On skin colour and the myth of classicism

Two somewhat different quotes, the first of which offered a new theory of skin colour – over against the standard theory, which held until about the eighteenth century, that skin colour was due to exposure to the sun. This one has more to do with cooking time in the womb:

A man of discernment said: The people of Iraq have sound minds, commendable passions, balanced natures, and high proficiency in every art, together with well-proportioned limbs, well-compounded humours, and a pale brown colour, which is the most apt and proper colour. They are the ones who are done to a turn in the womb. They do not come out with something between blonde, buff, blanched, and leprous colouring, such as the infants dropped from the wombs of the women of the Slavs and others of similar light complexion; nor are they overdone in the womb until they are burned, so that the child comes out something between black, murky, malodorous, stinking and crinkly-haired, with uneven limbs, deficient minds, and depraved passions, such as the Zanj, the Ethiopians, and other blacks who resemble them. The Iraqis are neither half-baked dough nor burned crust but between the two.

Ibn al-Fakih al Hamadhani, from Kitab al Buldan (Book of Countries, 903)

And a great example of how the myth of classicism took off in places like Germany in the nineteenth century, turning the Greeks into good Europeans, so much so that the ancient Greeks – with their slave-holding, veils for women, and a penetrating culture (for adult men) – would hardly have recognised themselves:

We regarded Greece as our second homeland; for it was the seat of all nobility of thought and feeling, the home of harmonious humanity. Yes, we even thought that ancient Greece belonged to Germany because, of all the modern peoples, the Germans had developed the deepest understanding of the Hellenic spirit, of Hellenic art, and of the harmonious Hellenic way of life. We thought this in the exuberance of a national pride, in virtue of which we proclaimed the German people the leading culture of the modern world and the Germans the modern Hellenes. We announced that Hellenic art and nature had been reborn more completely in German poetry and music than in the poetry and music of any other people of the contemporary world … Our enthusiasm for Greece was inseparable from our enthusiasm for our fatherland … We looked back to classical antiquity as to a lost paradise.

Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, on student life in a German Gymnasium. From his Kulturgeschichtliche Charakterköpfe (1891).


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