered a speech skilfully presenting their request to the Trojans.
It is not this episode that is narrated in Book 3 of the Iliad, but Antenor’s memories of this exchange. He remembers indeed that Menelaos’ speech was fluent (ἐπιτροχάδην, epitrochadēn), and clear (λιγέως, ligeōs). It was also concise (παῦρα, paura) so that it allowed the hero to get straight to the point (οὐκ ἀγαμαρτοεπής, ouk agamartoepēs) without being verbose (οὐ πολύμυθος, ou polumūthos). The aforementioned simile, by contrast, is Antenor’s way of characterising Odysseus’ overwhelming oratorical talents in comparison to Menelaos’ performance.
The passage has been singled out for discussion by ancient commentators, especially in the context of rhetoric treatises. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian (writing in the late 1st cent. AD) used the Homeric heroes to characterise the three ancient rhetoric styles, the so-called genera dicendi. In a passage from Book 10 of his Institutes of Oratory, Quintilian explains that Menelaos represented the “low style” (genus humile), whereas Odysseus is associates with the “high style” (genus sublime). For the third style, the intermediary “middle style” (genus medium), Quintilian names Nestor, the old, wise adviser of the Achaeans troops, to complete his comparison. For this, he adduces a further passage from Book 1 of the Iliad where Nestor’s oratory skills are praised:
|Iliad 3.213-15||Menelaos||low style (genus humile)|
|Iliad 1.247-9||Nestor||middle style (genus medium)|
|Iliad 3.216-23||Odysseus||high style (genus sublime)|
Odysseus’ Eloquence and the Colour White
The marginal commentaries and explanatory notes in some mediaeval manuscripts of Homer preserve ‘scholia’ (commentators’ notes) which enable us to read ancient scholars’ attempts to elucidate the Homeric simile from Book 3 of the Iliad.
One of these explanatory notes is of considerable interest with regard to the traces of synaesthesia that we seek. It indeed takes account of the colour of snowflakes to explain the simile with which the Homeric text evokes the qualities of Odysseus’ speech. The short comment runs as follows:
νιφάδεσσιν ἐοικότα <χειμερίῃσιν>· ἡ εἰκὼν πρὸς τὸ τάχος, τὸ πλῆθος, τὸ πυκνόν, τὸ σαφές, τὸ λευκὸν τῆς νιφάδος, τὴν φρίκην τῶν ἀκουόντων. καὶ αἱ μὲν χειμέριαι ἁπαλαί, αἱ δὲ ἐαριναὶ ἐκκόπτουσι τοὺς καρπούς.
Like the snowflakes of a winter storm: the simile in regard to the speed, the quantity, the thickness, the clarity, the whiteness of the snow and the trembling of the listeners. Moreover, winter storms are benign, whereas spring storms damage crops. (Scholia [T] on Iliad 3.222)
The comment divides into two sections: the first, longer one is an attempt to explain the first element of the Homeric formula, the snowflakes (νιφάδεσσιν, niphadessin); whereas the much briefer second half concerns the temporal indication “of a winter storm” (χειμερίῃσιν, cheimeriēisin). For present purposes, we may emphasise the first part, since among the items listed to explain the simile we find the whiteness of snowflakes.
Unfortunately, the comment is too short to allow us to understand precisely how the ancient commentator wanted to use the colour white to characterise Odysseus’ speech; at least it obviously concerns the clarity that is mentioned immediately beforehand. All the same, we should not over-emphasise his focus on the “brightness” that may be associated with white snowflakes, since the “whiteness” of the snow is not the principal element in Homer’s simile. The snowflakes are moved by a winter storm that certainly boasts all-encompassing force, but lacks “brightness” in and of itself.
In order to understand the Homeric simile better, we may have to adduce another text, an epigram attributed to Philippos of Thessalonica, who can be approximatively dated to the 1st century AD. In this poem, the colours white and black are used to define two categories of literary production:
Χαίροιθ’, οἱ περὶ κόσμον ἀεὶ πεπλανηκότες ὄμμα
οἵ τ’ ἀπ’ Ἀριστάρχου σῆτες ἀκανθολόγοι.
ποῖ γὰρ ἐμοὶ ζητεῖν, τίνας ἔδραμεν Ἥλιος οἴμους
καὶ τίνος ἦν Πρωτεὺς καὶ τίς ὁ Πυγμαλίων;
γινώσκοιμ’, ὅσα λευκὸν ἔχει στίχον· ἡ δὲ μέλαινα
ἱστορίη τήκοι τοὺς Περικαλλιμάχους.
