Scholars Respond to Racist Backlash against Black Achilles, Part 2: What did Achilles look like?

This is Pharos’ second post responding to the racist criticism of David Gyasi being cast to play Achilles in the BBC/Netflix miniseries Troy: Fall of a City. Pharos documented that criticism here and here, and the first part of our response addressed ancient Greek attitudes toward Africans.

Racist commentators accuse the miniseries of erasing the white racial identity of Achilles by casting a black man to play him. As evidence for this racial identity, they claim that the Homeric epics describe Achilles as having blonde hair. We set aside the obvious point that one should not invest too much in the supposedly “true” hair color of a mythical person. In what follows we assess evidence for how ancient audiences would have understood these descriptions of Achilles’ hair to show that it is not possible to base a racial theory on the color terms used in the Homeric epics to describe Achilles’ hair. The term in question had a range of meanings, some of which bear no relation to our concept of “blonde,” and in any case, color terms in Homer should not be understood literally, but symbolically. Although we can probably assume that most ancient audiences imagined that Achilles looked like them, these two descriptions of Achilles’ hair do not definitively exclude the possibility of a black person playing the role of Achilles.

  • It is true that Achilles’ hair is twice described by the adjective ξανθός/xanthos, which is often translated “blonde”: in Iliad book 1 line 197, Achilles, newly enraged by the general Agamemnon’s treatment of him, draws his sword to kill his commander before Athena stops him by seizing him by his “xanthos hair.” In Iliad book 23 line 141 Achilles dedicates a “xanthos lock of hair” at the funeral pyre of Patroclus. Whatever the interpretation of these lines, two words in a 16,000 line poem is not much evidence for the appearance of its hero.
  • The descriptions of colors found in the Homeric epics match so poorly to our perceptions of color — the most famous example is the epic description of the ocean as “wine dark” — that it used to be thought that the Greeks must have been colorblind. This is untrue, as Mark Bradley (author of a book on ancient color) and Pharos contributor Tim Whitmarsh (in a recent essay on “black Achilles”) have argued: the ancient Greeks could see as many colors as we can but they conceptualized them differently than we do. The sea is described as “wine dark” following tragic passages in the poem because the description represents the mood of the scene more than the superficial color. Any reference to color in the Homeric poems should be examined for its broader symbolism, including the description of Achilles’ hair.
  • So, we should be cautious about assuming we know what is meant by xanthos. Although the term has consistently been translated “blonde,” “yellow,” and “fair” starting with the earliest English translations of the poem, the d-scholia to the Iliad ancient scholarship dating from the 5th and 4th century BCE — translated the description of Achilles’ hair from Iliad book 1 using the Greek word πυρρός/purros, which is usually translated “red.” The persistence of the translation “blonde” may be a relic of a time when classical scholars insisted (wrongly) that the ancient Greeks had been conquered by northern Europeans in the (still unproven) “Dorian invasion,” a debunked theory that many white supremacists cite in their appropriations of ancient Greece.
  • The word xanthos is used in ancient Greek to describe many things that we consider yellow: honey, sunlight, olive oil, etc. But there are also examples of it being used to describe things that we would not call yellow, or even red, which only makes sense if, as noted above, color terms in ancient texts work differently than ours do. Xanthos may refer, for example, not to yellowness but to a shimmering quality. This may be the case in the 34th Homeric Hymn, of unknown date, when the term is used to describe water, which elsewhere in early Greek epic is very often described as “dark.”
  • In a fragment of the comedies of Antiphanes (fr. 216 Kassel-Austin) xanthos is used to describe the smell of a cooking fish. This shows that ancient color terms may describe aspects of something that are not even visual. Translators of this fragment recognize that the word cannot simply mean “blonde” and translate it “brown fragrance” or “browning scent,” but an 18th century editor, unable to see how xanthos could refer to anything other than a color, rewrote the Greek text to make the line describe not the smell but to some kind of rays of light, which produces the only freely available (but inaccurate) translation of the passage of Athenaeus (14.623c) in which the poem is quoted.
  • The Homeric epics occasionally describe both gods and humans as having blue hair and/or blue eyebrows, further evidence that we should not be too literal in interpreting descriptions of color. The adjective used is κυανός/kuanos, which is often translated as “dark” (as in the translations linked above) but which is the same word used to describe unmistakably blue things such as lapis lazuli. It has been suggested that the gods’ hair is described with this color because of their association with the sky, which is in keeping with the metaphorical quality of Homeric color terms.
  • Just as the gods’ hair may be blue because of their heavenly nature, the ancient Homeric scholar Aristonicus explained that the word xanthos in Iliad book 1 is not describing the color of Achilles’ hair at all. He is describing the quality of Achilles’ anger at Agamemnon. Aristonicus wrote: “through this word [that is, xanthos] Homer is hinting at the hot-headedness and irascibility of the hero. For such men are marked by blazing (xanthos) anger (xolos; the word used by Aristonicus is ξανθόχολοι/xanthoxoloi).”
  • A cross-cultural comparison of the association of color words and emotions found that “in all nations, the colors of anger were black and red,” making it not unreasonable that a color term that ancients connected with “red” would be used to describe Achilles’ anger. Stanley Lombardo’s popular translation of the Iliad begins by describing Achilles’ wrath as “black and murderous.” Lombardo told Pharos that he had “Achilles’ dark mood” in mind when he decided to use a color to characterize his rage.
  • Achilles’ anger is the organizing theme of the Iliad, announced in the first line of the poem. This anger, not the color of his hair, is his defining characteristic. His hair is only called xanthos twice: once in his initial anger, and once in his grief at the loss of his friend Patroclus, who died because of that anger. Menelaus, by contrast, is described as xanthos twenty-seven times. One might be able to argue that hair color is Menelaus’ defining characteristic (Menelaus is played by brunette Jonas Armstrong in Troy: Fall of a City) but it is hard to do so for Achilles.
  • Thus when racist commentators, attempting to make a connection between Achilles and the physical traits of the northern Europeans that white supremacists admire, claim that the Iliad says Achilles had blonde hair, they are basing the claim on translations of a term that suppress the range of meanings that word had in antiquity and the way color terms are used in the Homeric epics. The descriptions of Achilles in the Iliad that they cite do not exclude the possibility of Achilles being black.
  • What’s more, when the Iliad describes Achilles hair as xanthos, it is just as likely to be describing not his literal hair color but the quality of the anger which, unlike his supposed “race,” is Achilles’ defining characteristic in that poem.

