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Atlantis, according to Plato, boasted houses made of white, black and red stones. What is the significance of these colours?

And the stone they quarried beneath the central island all round, and from beneath the outer and inner circles, some of it being white, some black and some red (τὸν μὲν λευκόν, τὸν δὲ μέλανα, τὸν δὲ ἐρυθρὸν ὄντα). [Crit. 116ab].

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While it may seem a rather small detail, the different colours of the stones depicted as making up the buildings in the capital of Atlantis were, presumably, specified for some purpose of Plato's.

But what could it be?

Here, we investigate Plato's statements on the origins of colours from the Timaeus and delve further into the significance of red, white and black in ancient times, both from classical Greece and beyond.

Saddle up!


PLATO, TIMAEUS [67d-68b]

Of the particles which fly off from the rest and strike into the visual stream some are smaller, some larger, and some equal to the particles of the stream itself; those, then, that are equal are imperceptible, and we term them "transparent"; while the larger and smaller particles - of which the one kind contracts, the other dilates the visual stream - are akin to the particles of heat and cold which affect the flesh, and to the astringent particles which affect the tongue, and to all the heating particles which we call "bitter" with these "white" [λευκόν] and "black" [μέλας] are really identical affections, occurring in a separate class of sensation, although they appear different for the causes stated. These, therefore, are the names we must assign to them: that which dilates the visual stream is "white" and the opposite thereof "black"; and the more rapid motion, being that of a different species of fire, which strikes upon the visual stream and dilates it as far as to the eyes, and penetrating and dissolving the very passages of the eyes causes a volume of fire and water to pour from them, which we call "tears." And this moving body, being itself fire, meets fire from the opposite direction; and as the one firestream is leaping out like a flash, and the other passing in and being quenched in the moisture, in the resultant mixture colors of all kinds are produced. This sensation we term "dazzling" [μαρμαρυγή] and the object which causes it "bright" [λαμπρός] or "brilliant" [στίλβω - cf. στίλβων, a name of the planet Mercury]. Again, when the kind of fire which is midway between these reaches to the liquid of the eyes and is mingled therewith, it is not brilliant but, owing to the blending of the fire's ray through the moisture, it gives off a sanguine color, and we give it the name of "red" [ἐρυθρός]. And "bright" color when blended with red and white becomes "yellow" [ξανθός].

Concentric red, white & black squares.

As can be seen above, the colours white, black and red are three of the four primary colours in Plato's scheme from the Timaeus. The fourth, λαμπρός or στίλβω, can perhaps be related to the subsequent depiction of the metallic coverings for the walls around the various circles of the Atlantean capital, particularly the innermost, of "orichalcum which sparkled like fire" [116c - ὀρειχάλκῳ μαρμαρυγὰς ἔχοντι πυρώδεις].

This sparkling effect indeed results from the viewed object being of the "colour" λαμπρός-στίλβω, suggesting that Atlantis' abundant stores of orichalcum compliment the stones of various colours.

The effect of the orichalcum, indeed, reinforces the off-limits nature of the central citadel, discouraging even looking at it on pain of eye damage, as well as bringing to mind the "Allegory of the Cave" from the Republic [7.514a-520a], as a representative of the form of fire.

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In terms of white and black, these opposites appear in the Phaedrus myth of the chariot of the soul [246a–254e], representing, respectively, the θυμοειδές ("spirited") and ἐπιθυμητικόν ("appetitive") parts of the soul, with the charioteer representing the λογιστικόν ("logical") element of the psyche.

"White horse" is also the significance of the name of Atlantis' matriarch Leucippe, and the θυμοειδές - which dominates the spirits of the Thracians and Scythians - seeks to achieve glory. In the just soul, it combines with the λογιστικόν to counteract the effects of the ἐπιθυμητικόν, appearing as righteous indignation, though otherwise it leads to great bouts of temper.

Interestingly, the Thracians and - in the form of the Amazons - perhaps the Scythians appear in other stories of Athens' ancient heroics as a troop-rich foe.

