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)
The story of Perseus and Andromeda is at least as old as the fifth century B.C.E., when the playwrights Sophocles and Euripides drafted alternate versions for live audiences in the heart of ancient Greece. While their manuscripts are lost to us today, we do know Euripides’ Andromeda (412 B.C.E.) was set in Ethiopia. Daniel Ogden writes in his book Perseus, “We have explicit testimony of the fact.”
To be sure, Ethiopia wasn’t the only option. As Frank Snowden explains in Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, the “legend has both Asiatic and African settings,” including present-day Israel and Syria. And in Book VII of his History (440 B.C.E., translated by George Rawlinson), the Greek historian Herodotus located Cepheus’ kingdom in Persia, so named for one of the sons Perseus and Andromeda had.
The reason Ethiopia might have made sense, however, is that Perseus discovers Andromeda on his way home to Greece after killing Medusa and using her head to turn Atlas to stone. (The Atlas Mountains, you’ll recall, are on the African continent, though across the Sahara in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.) Don’t be fooled, though. To the writers of ancient Greece, Ethiopia (which meant “burnt face” to them) did not mean the country that exists today, but was the term they used to describe any black person from Africa. As Timothy Kendall explains on the PBS website for my documentary series, Wonders of the African World:
“Greek traditions told of Memnon, a legendary Nubian king who had fought in the Trojan War; they spoke of Nubia’s people, who were the ‘tallest and handsomest on earth,’ and whose piety was so great that the gods preferred their offerings to those of all other men. They also knew that historical Nubian kings had once conquered Egypt and ruled it for sixty years and that their dynasty was counted as Egypt's Twenty-fifth. The Greeks, however, did not call these people ‘Nubians’ or ‘Kushites,’ as we do today; they called them Aithiopes (‘Ethiopians’), which as previously mentioned, in Greek meant ‘Burnt-Faced Ones.’ They knew perfectly well that Nubians were black-skinned, as are the Sudanese of the same regions today.”
Enter Ovid of Rome
Among the constellation of ancient writers, Ovid, a Roman poet of the first century B.C.E-A.D., seems to have had the most doubts about the white virgin when updating the Greek myth for Latin audiences, Elizabeth McGrath explains in her fascinating 1992 article, “The Black Andromeda,” in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 55. Ovid is famous for his 15-volume set of ancient myths, The Metamorphoses, but in recounting the Perseus legend in Book IV, he gives us a hint of Andromeda’s appearance:
“As soon as Perseus, great-grandson of Abas, saw her [Andromeda] fastened by her arms to the hard rock, he would have thought she was a marble statue, except that a light breeze stirred her hair, and warm tears ran from her eyes.”
In this translation by A.S. Kline, Ovid’s Perseus associates Andromeda with her country, the Ethiopians, and is stunned by her beauty. Yet left open is whether she resembles a column of “white” marble, something Perseus had seen before, or “black” marble, something he is beholding for the first time. It is impossible to tell in isolation, McGrath writes, which is why we need to read The Metamorphoses alongside Ovid’s other writings. McGrath points us to a few:
1. In his first work, the Epistolae Heroidum (Epistles of the Heroines), Ovid uses the Latin word “fusca” to describe Andromeda, and “fusca” means “black or brown,” writes McGrath.
2. In the same epistle, Ovid has Sapho explain to Phaon: “though I’m not pure white, Cepheus’s dark/Andromeda/charmed Perseus with her native colour./White doves often choose mates of different hue/and the parrot loves the black turtle dove.”
3. And in Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), Ovid makes the following references to the daughter of the Ethiopian king:
a. That Perseus found her among “the black Indians” (i, 53);
b. That in terms of attraction, “Nor was Andromeda’s colour any problem/to her wing-footed aerial lover” (ii, 643-44);
c. And when it came to fashion, “White suits dark girls; you looked so attractive in/white/Andromeda” (iii, 191-192).
While McGrath is quick to point out Ovid could have imagined Andromeda as black or brown, as an African or Indian princess (given her flowing hair), one thing is clear: In Ovid’s world, she wasn’t white but dazzled wearing it.
Pacheco Uncovers the Lie
In her article, McGrath refers us to another intriguing artist, Francisco Pacheco, a 17th-century Spanish painter, who consulted the scholar Francisco de Rioja before picking up his brush to paint Andromeda. As Pacheco tells us in Arte De La Pintura (1649), he already had read of the “dark-skinned maiden Andromeda” in Petrarch’s Triumph of Love and “wanted to know/how it was that in Ethiopia the dark-skinned/maiden Andromeda/attracted him [Perseus] with her fine eyes and hair.”
