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The Colour Blue in Antiquity

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Cynthia is an administrator, has a degree in Business, Economics, & History, and is a qualified Hypnotherapist. She loves to write & travel.

Painted ceiling at Medinet Habu temple, Egypt

Painted ceiling at Medinet Habu temple, Egypt

Is your favourite colour blue? If so you are not alone, as a survey by Cheskin, MSI-ITM and CMCD/Visual Symbols Library found that blue was the favourite colour of around 40% of people worldwide. In our modern world it represents calm, serenity, stability, consciousness and intellect.

However, in prehistoric times blue was a colour that our early ancestors could see all around them but one that they could not use in their art. The first pigments used by prehistoric man were made from the natural organic materials they found in the world around them and were known as the earth pigments. They were reds, yellows, browns, blacks and whites made from ochre, ground calcite, charcoal from camp fires and burnt bones.

These early pigments were used to create the magnificent paintings in caves like Lascaux and Rocadour in southern France and the ancient aboriginal rock art in Australia. But although prehistoric man could paint wonderful images of animals, spirits and symbols they did not have a blue pigment, so could not add the sky, the sea or a river to their artwork.

The Earliest Blue Pigments

In early antiquity, the first blue pigments were produced from crushed gemstones such as azurite and lapis lazuli. So valued were these gemstones that an old Persian legend stated that even the sky was blue because the world was supported on a huge chunk of lapis lazuli.

Making these pigments was a very costly exercise as in ancient times lapis lazuli was mined in the high mountain passes of the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan. It then had to be transported great distances by camel train to be traded with the flourishing civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and even deep into Africa.

These mines have been worked for over 6,000 years and are still producing some of the world’s finest lapis lazuli today.

Hathor Column in the Ptolemaic temple of Deir el-Medina still showing blue pigment

Hathor Column in the Ptolemaic temple of Deir el-Medina still showing blue pigment

Importance of Lapis Lazuli in Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians especially loved the vivid deep blue colour of lapis lazuli, which they called hsbd-iryt, and they started to associate it with royalty. It was thought that this special gemstone could help to guide the pharaoh successfully into the afterlife after the death of his mortal body.

The Egyptians also used crushed lapis lazuli as eye makeup. Beads and ornaments made from lapis lazuli have been found in graves dating from pre-dynastic times at Naqada in Egypt and it was to be widely used in jewelry, amulets and religious objects throughout the long history of dynastic Egypt.

Lapis lazuli jewelry has also been found in graves from the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Mehrgarh in Pakistan, and the Caucasus.

Invention of Egyptian Blue

The Ancient Egyptians widened the palette of available colours by starting to invent new pigments for use in their art. They were also the first to use the washing of a pigment to improve its purity and strength.

Around 2500 BC they found a way around having to use really expensive blue pigment made from crushed gemstones by inventing what is known as the world’s first synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue. This clear, bright blue pigment was made by grinding together lime, copper, alkalai and silica and heating it up to around 800-900 degrees centigrade in a furnace.

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The heated mixture was then shaped into small balls of pigment. The Egyptians used it to paint the walls of their temples and tombs and to decorate papyri scrolls. It has the same chemical composition as the naturally occurring mineral cuprorivaite and was also used to make the blue faience the Egyptians loved to use to glaze beads and ushabti.

Blue in Ancient Egyptian Mythology

The use of colour has always been highly symbolic and in ancient Egyptian mythology blue was associated with the sky and the waters. Blue is the colour of the sky and represented the male principle, the sky deities, and the gods of heaven.

The depths of the deep blue waters represented the female principle and the deeper, hidden mysteries of life. It was believed that the very hair of the Egyptian gods was made from vivid blue lapis lazuli.

The great Theban god Amen was known as the hidden one and he could change the colour of his skin to blue so that he would be rendered invisible as he flew across the sky. Blue was associated with life and rebirth as the world was said to have risen from waters of the primeval floods on the day that the sun rose for the very first time.

New Technique for Detecting Egyptian Blue on Monuments

Production of Egyptian blue spread to Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece and Rome. The Romans built factories to produce the blue pigment they knew as ‘caeruleum’. As we wander around ancient sites today, marvelling at the temples, tombs and amphitheatres, we see walls, columns and ceilings bereft of colour.

But during antiquity, these ancient structures would have been gaudy with brightly painted frescoes depicting portraits of kings, gods and heroes. Only in a few isolated places have fragments of these painted decorations been preserved, but now scientists at the British Museum have perfected a technique that detects traces of Egyptian blue on ancient buildings and artefacts.

To do this a red light is shone on the artefact and if there is even the smallest trace of Egyptian blue remaining it will give off luminescence. This luminescence cannot be seen by the human eye, but can be picked up on a device that is sensitive to infrared light.

So far the experts have used this technique to detect the blue pigment on statues from the Parthenon in Athens, including the statue of the goddess Iris, and on wall paintings from the Theban tomb of Nebamen. Egyptian blue fell out of use at the end of the Roman Empire and the method for producing it was lost to history.

