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February 15, 2017

Messages in Saffron: A case study of colour and epithet in Greek literature

Of the many epithets prevalent in Homer’s Iliad, krokopeplos is used consistently and exclusively to describe the dawn goddess, Eos. This is not particularly surprising as krokos was a dyestuff made from saffron, which produced a bright golden yellow not unlike a dawning sun that might deepen to a dark but vibrant orange (reminiscent perhaps of sunset), depending on the method of dyeing. These golden yellow colours have been associated with Eos from a very early origin; there is linguistic evidence that the Greek goddess Eos was an incarnation of a very old Indo-European goddess-type (Bremmer & Erskine, 2010: pp2-3). Etymologically, she is connected with *Haéusos, a proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, who is the ancestor of the Sanskrit Ushas, Old Indian Usas and Proto Germanic Austro, all of whom also hold associations with a golden yellow colour – in fact, *Haéusos, who is also the ancestor of the Roman Aurora, is the etymological root of the latin aurum, which of course, also means gold.

Clearly then, a connection between this goddess and the saffron-yellow colour is one of some considerable heritage. However, while the epithet krokopeplos appears consistently across the Iliad, it is absent in its entirety from the Odyssey. In its place, Eos is described as chrusothronos, an epithet traditionally translated as golden-throned.

Typically, the use of chrusos in literature is used to describe the metal gold itself, rather than objects of a similar colour, which appears to tie with the translation of this term as a throne fashioned of gold. However, Scheid and Svenbro argue convincingly that chrusothronos is in fact mistranslated, and forms an alternative iteration of krokopeplos. In an examination of the use of thronos, they suggest that this is not the masculine form meaning ‘throne’, but the feminine, throna (Scheid & Svenbro, 1996: pp53-6). This, according to Kleitarchos in the scholia of Theocritus (2.59), has the meaning ‘woven designs’ or ‘flowered clothes’, and Hesychius also defines throna as ‘woven designs of varied colours’. This interpretation is far more suitable for the poikilethronos which is described of Aphrodite in Sappho’s first Ode, where a ‘richly worked throne’ transforms into ‘robed in a cloak with rich floral designs’ (Sappho, frag 1.1; Wagner-Hasel (2002): pp23). This robe is described in the Cypria, where the Graces and the Seasons are described creating a robe decorated and dyed ‘with the flowers of spring’. Notably, one of these flowers was the crocus (from which saffron is derived)(Athenaeus, 15.682e-f, Cypria 4; Scheid & Svenbro, 1996: pp57).

The same argument applies to the epithet chrusothronos, where we might now understand the term to refer to ‘a robe of golden flowers,’ or to condense the phrase further, dyed with them. The goddess Eos, is described as chrusothronos throughout the Odyssey in the same patterns as she appeared with krokopeplos in the Iliad, for example as Athena prompts Odysseus to wake and speak with his wife Penelope:

αὐτίκ᾽ ἀπ᾽ Ὠκεανοῦ χρυσόθρονον ἠριγένειαν

ὦρσεν, ἵν᾽ ἀνθρώποισι φόως φέροι:

… straightway she roused from Oceanus [golden-throned/golden-robed] Dawn to bring light to men; (Homer, Odyssey 23.347)

This demonstrates a clear interchangeability between these two terms, chrusothronos and krokopeplos.

With this exchange in mind, we might turn to re-examine other uses of chrusothronos. Elsewhere in both Greek literature and material culture, there is a deliberate and almost exclusive use of this colour in association with women, particularly those who are associated with fertility and life, as is the case with Eos (Barber, 1992: pp116). Another goddess who is given the appellation chrusothronos is Hera, who is described at the end of book one climbing into her marriage bed with Zeus:

ἔνθα καθεῦδ᾽ ἀναβάς, παρὰ δὲ χρυσόθρονος Ἥρη.

Going up to the bed he slept, Hera of the [golden throne/golden robe] beside him.

(Iliad 1.611)

Naturally, Hera is one of the prime Olympian candidates for the association between the colour gold and femininity, because her domain as goddess encompassed the protection of women during the wedding, and then also her subsequent role as wife. It should also be noted that krokos coloured materials were commonly used as part of the bridal ensemble. We can see this colour association used in action in Pindar’s first Nemean Ode, when Hera expresses her dominance as the legitimate wife of Zeus, over Alcmena:

ὡς οὐ λαθὼν χρυσόθρονον
Ἥραν κροκωτὸν σπάργανον ἐγκατέβα:

ἐκ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἄτλατον δέος
πλᾶξε γυναῖκας, ὅσαι τύχον Ἀλκμήνας ἀρήγοισαι λέχει:
καὶ γὰρ αὐτά, ποσσὶν ἄπεπλος ὀρούσαισ᾽ ἀπὸ στρωμνᾶς, ὅμως ἄμυνεν ὕβριν κνωδάλων.

…he did not escape the notice of [gold-throned/golden robed] Hera when he was placed in his saffron swaddling-clothes

Unbearable fear
struck the women who were then helping Alcmena at her bedside; for she herself leapt to her feet from her bed, unrobed as she was, and tried to ward off the violent attack of the monsters. (Pindar, Nemean 1.37-50)

This passage describes the myth of Hercules strangling the serpents sent by Hera upon her discovery of his birth. What is significant for us is that Hera is described as chrusothronos, or golden-robed, as she takes note of the baby, who is the product of her husband’s infidelity. Alcmena, in turn, is transfixed with fear, and is described as apeplos – she is therefore without the requisite golden robe which in this situation denotes legitimacy as a wife of Zeus (Scheid & Svenbro, 1996: pp73). By the presence of the golden-coloured robe, therefore, we see a clear divide between the official bride and the mistress. Interestingly, the baby Hercules is swaddled in saffron clothes, both because he is here only a baby and therefore a symbol of the procreation of women, but also because he is Alcmena’s only claim to a union with Zeus.

In this example, we have explored how the colourful epithets applied to characters in even the most canonical literature can enhance our understanding of the messages being communicated through the text itself. Our golden-yellow saffron, then, can provide for us a deeper view of the way in which these epithets could carry meaning from colour associations established within ancient Greek culture.


Barber, E.J. (1992) ‘The Peplos of Athena’ in Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens, edited by J. Neils; Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Bremmer, J.N. & Erskine, A. eds. (2010) The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations; Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Scheid, J. & Svenbro, J. (1996) The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric, translated by C. Volk; Harvard University Press, Massachusetts.

Wagner-Hasel, B. (2002) ‘The Graces and Colour Weaving’ in Women’s Dress in the Ancient Greek World, ed. Llewellyn-Jones, L.; Duckworth, London.

Vicky Jewell is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick, supervised by Dr Zahra Newby and Dr Michael Scott. Her research explores communication through colour in Ancient Greek literature and material culture. Please contact with any questions at:

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