De Rioja looked at the evidence, McGrath writes—from Apollodorus to Ovid and Pliny, Strabo, Hyginus—and concluded Andromeda was black. Recounting the argument, Pacheco himself concluded: “Now we see this story, explained most learnedly, goes contrary to the common practice of painting, which makes Andromeda pure white and most beautiful, although she was a native of Ethiopia. Still, the lies that painters multiply need not cause great wonder, even if they show their lack of knowledge; where they cannot be tolerated is in the stories and mysteries of our faith.”
Wiser but not necessarily glad, Pacheco decided to write a sonnet about Andromeda instead of painting her, McGrath writes—a reflection of the greater transformation that had occurred between the Septuangit (Greek Bible), which had equated “black” with “beautiful,” to the Vulgate (Latin Bible), which in the fourth century had begun inserting the word “but” between them. If black was the color of sin, the assumption ran, it could not be beautiful, and thus Perseus would have to have overlooked Andromeda’s outward appearance to fall in love.
“Whatever the case,” McGrath argues, “it seems clear that throughout the history of western art figures of female beauty, whether virginal or provocative, sacred or secular, are regularly assimilated to an ideal of European whiteness, even where ethnic origin might suggest they should be represented otherwise.”
There were other exceptions, however, including the Flemish painter Abraham van Diepenbeek, who rendered his Andromeda as black in 1665 in the Tableaux du Temple des Muses. Yet even then, McGrath notes, the artist was scolded by his editor, Michel de Marolles (Abbe de Villeloin), who couldn’t understood why Diepenbeek would have wanted to fill her in with a “Moorish colour” when she was supposed to have been the most beautiful woman in the world.
McGrath attributes the confusion to Ovid’s spare “marble” metaphor. “Adhering to the ‘canonical’ text of the Metamorphosis as much as to prevailing norms of beauty seems to have assured the suppression of the black Andromeda.” As a result, artists over the centuries saw the Andromeda they wanted to see, and, for proof, pointed to alternative sources for her white-skin. Among them was a peculiar Greek romance that has bedeviled literary scholars to this day.
The story of Queen Persinna, also of Ethiopia but later, comes to us from the Greek writer Heliodorus, born in Syria around 200 B.C.E. In 1587, his romance Aethiopica was translated into English by Thomas Underdowne, and was considered to be the oldest of Greek romances.
The book begins in the kingdom of Meroe (modern-day Sudan) as Persinna, wife of King Hydaspes, gives birth to a white daughter she names Chariclea—an upsetting and confounding situation, given that the king and queen are black. In a letter to Chariclea, Persinna attributes her daughter’s anomalous color to the fact that when Persinna became pregnant with her, she was gazing up at a picture of the white-skinned Andromeda. “[T]hou wert born white, which colour is strange among the Ethiopians. I knew the reason, that it was because, while my husband had to do with me, I was looking at the picture of Andromeda brought down by Perseus naked from the rock, and so by mishap engendered presently a thing like to her.”
Aware of possible accusations of adultery, Persinna sends her daughter to Egypt, where she grows up to become a priestess of Apollo. As an adult, Chariclea falls in love with Theagnes, and in the course of their adventure, is reunited with her parents once she is able to convince them of her black roots, visible, McGrath notes, in “the black spot on her elbow.” (“Sounds like the sister had vitiligo,” a friend of mine said when she heard this! The Aethiopica is a wild ride, and you can read an English translation here.)
Aethiopica, like scattered Greek vases here and there, created an alternative history for Andromeda on which race-conscious writers could seize centuries later, McGrath explains: the exceptional white princess in a land of black Ethiopians with the power to inspire similar transformations among those captivated by her iconic beauty.
Even our old friend, Joel A. Rogers, knew about her iconic impact, though as clever a researcher as Rogers was, in his list of Amazing Facts (No. 39), he took Andromeda’s skin color for granted, suggesting that her “presence” as the “white statue in the room at the time of conception” was a literary device that Heliodorus had used in his “romance” for something “with probable basis in fact”—Queen Persinna had a “mulatto daughter.” (For more on the Aethiopica’s influence on later writers, see my colleague Werner Sollors’ 1999 book, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature.)