Other names in the list of Atlanteans may also shed light on the choice of these colours: Azaes, the elder of the final pair of twins, has a name which can be taken as "scorched", thus representing black, while Eumelus or Gadeirus perchance correlates to red: Heracles' mythical destination of Erytheia - the "red island" - was commonly identified with the Phoenician settlement at Gades.

Furthermore, Homer mentions a "White Rock" [Λευκάς] in the Odyssey [24.11], where it is passed by "Cyllenian Hermes" on the way to the underworld, where he is carrying the souls of the slain suitors for Penelope's hand: -

Hermes, the Helper, led them down the dank ways.
Past the streams of Oceanus they went, past the rock Leucas,
past the gates of the sun and the land of dreams,
and quickly came to the mead of asphodel,
where the spirits dwell, phantoms of men who have done with toils.

While the White Rock or Leucas came to be identified with Zmiyinyy ("Snake Island") at the mouth of the Danube - near to which stood another island, Achilleis, where the eponymous hero, mentioned in the Odyssey as being found in the Fields of Asphodel [24.15], was celebrated - Homer appears to have initially intended a western location [Od. 12.81].

Similarly, Poseidon's son Lycus was located in the Isles of the Blest according to Hellanicus' Atlantis. As a brother of Nycteus, Lycus can perhaps be compared to Lycaon of Arcadia, with Nycteus identified with that ruler's younger son Nyctimus. These two perhaps originally represented day and night or light and darkness.

Similarly, the Pleiad Celaeno - said in some sources to be the mother of Lycus - bears a name derived from κελαινός, another word meaning "black" - and one with a significant Indo-European pedigree, being cognate with the Sanskrit काल (kāla). According to Strabo, Poseidon was worshipped in Celaenae in Phrygia Catacecaumene, a region typified by its black stone [12.8.18]. The local myth had it that Poseidon sired the eponym of the city, Celaenus, on another Celaeno, given as the daughter of the Egyptian refugee Danaüs. More rationally, Strabo derives the name from the blackness of the stone.


A late source, the Suda, which dates from the 10th century AD, notes the following interesting snippet on the subject of Io, the Argive maiden transformed by the lecherous Zeus into a cow: -

Isis: She is called Io. She was snatched by Zeus from Argos and he, fearing Hera, changed her first into a white cow, then into a black one, and then into one that was violet-coloured. After wandering around with her, he came into Egypt. The Egyptians, then, honour Isis, and for this reason they carve the horns of a cow on the head of her statue, alluding to the change from maiden to cow.

Black, white and red are, along with yellow, three of the oldest colour terms thus far reconstructed for the Proto-Indo-European languages, and the three colours have further significance in early Indo-European cosmology. The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture ["Cosmology," s.v. Three Worlds] provides the following description: -

Another recurrent pattern observed in the early religious literature of a number of IE stocks, Greece and India in particular, suggests a phusical tripartition of the universe. The basic pattern, according to Jean Haudry, is a universe consisting of three rotating skies, each marked by its own deities, its own color and social associations. Each realm marks out a specific sphere of influence which cannot be infringed upon by a different realm [...] one may posit an original system where the diurnal sky is the home of the PIE sky god [...] and the associated color is white or, at least, bright. The night sky is the home of deities such as Grk Ouranos and the associated color is dark or black. The dawn and twilight provide the realm of the [...] Grk Kronos [...], and the color here is red.

The article continues, covering Haudry's contention that these three skies have been replaced by generational myths, the best-known of which is undoubtedly that of the violent father-son successions which saw the overthrow of Uranus by Cronus and, subsequently, Cronus himself being replaced as king in heaven by Zeus. The colours are represented in this myth by a reading of Hesiod's Works and Days alongside his Theogony: -

[T]he cycle begins with the black night of Ouranos, followed by the red [Golden] age of Kronos, then the white [Silver] age of Zeus.

This tripartite scheme is also reflected in the social organisation of the Indo-Europeans: for example, a simplified account of the caste system of the Indo-Iranians may be explained in terms of priests (white), warriors (red) and agricultural workers (black).

