Why Are Greek Gods Depicted As White?


It’s something common across sculpture, paintings, and mosaics – when the Greek gods are depicted in human form, they are commonly portrayed as white or, at the very least, what we would think of Caucasian. However, given that the Greeks had contact with India, Africa, and China, people often wonder why the gods seem to have been almost uniformly depicted as white. 

The Greek gods were depicted as white because they were a reflection of the people who created them. This is especially true in visual art, where people used references of the individuals they knew. However, the authoritative written descriptions of Greek gods rarely describe their skin color.

This article will examine why people believe the Greeks saw their gods as being white and answer your questions about any dark-skinned gods that may have been part of the Greek pantheon.

Also see Did Greek Gods Come Before Christianity? to learn more.

Greek goddesses
Were there dark-skinned Greek gods? See below

Why Do Many People Think of the Greek Gods as White?

Scholars have often tried to explain there is limited evidence that the Greeks truly saw their gods as racially white. In fact, visual traditions differed depending on the city-state, and Greeks tended to “adopt” foreign gods and relate them to Greek mythological figures. 

Additionally, Homer and Hesiod – perhaps the most authoritative written sources of Greek myth – rarely describe the gods’ skin colors. More commonly, they describe the color of their hair. 

The two most important gods whose skin color is mentioned are Aphrodite, who is described as having “silvery white breasts,” and Hera, who is described as “white-armed.” This is likely because of ancient Greek beauty customs – women could be described as “white,” but to call a man white was to call him effeminate, as it implied he never left home to engage in masculine activities. [1]

However, despite these factors, people continue to think of Greek gods as white. 

Many people think of the Greek gods as white because extant Greek statues are generally white. However, there is ample evidence this whiteness is because the statues were bleached over time by exposure to the elements. In their original form, Greek statues were vividly and colorfully painted.

Greeks used a variety of pigments to paint their statues, and there are still a few statues in which the original colors can be seen. 

Additionally, it’s essential to keep in mind that the ancient Greeks did not think of race in the way people do today. As discussed above, dark-skinned was considered masculine, as it showed that the man spent time on battlefields and participating in athletic competitions. 

Furthermore, ancient Greek racial theories were not based on skin color – instead, they were based on the idea of humor. [2] White people from the Far North were considered courageous but stupid, while black people from Ethiopia were thought to be intelligent but cowardly. 

When it comes to the ancient Greek idea of race, the reality is much more complicated than statues would have people believe.

Also see Why Do Greek Gods Have Small Genitals? to learn more.

Greek god statues
What colors are associated with Greek gods? See below

Were There Dark-Skinned Greek Gods?

As discussed above, the Greek gods were not necessarily depicted as white – at least, not “white” in the way people think of it today. However, this may lead people to wonder if some gods were depicted as dark-skinned instead.

Some Greek gods depicted as dark-skinned include Hermes, Ares, and Athena. Additionally, one of the epithets of Zeus is “burnt-face Zeus,” which may indicate that he was depicted as dark-skinned in some traditions. 

However, this depiction of the gods as dark-skinned does not necessarily have anything to do with their race. As mentioned above, men were expected to be darker-skinned than women in ancient Greece, as that meant that they spent a lot of time outside the home, participating in athletic competitions or fighting in wars. 

Both Ares and Athena are gods of warfare – Ares of the brute force employed in war, and Athena of warfare strategy. They would, therefore, spend a significant amount of time on battlefields – which led to them being depicted as darker-skinned. 

Hermes’s depiction as dark-skinned is a little more confusing. However, the most likely explanation is that Hermes (and his Roman counterpart, Mercury) were linked to Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead. Anubis was depicted as having the black head of a jackal, and this connection likely resulted in Hermes being shown as dark-skinned. 

Zeus’s description as “burnt-face” is likely a reference to his role as a weather god – specifically as a god of storms. 

However, other mythological figures were more concretely depicted as dark-skinned. Silenus, the tutor to Dionysus and the god of drunkenness, was from the mythical land of Nysa. Nysa does not exist, but it is usually associated with either Africa, India, or the Middle East. Because of this, Silenus is frequently depicted as having dark skin. 

Many mortal figures were – according to Greek myth – from Ethiopia, or some other part of Africa, suggesting they likely had dark skin. These include:

  • Princess Andromeda of Ethiopia, who was rescued from a sea monster by, and later married, Perseus, mortal son of Zeus
  • Memnon, king of Ethiopia and son of Eos and Tithonus, who was a hero of the Trojan War who fought on the side of the Trojans

Finally, there is the case of Pelops, son of Tantalus and the founder of the House of Atreus (which included Menelaus, husband of Helen of Troy, and the Greek commander Agamemnon, who helped start the Trojan War after Helen was kidnapped or ran away with Paris of Troy). 

His name literally translates to “dark-faced,” and he was described as being dark-skinned – aside from his left shoulder, which was the section that Demeter had unknowingly eaten and the horrified gods had reconstructed. This shoulder was, instead, white as ivory.

Also see Did Greek or Roman Gods Come First? to learn more.

Zeus Greek god
Profile of Zeus

What Colors Are Associated with Greek Gods?

Aside from their skin color, another common question about colors and the Greek gods is about what colors were associated with them. 

There is limited information about color associations with Greek gods. However, it is likely that red – specifically red roses – was associated with Aphrodite. Surviving mosaics show Poseidon was associated with blue for the ocean. As the goddess of rainbows, Iris was associated with all colors.

As discussed above, given the degeneration of the colors of ancient Greek statuary over time, there is limited information about the colors that were linked to the gods. That said, some associations seem to be obvious:

  • In Greek myth, when Adonis, lover of Aphrodite, was mortally wounded by a wild boar, the goddess found him bleeding and cried over him. Her tears and his blood combined to form red roses, which is why the flower and the color are associated with the goddess.
  • Poseidon is the god of the oceans and is usually depicted in his element, surrounded by the blue water. 
  • Iris was the goddess of rainbows and was sometimes described as owning a coat of many colors, which she used to create rainbows.
  • As mentioned above, both Aphrodite and Hera were described as “white” and associated with this color. [3]

Conclusion

The Greek gods were depicted as white because they resembled the Greek people. However, they were not white in the way people imagine today.

Also see Why Are Greek Gods So Petty? to learn more.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source

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