The following scholars contributed to this post:

Siobhan Ball

Joel Christensen (Brandeis University)

Al Duncan (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Research Fellow, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa)

David Elmer (Harvard University)

Casey Due Hackney (University of Houston)

Rebecca Futo Kennedy (Denison University)

Matthew Lloyd

Jonathan Ready (Indiana University)

Kevin Solez (MacEwan University)

Rodrigo Verano (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)

Phillip Zapkin (Pennsylvania State University)

Donna Zuckerberg (Eidolon)

This post is a composite of scholars’ responses and it should not be assumed that every contributor agrees with every point made above.

We also consulted the following scholarship in preparing this series of responses:

Davies, Malcolm. The Aethiopis: Neo-Neoanalysis Reanalyzed. Center for Hellenic Studies, 2016.

Dee, James H. “Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did ‘White People’ Become ‘White’?” The Classical Journal, Vol. 99, No. 2. 2003. pp. 157-167.

Dué, Casey, and Ebbott, Mary. Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: A Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary. Center for Hellenic Studies, 2010.

Griffith, R. Drew. “Gods’ Blue Hair in Homer and in Eighteenth-Dynasty Egypt.” The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 2. 2005. pp. 329-334.

Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton University Press, 2004.

Jones, Prudence A. Africa: Greek and Roman Perspectives from Homer to Apuleius. Center for Hellenic Studies, 2017.

Kozak, Lynn. Experiencing Hektor. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Nagy, Gregory. “The Shield of Achilles” in New Light on a Dark Age, Edited by Susan Langdon. University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Pinney, Gloria F. “Achilles Lord of Scythia” in Ancient Greek Art and Iconography, edited by Warren Moon. University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Seaford, Richard. “Black Zeus in Sophocles’ Inachos.” The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1. 1980. pp. 23-29.

Sherratt, Susan. “The Trojan War: History or Bricolage?” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Vol. 53, No. 2. 2010. pp. 1-18.

Snowden, Frank M. Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Harvard University Press, 1983.

Snowden, Frank M. Blacks in Antiquity. Harvard University Press, 1970.

Willcock, Malcolm. “Neoanalysis” in A New Companion to Homer, edited by I. Morris and B. Powell. Brill, 1997.

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