Painted column at the Ramesseum, Egypt

Painted column at the Ramesseum, Egypt

Han Blue - Ancient Chinese Pigment

The ancient Chinese also developed a blue pigment around 1045 BC called Han blue, which was very similar in chemical composition to Egyptian blue. The big difference was that the Egyptians used calcium, whereas the Chinese used the toxic heavy metal barium and even lead and mercury to make their blue pigment.

Some experts believe that the invention of these two pigments occurred totally independently of each other, while others suggest that the knowledge of how to produce Egyptian blue travelled down the Silk Road to China, where early Chinese chemists experimented and started using barium instead of calcium.

Blue in Ancient Greece

The Ancient Greeks believed that light, clear blue had the power to keep evil away and prevented evil spirits from approaching a house or a temple. In fact, you can still buy blue amulets in Turkey and Greece with an eye motif to hang in your home or on a baby’s cradle to ward off the evil eye.

On murals from the buried city of Akrotiri on Santorini dating from around 1700 BC, people are shown wearing bracelets, necklaces and anklets made of blue gemstones and the shaven part of the young people’s hair is painted blue. The Greeks had no specific word for the colour blue, as they categorised colours as either ‘light’ or ‘dark’.

So they would have used the word ‘kyaneos’ for any dark hue and ‘glaukos’ for any light hue. In fact, none of the civilisations of antiquity had a proper word for blue, even though the colour was so important to them. In his book ‘Through the Language Glass’ Guy Deutscher tells how the words for colour appeared in all languages in a certain order, with the words for white and black appearing first, then red, yellow and green with blue always being the last to arrive.

Tekhelet – Sacred Blue Dye of Ancient Israel

There was also a sacred blue dye used in the temples of Ancient Israel, where the Bible required the High Priests to wear blue fringes on their clothes and the veil of Solomon’s Temple was also dyed blue. However, archaeologists have up until now never located any textiles dyed with the pigment that was called tekhelet in antiquity.

Tekhelet, meaning blue in ancient Hebrew, was made from a secretion from a snail called Murex trunculus. These snails secrete a yellow liquid from a gland in their body. This liquid turns a blue colour when exposed to direct sunlight and our ancestors discovered they could use it to dye cloth.

But a breakthrough came in the search for tekhelet when an expert examined a scrap of material dating back to the time of the Roman Occupation of Judea. It is thought the fabric could have come from remnants of clothing discarded by Jewish refugees from the Bar-Kokhba revolt of 132-135 AD. This small piece of woollen textile had originally found in the 1950s but the presence of the sacred blue pigment was only detected during the recent re-examination.

Maya Blue - Early Mesoamerican Pigment

The ancient civilisations of the New World also developed an innovative azure pigment called ‘Maya blue.' It first appeared around 800 AD and was made from the naturally occurring clay called palygorskite mixed with dye from the leaves of the wild indigo plant.

It is a remarkable pigment because it is very resistant to weathering and does not fade over time. In pre-Columbian times Maya blue was used to paint murals, decorate statues and illuminate codices. New research has also shown that it could have also been used in religious ritual and painted on the bodies of those who had been sacrificed to the gods.

So the next time that you are wandering around the DIY shop looking at paint, just have a think about how lucky we are that there are now so many shades of blue available to choose from. Our early ancestors had to wait a long time to be able to paint with their favourite colour and even then it would remain throughout antiquity a very expensive pigment that was used to honour royalty and the gods.


CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 25, 2015:

Thanks poetryman6969. We take so many things for granted these days which were a real challenge to our ancient ancestors and producing blue pigments were among the trickier ones

poetryman6969 on April 30, 2015:

I had heard that early man had trouble with blue. Interesting hub.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on July 19, 2013:

Glad you enjoyed the hub gmwilliams. Blue is such a special colour for so many of us. This was a really fun hub to research, so I'm glad that it worked out so well

Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on July 18, 2013:

This is a brilliant hub. It draws readers in. You have eloquently illustrated the wondrous history of the color blue from ancient to modern times. Besides lapis lazuli, indigo dyes were also used to get the color blue. Very fascinating hub. Now you made me so interested in the color blue, I intend to purchase a book relating to this subject on my favorite site. When I was younger, blue was my favorite color. I still wear blue clothing when I am home.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 05, 2013:

Thanks CASE1WORKER - I had never thought of it that way, but yes I can imagine against the colour of the cliffs and rocks all that vivid blue would really stand out. Are you still writing? I haven't seen any new hubs from you in my feed for some time?

CASE1WORKER from UNITED KINGDOM on May 04, 2013:

very interesting- I guess when everything surrounding it was sandy coloured then blue would really stick out.

Great to see that you have published a new hub here!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 04, 2013:

Hi Larry, thanks for reading the hub and leaving a great comment. Colour has a huge influence on our physical and emotional well being, so it doesn't surprise me that your blue-blocker sunglasses have a different effect in different weathers

Larry Fields from Northern California on May 04, 2013:

Hi CMHypno,

You've written a fascinating and well-researched hub. Voted up, shared and more.