Farewell to you, who let forever wander your eyes through the universe, and to you bookworms, who since Aristarchus collect thorny subtilities. Where does it lead me to investigate what courses the Sun took, and who was the father of Proteus and who was Pygmalion? Let me recognize all those works that have white verses. But, the dark lore may it destroy the Super-Callimacheans. (Greek Anthology 11.347, tr. W.R. Paton (1918), slightly adapted)
In this poem, a different aspect of the colour white is meant. The literary works the speaker of the poem seeks feature another quality: they should be self-explanatory; their message should be immediately clear, without requiring lengthy, “thorny” researches in order to be understood. The speaker contrasts this kind of literary production against works with demanding topics that may absorb the author’s as well as the listener’s (or reader’s) entire attention.
In this context, the whiteness and blackness of the works represent not clarity versus obscurity, but self-evident intelligibility versus engrossing complexity. “Dark” lore absorbs all the energy and attention of those involved with it, whereas the whiteness of the other kind of literary production represents a kind of power emanating from the words that imprints their meaning immediately upon the mind.
At this point, we may return to Homer’s simile. In the light of this much later epigram, we may better understand the qualities of Odysseus’ speech. Like the “white” lines of verse in the epigram, the winter storm, which steers the snowflakes, possesses an encompassing power – to cover everything with snow. Similarly, Odysseus’ speech has the power to convince his audience at once, by overwhelming his listeners rather than by absorbing their attention.
Alexandra Trachsel is Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Hamburg. Her current research topic focuses on the transmission of knowledge, and she studies ancient quotation practices in imperial miscellanies. Further interests of hers include Homer, Homeric scholarship and its frustratingly fragmentary state of preservation. She has previously written for Antigone about palimpsests.
On colours in general, there is now a large array of studies available. Among the edited volume, these three provide a very broad overview on the current stage of research.
On ancient synaesthesia you may want to start with Shane Butler and Alex Purves (edd.), Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses (Acumen, Durham, 2013).
David Wharton (ed.), A Cultural History of Color in Antiquity (Bloomsbury, London, 2021).
Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed.), Psychologie de la couleur dans le monde gréco-romain, Fondation Hardt, Vandœuvres, 2020).
Marcello Carastro (ed.), L’antiquité en couleurs: catégories, pratiques, représentations, (Jérôme Millon, Grenoble, 2009).
On the ancient treatment of colour perception, see Michaela Sassi, Perceiving Colors, in P. Destrée & P. Murray (edd.), A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2015) 262–73.
For a special focus on colours in Roman Rhetoric, see:
Mark Bradley, Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome (Cambridge UP, 2011).
Arthur Quinn, The Color of Rhetoric, in G. Ueding (ed.), Rhetorik zwischen den Wissenschaften. Geschichte, System, Praxis als Probleme des “Historischen Wörterbuchs der Rhetorik” (Max Niemeyer Verlag, Berlin, 1991) 133–8).
Finally, for the ancient interpretations of the Homeric simile from Book 3 of the Iliad, I quoted Sylvie Perceau, Autour de la tradition du style sublime d’Ulysse: dénotation, connotations, cliché, ou la fortune d’une comparaison homérique, in Sandrine Dubel, Anne-Marie Favreau-Linder & Estelle Oudot (edd.), Homère rhétorique: études de réception antique (Brepols, Turnhout, 2018) 107–20.
|⇧1||See also the description of the phenomenon given by Butler & Purves (2013) 1.|
|⇧2||Arthur Rimbaud, Reliquaire, poésies (Paris, 1891).|
|⇧3||Butler & Purves (2013) 3–5. Charles Baudelaire, Correspondances in Les Fleurs du mal, 1 (Paris. 1857). Baudelaire’s poem can be found here.|
|⇧4||Bradley (2011) 131–2.|
|⇧5||E.g. Cicero, Brutus 87.298 and Cicero, De Oratore 3.96. See Quinn (1991) 133–8 for further examples.|
|⇧6||For a short overview, see G. Calboli s.v. Genera dicendi in Brill’s New Pauly Online for antiquity, and J. Andres s.v. Genera dicendi in Encyclopedia of Early Modern History Online for the later reception.|
|⇧7||For a short overview on all the comments about this Homeric line, see Perceau (2018) 107–20.|
|⇧8||We may briefly note here that in some modern languages the expression “white verses” has yet another meaning. Whereas in English and German a regular metrical but unrhymed line is called “blank verse” (English) or “Blankvers” (German), in French (vers blanc), in Russian (belyi stikh) and Bulgarian (bial stikh) it is called a “white verse” – at least as far as I can tell.|