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Shades of Euripides: the Use of Colour Terms in Staging Ancient Plays

Melissa Funke

The range of colour terms used in archaic Greek poetry was quite limited, leading to Gladstone’s infamous conclusion that the Greeks of Homer’s time must have been colour-blind (1858). The spectrum of colour terms used by the tragic poets was similarly small, with an emphasis on the contrast between light and dark and a smaller number of words for hues that correspond to our conceptions of “red”, “yellow”, “purple”, “blue”, and “green”. The playwrights applied colour terms to props and costumes visible to the audience (e.g. the tapestry called porphureos by Clytemnestra at Agamemnon 910), but also used them, often for metaphorical purposes, in describing offstage action (e.g. the black- and white-tailed eagles from Agamemnon 115-17).

This paper examines Euripides’ use of colour vocabulary that falls into the category that we label “hues”, with special focus on terms that relate to the three primary colours (e.g. kuaneos and xanthos as shades of blue and yellow, respectively), and makes suggestions for future stagings of Greek tragedy based on this study. I shall begin by briefly relating the history of the study of colour terms in Greek poetry, from Goethe (1810) to Irwin’s landmark study (1974), with special attention to the distinction between the use of colour terms in ancient Greek and their use in modern English. I shall then look at Greek terms for hue as they appear in Euripides’ plays. In this section, I shall note any differences in how Euripides uses these terms, whether metaphorically, in descriptions of what is offstage, or in describing what is actually visible on stage. For example, Euripides uses the term xanthos three times in Iphigenia at Tauris to describe human hair, once of a vision in a dream (52), once of blood-soaked locks on an onstage altar (173), and once of the hair of a character who appears on stage (173). In the first case it is used to anthropomorphize a house, in the second to set an exotic and gory scene, and in the third to describe Iphigenia in a conventionally youthful and feminine way.

Should a modern production of Iphigenia at Tauris respond to these uses of xanthos? How should it go about doing this? In the final section of this paper, I shall make recommendations for the use of colour in costuming, sets, lighting, and props based on the conclusions I have reached from my study of Euripides’ texts. Ultimately, I shall suggest that the use of hue in performance ought to be considered as an integral aspect of staging as a means of engaging with the ancient texts of Greek tragedies that is immediately accessible to a modern audience.

Session/Panel Title

Color in Ancient Drama in Performance

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