Blue is a therapeutic color for me. Although I'm a strong uphill hiker for my age, I don't handle heat very well.

For strenuous hikes on hot days, I do not wear my amber-colored, blue-blocker sunglasses. They slow me down, and make me feel weak. But on cooler days, these glasses are OK. Go figure.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 04, 2013:

Thanks for reading the hub Thamisgith. It was an interesting hub to research and was the first time that I also came across the Han blue and the Mayan blue

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 04, 2013:

Thanks Nell. Glad you enjoyed reading about blue in the ancient world and thanks for the comment and voting up

Thamisgith from Edinburgh, Scotland on May 04, 2013:

Thanks for a very interesting read. Lapis Lazuli was something that I knew a little about - but the Chinese and Mayan versions were new to me.

Nell Rose from England on May 03, 2013:

Congrats on the accolade, and I can see why. This was fascinating, and yes my favourite colour is blue, it must have been amazing when it was first used as you say, voted up and shared, nell

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on May 02, 2013:

Thanks for reading the hub and leaving such a great comment Alastar. It was a really interesting article to write as I have never looked at ancient history like this before and there is so much more I now want to go and learn about colour and symbolism in our past. I suppose that we will never truly understand how our ancient ancestors felt or how they viewed the world, but leraning just how difficult it was for them to produce a blue pigment makes me feel I have come that little bit closer.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on May 01, 2013:

What an a awesome and interesting subject to cover, Cynthia. Good going on the accolade too, well deserved. You know I read all the time in history about lapis lazuli but not until now really knew the details on it. Same with Egyptian Blue and the others for that matter. Your British scientists' discovery is one more in a very long and illustrious line of discoveries!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Thanks stuff4kids and glad that you enjoyed the hub. In the days before the media and the internet, temples and public building were where people went to spend time and for entertainment. So it makes sense that they were brightly decorated as they needed to stand out and be visible and also to keep people engaged. In its heyday the temple of Karnak in Thebes must have been visible for miles around with its vividly painted pylons and fluttering flags.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Glad you enjoyed it so much pinto111. Colour is so important to us on so many levels, so it was fun to research some of the meanings that blue had for our ancient ancestors

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Glad that you found the hub interesting starstream and thanks for reading and leaving a great comment. Colour in the ancient world is a huge topic so plenty more for me to write about

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Thank you for reading and commenting on the hub Anne. The Guy Deutscher book talks about how the Ancient Greeks talked about colour, especially Homer. I have often wondered about Homer's 'wine dark seas' as I have never seen wine that colour before (and I have drunk enough before lol!) but always put it down to poetic licence before

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Thanks for the heads up about the new book Writer Fox and for reading the hub. I just love that there is so much archaeological research being done and new discoveries being made

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Thanks pstraubie. Blue is my favourite colour too, so it was a pleasure to write about. Angels are on their way for us all.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Thanks Patty for reading the hub and the congratulations. Maybe I'll tackle purple next - colour in antiquity is a fascinating subject

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Thank you for your congratulations and kind compliments Sidkemp

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Glad you found the hub informative vertualit. It was a fascinating article to research and there is so much more information out there on the development of pigments and how ancient cultures used colour

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 30, 2013:

Thank you for reading the hub and glad that you enjoyed it StephanieBCrosby

Amanda Littlejohn on April 30, 2013:

Blue is not my favorite color but that was a fascinating journey through time - you should do a whole series of these!

" As we wander around ancient sites today, marvelling at the temples, tombs and amphitheatres, we see walls, columns and ceilings bereft of colour. But during antiquity, these ancient structures would have been gaudy with brightly painted frescoes depicting portraits of kings, gods and heroes"

Incredible stuff to think on - wouldn't it be something else if someone was to reconstruct one of these ancient temples as once it was in all its former, multi-colored glory? Must have made quite an impression on the folks of the time.

Bless :)

Subhas from New Delhi, India on April 29, 2013:

Wow ! What an engrossing HUB . Great piece of information. I personally have great interest in studying about the significance of colors and moreover in your HUB it is mingled with a hint of mythology and history. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Dreamer at heart from Northern California on April 29, 2013:

You present a very interesting and educational hub about the use of blue color in ancient civilization. Thanks! I enjoy reading about art and will share your article.

Anne Harrison from Australia on April 29, 2013:

Thank you for an interesting and well-written article. One theory about the appearance of the word blue in ancient languages is that colour words appeared after the respective die/paint was discovered - hence Homer describes the sea in many ways, but never as blue.

Well done and voted up.

Writer Fox from the wadi near the little river on April 29, 2013:

There is a new book, 'The Rarest Blue' by Baruch Sterman, that documents the rare blue dye used in ancient Israel that was made from ocean snails. The dye is being successfully produced today in Israel. You might want to add this one to your list.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on April 29, 2013: