The Homeric poems describe the gods and goddesses as blond and blue-eyed; the word for bright hair is generally xanthós, into whose definition we will enter later. The Iliad describes Demeter as blonde, Aphrodite as golden-haired; it describes Athena as blue-eyed, and in fact refers to her fifty-seven times as Zeus’ blue-eyed daughter Athena. The world is glaukopis, which may be deduced from glaukos, meaning “bright, sparkling.” Pindar later described Athena as glaukopis and xantha, thereby clearly referring to her blue eyes and golden hair-colour.
After Homer, the description glaukopis becomes more seldom; however, it appears in isolated instances in Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus, 705) and with Aristophanes (Thesmophoriazusae, 317). A conversation between a Greek and a Roman in the “Attic Nights” of the Roman writer Aulus Gellius, which compares colour meanings in the two languages, gives information about the colour references of the word glaukopis. There (II, 26, 18), glaucum is explained as meaning “grey-blue” and (II, 26, 19), the description glaukopis of the goddess Athena is explained as caesia, “the heavenly blue-eyed.” The same tradition, going back to Homer, of the blue-eyedness of Athena, is found in the saga of Byssa and Meropis: there, according to Boios (in Antoninus Liberalis, Collection of Metamorphoses, 15) Agron mocks the bright eyes of the goddess and praises his own dark eyes, and even with the Roman poet Hyginus, in the first century AD, Hera and Aphrodite mock the goddess Athena on account of her bright eyes: quod caesia erat. The word glaukopis was synonymous with glaukómmatos, “bright-eyed,” in contrast to melanómmatos, “dark-eyed.” Thus, in a commentary to a passage in the Iliad (IV, 147), the Achaean hero Menelaus was described by the commentator Peisander as “blond-haired, tall in stature and bright-eyed,” and thereby he used the word glaukómmatos (xanthokómes, mégas en glaukómmatos).
The Odyssey describes the god Rhadamanthys as blond, Aphrodite as golden-haired, Athena again and again as blue-eyed. Also, a name like Phoebus Apollo, deduced from phoibos, meaning “bright, shining, radiating,” may not only describe the nature of a Sun-god, but also the bright colour of skin, hair and eyes. The sea-god Poseidon, on the other hand, is described by the Odyssey (III, 6), as dark-haired and dark-eyed — a god of the pre-Hellenic Mediterranean world, whose defeat in battle by Athena in Attica, was represented on the gable of the Parthenon, on the Acropolis.
The figures of the human world are featured by the Homeric poems as being light-skinned and bright-eyed; thus Achilles, Menelaus and Meleager of the Iliad are described as blond, likewise Briseis and Agamede among the feminine figures; Helen is (III, 121) called “glittering.” The Odyssey in many places describes (Wilhelm Sieglin has recorded all these places), Menelaus as blond, it describes Penelope as blonde, Hermione as blonde and Aphrodite as golden-haired. The Iliad and Odyssey mention lily-armed goddesses and princesses, white-armed and silver-footed goddesses and mortal women.
Karl Jax has observed that among Homeric references to mortal girls and women, as also with the goddesses of the Homeric poems, dark hair is completely lacking, and Georg Finsler has stressed that the blond hair-colour in Homer is held to be beautiful and striking to such an extent, that the poet, in a moment of carelessness, even calls Odysseus blond, although he was generally accepted as dark-haired.
The description of the physical features of Odysseus, “the rich in cunning,” needs extensive examination, however. Odysseus diverges from the picture of the other Homeric heroes. By the Iliad (III, 193/94, 210/11) he is described as a “sitting giant,” appearing when seated near Agamemnon to be as tall as the latter, but in standing, to be shorter, but also broader, more thick-set in shoulders and chest. Thus Odysseus is not, like the other heroes, of tall, slim type. The Odyssey describes him (VI, 231) as light-skinned, and in another place (XIII, 397, 431), his head-hair is called blond (xanthós); however, it calls his beard dark (XVI, 176). According to hair-colour, Odysseus is also described by the Odyssey (VI, 231; XVI, 175; XXIII, 157/58) as hyákinthos, which previously was mostly translated as “brownish.” This “hyacinth colour” is, however, as Wilhelm Sieglin has shown, to be described as “reddish,” because the hyacinth was cultivated in Hellas as a sub-type with reddish blooms.