Similarly, the Old Norse Rígsþula names the three children of the eponymous Rígr (probably meaning "king") in both caste and colour terms. The story goes that Rígr appears at three houses on successive nights, sleeping between the couples before departing. The three sons borne as a result of this action are as follows: -

  • Þræll ("serf"), described as svartan ("black"), at the cottage of Ái ("great-grandfather") and Edda ("great-grandmother");
  • Karl ("freeman"), described as rauþan ok rjóþan ("rosy and ruddy"), at the farmstead of Afi ("grandfather") and Amma ("grandmother");
  • Jarl ("nobleman"), described as bleikt ("blond") and bjartir ("bright white"), at the hall of Faðir ("father") and Móðir ("mother").

These three children went on, as indicated by their names, to found lineages who fulfilled those particular functions within Norse society.


The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture also goes on to describe the circuits of these skies: -

The skies rotate around a common pole (axis mundi) whose reflection as a post, pillar or enormous tree is found across the various IE stocks. In their own treatment of IE cosmology, T. Gamkrelidze and V. Ivanov propose that all living things were grouped into three main zones about the "world tree", i.e., upper, middle and lower world.

Isis by Jeff Dahl.

This certainly tallies with the presentation of the Titan Atlas in the Theogony, variously placed at the gates of Tartarus [744-750] and in the furthest west [517-520], with additional placements apparently in the sea [Odyssey 1.51-54] and close to the Hyperboreans in the north (hence the North Pole perhaps - cf. Polus near Tanagra [Pausanias 9.20.3]) in pseudo-Apollodorus [2.5.11].


The notion of Isis (Io) being associated with the colours white, black and ἰάζουσαν in the Suda may have its origins in a vision of the goddess from Apuleius' Metamorphoses [11.1], in which the author describes her raiment and appearance in the following terms: -

Firstly her long thick hair in tapering ringlets was loosely spread over her divine neck and shoulders, and her head was crowned with a complex garland of interwoven flowers of every kind. At the centre, over her brow, a flat disc like a mirror or rather a moon-symbol shone with brilliant light. Coiled vipers reared from the right and left of her coronet which was bristling with erect ears of corn. Her multi-coloured robe was of finest linen, gleaming here pure white, here a saffron yellow, there flaming rose-red, with a woven border flowing with flowers and fruit, and what dazzled me most of all was her jet-black cloak with its full sheen, wrapped gleaming about her, slung from the left shoulder, knotted at the breast, and sweeping over her right hip. It hung in sweetly undulating complex folds down to a tasselled fringe, and along its borders and over its surface fell a scatter of glittering stars, round a full moon at the centre breathing fiery rays. And she bore a host of emblems.


The monumental gateway to level 15 of the great Sumerian temple at Uruk, the Eanna, which dates from around 3500 BC, makes use of decorative cones in white, black and red. These colours seem to be sacred to the sky god Anu, who was worshipped at the complex alongside Inanna.

Of particular relevance to this circumstance is a description of the uppermost of three heavens, assigned to Anu, whose floor is made up of the luludānitu-stone. This stone is described in Abnu-šikinšu in the following terms: -

[The stone whose appear]ance is like hulālu-stone and muššaru-stone is named luludānitu-stone.
[The stone whose appearan]ce is red covered with white and black [patc]hes is named luludānitu-stone.

Wayne Horowitz, author of the most recent survey of Mesopotamian cosmology, adds: -

Three is no obvious explanation for this tradition. A few passages allude to red heavens, but these passages always refer to the red color of the sky at sunrise and sunset rather than to a visible high heaven above the sky.

Overall, then, the red colour of the stones on Atlantis appear to hint at the island's location in the far west - the domain of the twilight - where Heracles fought Geryon on the isle of Erytheia.

It is also at the furthest western point of Theopompus' continent that one comes to the valley of Anostus, where "it is neither very light nor very dark, the air being dusky intermingled with a kind of red," and where rivers of pleasure and grief flow down into a gulf. The fruit of the trees along the banks of the former confer renewed youth on those who eat of them, another trope associated with otherworlds.

Sir Graham