Saffron, the Hue of the Gods Enmeshed in Scandal

How the color that once conveyed divinity, piety, and national pride became weaponized.

cymon iphigenia
Cymon and Iphigenia, 1884 (Lord Frederic Leighton, England, Art Gallery of NSW)

Mehr Singh


February 23, 2023


8 min

In the 8th century B.C., the Greek poet Homer found a new muse. His object of reverence was Eos, the Greek goddess of dawn. He wrote of his newfound infatuation in the Iliad: “Dawn in robe of saffron was hastening from the streams of Okeanos, to bring light to mortals and immortals.” Homer likens daybreak to a beautiful goddess clad in a diaphanous saffron-colored robe, an exquisite rarity in ancient Greece, used judiciously in medicine and as perfume for the ultra-affluent.

But in India’s late Bronze Age, saffron did not enjoy the same status. The Rig Vedas, written between 1500 and 1200 B.C., reads: “These ascetics, swathed in wind [nude], put dirty saffron rags on.” The natural dye, made from crushed saffron threads and turmeric, was inexpensive and readily available, while the Indian aristocracy opted for jewel tones — such as emerald and ruby — before turning their attention to soft pastels.

Now, however, for many South Asians, the red-orange shade carries a much more charged meaning. Even the phrase “sea of saffron” conjures images of nationalistic fervor and mob violence. So, how did the shade with umpteen meanings change over the course of history, and can saffron ever be just a shade again?

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