The sturdy, thick-set and dark-bearded Odysseus is not of the same type as the other Achaean heroes, either in respect to bodily or mental features. The distinction of his being “rich in cunning,” as if of a mixed man, was probably not made consciously by the poet; rather, must Odysseus be regarded as a saga figure of the pre-Hellenic world, who is equilibrated by the poet as far as possible to the image of the Achaean heroes. That he is a relic of a strange race, closest to a residue of the Hither-Asiatic type, remains distinguishable, however. Odysseus is a figure like Palamedes, a hero of the the Achaean saga of Troy who, however, only appeared with post-Homeric poets; half-Achaean and half-Levantine, rich in cunning and bold, part Hither-Asiatic, part Nordic, in every way different from the open-hearted noblemen such as Achilles, Patrocles, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Count Gobineau has already observed this weft of a strange type with Odysseus. He called him a Greek with Phoenician ancestors. Odysseus could be courageous when necessary, but preferred cunning; his language is malleable and seductive; lies do not terrify him, treachery does not dismay him, wiliness causes him no trouble. Eloquent, cunning, treacherous, dangerous, he resembles rather a pirate trader from Sidon or a senator from Carthage, while with his richness of thought, his imperturbability, his capacity of bridling his passions, with the occasional moderation and modesty, which in his case always proceeds from rational calculation, he is rather of Nordic type. V. Bérard was of the opinion that the Odyssey was indeed written by a Greek, but that its hero, Odysseus, was a Phoenician. Thus the mental and physical nature of this hero has again and again called forth conjecture about a pre-Hellenic origin, of which the latest is asserted by Wolfgang Aly. Aly holds Odysseus to be a saga figure from the pre-Hellenic world of the Cretans.
In the figure of Odysseus, “rich in cunning,” we see the after-effect of the East Mediterranean lands on the pre-Indo-Germanic world, the weft of Hither-Asiatic race, which was peculiar to this world, this weft being in every case stronger than the weft of the Western (Mediterranean) race; but with this figure the later Hellas also makes its appearance, a Hellas in which through mixture with the immigrating Indo-Germans, together with the descendants of the original population, and through additional wanderings from Asia Minor, the weft of Hither-Asiatic race reached out more and more and penetrated into the upper strata. In the later course of Greek history, more and more Nordic/Hither-Asiatic men like Odysseus must have appeared in the leading strata, becoming more Hither-Asiatic than Nordic, and at length filled with ever more men of preponderantly Hither-Asiatic race. Dishonesty, treachery, crafty calculation, corruptibility, and betrayal, more and more sully the pages of Hellenic history, indeed the history of all Hellenic tribes and settlements. In these characteristics, the Greek appears at length very far estranged from his original Indo-Germanic nature, from the high-aiming purity of all the early ages of the Indo-Germanic peoples, more estranged indeed than the Persian and Iranian of the Achaemenid Age, which in its faith, Mazdaism, had increased this very Indo-Germanic purity, the abhorrence of lies, to a proud confession of its nature. Men of Hither-Asiatic race have always been regarded as more cunning by men of other types. The Phoenicians, a folk with strong Hither-Asiatic weft, Homer (Iliad, XIV, 288) described as “treacherous men,” and “arch swindlers.” What was sensed to be Hither-Asiatic in Odysseus, the gift of feeling his way into mental life strange to him, the art of calculating the mental features of other men and other human groups, appears in the later Hellenic age not only in many traders travelling from place to place, but also in merchants of Greek language, in the graeculi paid and despised by the Romans, but permeates also the mode of thinking of many sophists and the opinions they taught. In his speech for Flaccus (17), and in letters to his brother Quintus, Marcus Tullius Cicero (Letters, 30, I, 16, 28; 53, II, 4) has described the mental make-up of many Hellenes of his age, which appeared to him, as to Western Europeans of later ages, to be of the nature of the “Levantine.”
Racial science evidence about the type of the Achaean and the Greek of the Homeric age, is represented by an assertion of the Iliad (XXII, 401); there, Hector the Trojan is described as dark-haired, in fact as non-Achaean, as stranger and foe. This distinction signifies, from a racial historical aspect, an error or an injustice, for the Trojans were themselves indeed relations of the Greeks, one of the pre-Hellenic, Indo-Germanic tribes from the region of the lower Danubian lands. The Trojan woman Briseis is called blonde by the Iliad (XIX, 283); here the contrast is forgotten. With Hector’s description, the poet has wished to stress a racial contrast. This struck Dio of Prusa, also called Dio Chrysostomos, a writer, who was born around 40 AD and lived until the beginning of the second century AD; he has (21, 16) drawn attention to the fact that the beauty of the Hellenes must have been other than that of the barbarians: the Hellenes were blond like Achilles or Patrocles, the barbarians dark, as the description of Hector shows.
The Boeotian peasant-poet Hesiod (around 700 BC), represents Homer’s gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines, as blond people. Athena he each time calls blue-eyed, thus in seven places, Dionysus he describes (Theogony, 947) as blond, likewise Ariadne and Ioleia (Fragment 110).
