The Journal of Hellenic Studies

Research Article

What was the colour of Athena's Aegis?*

Susan Deacya1 and Alexandra Villinga2

a1 Roehampton University, London

a2 The British Museum


The aegis is Athena's most intimate and widely-discussed attribute, yet one of its vital aspects has so far been largely neglected: its colour. We shall argue that the nature and the role of the aegis and of its bearer are reflected not only in its shape and decoration, but also in its colour and luminosity. As with Athena's glaukos eyes, the key to chromatic characterization and meaning lies in brightness rather than hue. Most often in literature and art, Athena's aegis is characterized by a yellow or gold reminiscent of the gleam of the sun or of metal, which expresses a general divine gleaming brightness but also Athena's specific charis, namely the beauty, vitality and sparkling (or cunning) attractiveness that she can bestow on mortals under her protection. The dark or even black aegis (kyanaigis or melanaigis), by contrast, expresses the dark, wrathful and furious side of the goddess. Brightly shimmering or darkly obscuring, the aegis refers to Athena's protective, yet also potentially destructive, power. Its variable characterization in terms of ‘colour language’ constituted one tool among the many that were available to the Greeks for the construction of her divine personality.


* Early versions of this article were presented at the ‘Colours in Antiquity’ conference at Edinburgh University in 2001, the Classical Association Conference at Leeds in 2004 and a seminar in the German Archaeological Institute at Athens in 2004; we are grateful for the comments and suggestions made by the audiences at each event. We thank Susanne Ebbinghaus, Maria Effinger, Karin Hornig, Ian Jenkins, François Lissarrague, Frank Wascheck, Cornelia WeberLehmann and Dyfri Williams for further observations and assistance. The manuscript of this article was largely completed in 2007; subsequent literature has been considered only to a limited extent.