Was Andromeda Black?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Evidence that a figure in Greek mythology received a European makeover.

Bernard Picart print (1731) of Perseus and Andromeda by Abraham van Diepenbeeck (1655)
Bernard Picart print (1731) of Perseus and Andromeda by Abraham van Diepenbeeck (1655)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 68: What was the original color of the mythical beauty Andromeda—and why does it matter?

Today may be Presidents Day, but long before the world heard of Washington, Lincoln or Obama, kings and queens presided over ancient lands that gave rise to the so-called great civilizations from which ours descends. In a blended world of fact and fiction, folk tales and history, the children of these royals often played pivotal roles. This week, we meet the daughter of one such couple, 2,500 years ago, when Greek scribes, absent the aid of brilliant scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, fashioned mythologies to make sense of the universe through the tempestuous gods believed to be charting its course. The name of this princess was Andromeda, a heroine of earthly plays and heavenly constellations. Now I know, having mentioned the word “Greek” above, you might be thinking Andromeda was white, but to quote the great Cab Calloway doing Porgy and Bess, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Andromeda was a sister …

… Though you wouldn’t know it by watching movies.

Clash of the Titans

For anyone who has seen Clash of the Titans—either the 1981 cult-classic with Harry Hamlin and Sir Laurence Olivier or the 2010 blockbuster with Sam Worthington and Liam Neeson—the climactic scene is seared in the brain: of the Greek hero Perseus, son of Zeus, riding in on winged feet to rescue Andromeda, fixed with chains to a rocky cliff, before she is devoured by a giant sea serpent rising up from the deep. 

The reason for Andromeda’s sacrifice is that her mother, Cassiopea, wife of Cepheus, has outraged Poseidon, the Olympian god of the sea, by claiming she is more beautiful than any creature on land or sea. (As the classicist Edith Hamilton wrote in her oft-cited 1942 text, Mythology, updated most recently in 2012, “[a]n absolutely certain way in those days to draw down on one a wretched fate was to claim superiority in anything over any deity.”) So furious is Poseidon that he wants to sink the entire kingdom, refraining only when the conniving seer Ammon persuades him to settle for a single royal life instead—Andromeda’s—and Cepheus, at the urging of his people, acquiesces. What causes Perseus to intervene is Andromeda’s singular beauty, so overpowering, we are told, that Perseus asks Cepheus for her hand in exchange for saving her life. Once promised, Perseus holds up the decapitated, snake-locked head of Medusa in his bag (another of his heroic feats) to turn the giant sea serpent to stone.

To convey Andromeda’s virginal essence, the makers of Clash of the Titans films cast Judi Bowker and, later, Alexa Davalos—one actress blond, the other brunette—both white. Not only do their Andromedas appear to satisfy Hollywood’s idea for a perfect match for Perseus, they, like the films as a whole, earnestly are trying to evoke for us our own inherited perceptions of Ancient Greek culture with living figures we might have seen in a Rubens painting or on the side of a vase at the Museum of Fine Art.

There’s only one wrinkle. While the myth of Perseus and Andromeda played out in the realm of the Greek gods, Andromeda’s parents were the king and queen of Ethiopia. And Ethiopians were black.

The Greek Meaning of ‘Ethiopia’ (hint: not the country)