To the idea of beautiful and noble men belong, for the Hellenic outlook, not only features like light skin, bright hair and blue eyes, but also tall and slim stature. The frequent turn of phrase “beautiful and tall” (kalós kai mégas), which already appears many times with Homer, can be further traced in Hellenic literature from Herodotus to Lucian; it is used for men, women and children. In the description of Nausicaa by the Odyssey (VI, 151) it is shown that to beauty and noble birth, according to Hellenic views, belongs tall stature; the same idea is given by the description of Telemachus by Nestor in the Odyssey (IV, 38). Aristotle says, in his Nicomachean Ethics (IV, 7), that to beauty belongs a tall body; small bodies could admittedly be pretty and well-shaped, but not actually beautiful. The Western race is strikingly represented by these short-statured people of a pretty type. For Nordic sensitivity, the nature of the body and mind of the Western race does not suffice for actual “beauty,” because the idea of a beautiful person demands a certain gravity of soul, a greatness of soul, which was described as megalópsychía by the Hellenes, as magnanimitas by the Romans, or as the hôchgemüete of the German Middle Ages. The Western or Atlanto-Mediterranean racial soul is too light in gravity for Nordic feeling, too sparse in content, for the bodily features to be felt to be “beautiful.”
The Iliad not only allows it to be recognised by which bodily characteristics the Hellene of the early age was distinguished; it also shows in two examples, how the Greeks of the Homeric age viewed ugly men of the lower strata, just as later plastic art allows the recognition of what features the free Greek ascribed to the unfree, to the slaves of native or foreign origin. The Iliad calls two men curly-haired: Eurybates, the herald of Odysseus, a man with rounded shoulders, and Thersites, the “immeasurable gossip,” the “first demagogue in Hellas,” as he was also called. Both men belong to the lower strata, and thus are descendants of the pre-Hellenic population, of the Indo-Germanised tribes. Thersites is bow-legged and limps; his head, which has begun to go bald, is of a pointed form: “pointed his head; sewn on the crown with thinnish wool” (Iliad, II, 219). It is striking that a form of head is mentioned here, which differs from that usual to the upper strata. With this “pointed” (phoxós) head, is meant either the sickly form of the so-called “tower-skull” (Turmschädel), or the head form of the Hither-Asiatic race, which with many men of this race may be described as “pointed.” Thersites was also conceived by plastic art as a man of Hither-Asiatic race, with pointed head and projecting nose. On a cup from Attica of the time around 450 BC, the fable poet Aesop (sixth century BC), who probably belonged to the slave caste, is also shown with Hither-Asiatic features.
In his Philoctetes (440 ff), Sophocles has interpreted Thersites completely according to Homeric tradition, in such a way that one would most of all think of the bodily and spiritual features of the Hither-Asiatic race. This race seems often to have provided folk seducers and demagogues, for which its own capacity of feeling its way into foreign mental life served also the calculation of the human spirit, and the loquacious heightening in themselves of their own feelings and the wish-images of excited crowds. The description in the Iliad of the bodily and mental nature of Thersites the “immeasurable gossip,” corresponds to the repulsion felt by a Nordic ruling-caste to whom power belongs, towards a yelping under-man who dares to find fault with the noble power. Adolf Schulten has shown that Polybius (III, 33), has described the Tyrrhenians, originating from Asia Minor, as Thersitai. The name Thersites would thus have been applied to a man of Asian Minor origin, which Homer could still have perceived.
The evidence of Homeric poetry shows, at least, how in the age of the poets, one imagined gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, to be. Thereby, it can be recognised from the Iliad and the Odyssey, that bodily features as well as mental characteristics were regarded as inherited and capable of being passed on, capable of cultivation in refined generations with careful choice of wife. These evidences from poetry show that human individuals and peoples see their divinities according to the image of their own bodily make-up, as Xenophanes (Fragment 14) and Aristotle (Politics, I, 2, 7) have remarked, and from the Iliad and Odyssey it can be seen, that at least the leading families of a people which saw its gods as light-skinned, blond and blue-eyed men of tall stature, must have corresponded completely to this facial image. Evidence from later centuries confirms that the Homeric poems have correctly distinguished the racial peculiarity of the Hellene of early history: this Greek was preponderantly of Nordic type.
Otto Reche has pointed out a Graecian word, which by itself alone represents an important assertion about the racial nature of the Greek: the word “iris” for the iris of the eyes. Iris means in fact a rainbow; a folk with dark, brown or black-brown eyes would never have compared the eye-colouring with a rainbow. Only bright eyes, the blue, blue-green or grey of the Nordic race, and greenish and brightly-mixed coloured eyes of people with Nordic weft, could explain a word like “iris.” This word could only have been chosen by a people of a preponderantly bright-eyed stock.
Hans F. K. Günther, Rassengeschichte des hellenischen und des römischen Volkes. Mit einem Anhang: Hellenische und römische Köpfe nordischer Rasse (Munich: J. F. Lehmanns Verlag, 1929) 18—22.
Hans F. K. Günther, Lebensgeschichte des hellenischen Volkes (Pähl: Verlag Hohe Warte, 1956) 98—104.
Hans F. K. Günther, “Like A Greek God.... Translated by Vivian Bird from Professor Hans F. K. Guenther’s Rassenkunde des Hellenischen Volkes.” Northern World VI, 1 (1961) 5—16.