Bronze sky thinking

Like a lot of people this year, I have looked to indoor hobbies as a distraction. Recently I have been experimenting with gel plate monotype printing which is a cheap, simple and very addictive form of print making. Paint (I am using acrylics designed for lino printing) is spread on to a rubber block, textures and positive and negative reliefs can be added, and then paper is placed over the plate, rubbed firmly with a hand or the back of a spoon, to produce a one-of-a-kind image.

I have been making templates from thin card to add figures and landscapes to my prints and this week cut out a stylised version of the Athenian skyline, with the Acropolis and Parthenon centre stage. I sent some photos of the results to my mum, who, as well as being my co-author on our collaborative blog (read it here) is an artist, and drawing and painting in to gel plate prints is one of the mediums she uses in her work.

One of the images I sent was of the black template, covered in some purple paint, against the cardboard background I was using to protect my work surface. My mum commented that the purple and black contrasted well with the yellowy brown tones of the cardboard and I should perhaps give that colour combination a try.

I studied Classics (Ancient Greek and Roman archaeology, art and literature) at university and there was something about a yellow sky that set a buzzer of recognition off in my brain. That evening I got out my copy of Homer’s The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson, and there it was at the start of Book 3:

Leaving the Ocean’s streams, the Sun leapt up

into the sky of bronze, to shine his light

for gods and mortals on the fertile earth.

The sky of bronze. This description appears twice more in Homer, on both occasions in the Illiad, and also in a number of other ancient sources. There are, as with all things we can have no definitive answer for, a variety of competing scholarly views as to why this unusual colour choice was made.

One theory focuses on Homer as an individual (which is controversial in itself, but that’s a discussion for another time) positing that the poet was colour blind, or in some other way visually impaired, and had never accurately seen the things that he describes. Supporters of this argument point, as supporting evidence, to other Homeric colour ‘errors’, such as references to the sea as ‘wine coloured’. But how does this explain the use of the phrase ‘sky of bronze’ or ‘bronze sky’ by different writers? Proponents of this theory contend that the repetition of the error is a stylistic deference, a homage to Homer, or an attempt by later poets to be viewed in comparable terms.

Another, rather tenuous theory, extends the colour blindness beyond Homer to all ancient people, proposing that, at this stage in human evolution, our retinas, the part of our eye that allows us to see colour, were not fully developed. If this were the case, it is suggested, tone and shade would be more important, with a bright sky and shiny metal appearing to be the same.

A third theory swaps physical differences for linguistic limitations, arguing that it was not the case that the ancient Greeks were unable to see the colour blue, but rather that they had no unique word for it. Studies of the development of language have indicated that words for colour emerge in a universal order across cultures; black and white first, then red, followed by green and yellow and lastly blue. We name things in the order of priority, so the theory goes, and colour is predominantly used as a descriptive differentiator between similar items. With few things in the natural world being blue in colour, it is enough, at least at initially, to refer to a blue object by its name and not its colour.

A variation of this theory suggests that when Homer uses the word ‘bronze’ he means ‘blue’, or to put it another way, that the word for bronze was the same as the word for blue. Supporters of this argument point out that when bronze weathers it can become bluish green and therefore it may not be too much of a stretch to equate the two.

Then there are the literal interpretations. If we look at what is actually being said in the Odyssey, Book 2 ends with nightfall, Book 3 starts with the dawn of a new day. The sun is rising and at sunrise, particularly with low clouds, the sky will be very yellow, or orange, or gold, or bronze. The two references in the Illiad are not so helpful to this line of reasoning, both occurring during battle scenes and seemingly not at dawn, although the first (Book 5 line 504) speaks of dust, stirred up by horses hooves, being thrown in to the air which, it can be imagined, would cause a darkening of the sky and, depending on the type of soil or sand, could well be bronze in colour. Some have taken this dust theory further to suggest that the ancient sky did seem bronze, and not just in temporary instances, but for years as a result of volcanic eruptions.

The final theory I will explore here, and the one that will appeal most to writers and other creatives, is that to say the sky is bronze is simply being poetically fancy. It is not a literal statement at all. When we consider this option a whole range of reasons for connoting the sky with bronze become apparent. Bronze can be an epithet to mean bright or flawless, a sky without clouds. Bronze can be a metaphor: when worked by hand and beaten in to shapes it is often covered in hammered divots, a similar pattern to a mackerel cloud sky. Bronze formed in this way would be used for breastplates and it is easy to draw a poetic line between the protective arc of the sky and curved armour. Taking the analogy further, bronze, as a metal and valuable substance in the ancient world, has associations with royalty and gods, gods who dwell in the winds, in the sun, in storms, in the sky. To say that the sky is bronze is to say that it is godly. The word bronze can also be used to denote not only a physical attribute but an emotion, as pathetic fallacy to describe the sky as cold, unfeeling, imperious. This latter poetic device is one that has clearly appealed to some translators of Homer, who replace the word bronze, particularly in the Illiad, with ‘brazen’.

Whichever theory speaks most strongly to you, I think it can be agreed that a bronze sky is much more interesting than a blue one, and it looks good when printed!

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