The Andromeda Constellation
On Earth, the confusion over Andromeda’s color has persisted. For example, in the popular Bulfinch’s Mythology Illustrated, Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867) described Andromeda as “pale and motionless,” Ovid’s “marble statue,” on one hand; while, on the other, he wrote that Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia,
“was an Aethiopian, and consequently, in spite of her boasted beauty, black; at least so [John] Milton seems to have thought, who alludes to this story in his ‘Penseroso,’ where he addresses Melancholy as the
‘… goddess, sage and holy,
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight,
And, therefore, to our weaker view
O’erlaid with black, staid Wisdom’s hue.
Black, but such as in esteem
Prince Memnon’s sister might beseem,
Or that starred AEthiop queen that strove
To set her beauty’s praise above
The sea-nymphs, and their powers offended.’ ”
“Cassiopeia,” Bulfinch added, “is called ‘the starred AEthiop queen’ because after her death she was placed among the stars, forming the constellation of that name.”
The same belief was true of Andromeda, for, as the myth goes, after having children with Perseus (including, according to Edith Hamilton, Electryon, grandfather of Hercules), Andromeda became a constellation, even a galaxy, still visible in our sky. In this way, while over the centuries assumptions about Andromeda’s whiteness mutated and spread like the Andromeda Strain of Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel, she hovered above as the daughter of an Ethiopian king witnessing cruelties heaped upon the people of Africa dispersed throughout the New World, a situation unimaginable in 2,500 B.C.E.
Du Bois’ Black Andromeda
One man convinced of Andromeda’s blackness, and looking to her for the world’s salvation in the 20th century, was W.E.B. Du Bois, the father of Pan-Africanism. Quoting the same Milton poem as Bulfinch, he used Andromeda as a metaphor for Africa in the climactic chapter of his 1947 book, The World and Africa: An Inquiry Into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History. “[T]his folk tale was part of the culture complex of the Mediterranean area where there was no color bar or name for race,” Du Bois wishfully wrote in an attempt to reclaim Western civilization for black people while trying to galvanize those descended from it still soaked in the nationalism, racism and violence of world war. “We owe it to Africa and ourselves to release Andromeda and place her free and beautiful among the stars of the sky,” Du Bois argued. To drive this point home, he devoted his book’s last chapter to “Andromeda,” pointing his readers to the stars of Africa so long obscured in history and in the skies. “The stars of dark Andromeda belong up there in the great heaven that hangs above this tortured world.”
Why, you might ask, should this matter to anyone other than historians of Africa, who, like my friend John Thornton at Boston University, pointed out the inaccuracies of Clash of the Titans to me in an email following a recent viewing with his family?
For much of our history, the assumption was that Western civilization, from the Greeks and Romans to the Greco-Roman architecture lining the Mall in Washington, was “of, by and for” white people, with black people playing only bit roles as nemeses to slay or servants to summon. There was a reason black people had no place in the great books of civilization, the argument went. They were and had long been considered an “unfortunate race,” a view that had “prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted,” and thus could not easily be written out, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote in his opinion for the court in the 1857 Dred Scott decision.
As a result of this banishment from Western civilization’s foundational texts, whites felt they had justification for enslaving blacks and, later, forcing them to attend segregated schools and learn they had no history worth studying, for a day, a week or a month. All of which gave special resonance to what Du Bois himself wrote in his greatest book of all, The Souls of Black Folk, in 1903: “From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”
In summoning the best of Greek and Roman literature to him, Du Bois was teaching African Americans trapped behind the color line not to view themselves as outsiders but as agents whose ancestors had played pivotal roles in the birth of the civilization now oppressing them. Yes, to him, to us, the story of Andromeda matters because it reminds us we don’t have to insert all-black casts in traditionally white stories like a reverse wood-cutting but to insist on casting them authentically based on their own underlying geography. It also teaches us that long before there was race-based slavery, black characters like Andromeda married the hero of all heroes, Perseus, son of Zeus, and were so imbued with beauty, majesty and power that they filled the sky with their heavenly glow.
When we fail to insist on the truth implied by her home in Ethiopia, we fall into the same unfortunate trap that allowed ”enlightened” devotees of classical literature—like our earliest American presidents—to rationalize slavery as the inalterable fate of a naturally inferior people, while allowing the West to cling proudly to its belief in the ever-more progressive march of history, despite the fact that it took the U.S. Supreme Court until 1967 to bless what the king of Ethiopia had sanctioned 2,500 years before: interracial marriage between a hero and his princess.
That is what I see in “the tracery of the stars,” and so let me close with a modest proposal: If anyone in Hollywood plans on making another version of Clash of the Titans, how about casting Lupita Nyong’o as your Ethiopian princess? She’s already a star.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.