Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Wine-Dark Sea

Why, you may often have asked yourself, is Homer's sea invariably 'wine-dark'? Dark is descriptive enough, but the resemblance to wine is elusive... The clue is in another Homeric fact: that there are only four colours in all of Homer - black, white, greeenish-yellow and red. No blue. It seems perception of colours evolves slowly, beginning with the obvious light-dark distinction that gives rise to black and white, then invariably (this is according to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's 1968 study Basic Colour Terms) the third colour to be named is red, followed by green and yellow, with blue trailing in sixth and brown seventh. This appears to be universal, across all human cultures, and it would explain why some languages still have the same word for 'red' and 'coloured' (Spanish colorado, Portuguese tinto). So it would seem that, in the absence of blue, Homer saw the sea as simply 'coloured', therefore 'red' - this despite living in a landscape dominated by the vast and various blues of Greek sky and sea. How very odd.

19 comments:

  1. Very odd indeed. I've heard that before and I still can't really get my head round it.

    What colours will the transhumans be able to talk about?

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  2. Fascinating.

    As are the different connotations colours can have in different languages. For example, in English we talk of a blue joke, whereas in Spanish it is a chiste verde. (similarly, the Spanish for a dirty old man is "viejo verde").

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  3. Yes I've heard that before too and puzzled over it. I thought perhaps "wine-dark" was referring to the sea at dusk, dawn or at night, so that like tall tales told over wine Homer was hinting that his stories emerged from a kind of cosmic mixing-bowl.

    Lots of people say that since all humans can see the same spectrum of colours, it must simply mean the Greeks saw blue but didn't have specific words for blue. Not sure it's as simple as that. I've read elsewhere that to the Greeks colour wasn't nearly so abstract as it is to us. So to the Greeks an object was described by its qualities, and since colour wasn't a primo quality calling something "blue" was pretty meaningless.

    But really, dunno. Pas un clue. Where is Mary Beard when you need her ...

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  4. Homer uses 'kyanos' for blue - it's where we get cyan from. I always thought "wine-dark" was a marvellously descriptive epithet - that sort of inky, bluey-purply colour you get in deep water. And what about "rosy-fingered" dawn? Makes sense to me.

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  5. Really Sophie? I never got 'wine-dark'. It sounds cool but I couldn't picture it other than for the sea at night or dim half-light - seemed a very odd description. I prefer the snotgreen scrotumtightening sea.

    Rosy-fingered makes more sense and is also cool, but of course Homer repeats the same tropes so bloody often that it becomes quite comic.

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  6. It seems the ancient Greeks' use of colour adjectives was a rum business altogether. Of course Homer was always thought to be blind....
    My son is coulourblind and describes his colour world as mostly varying shades and intensities of a kind of green, which darkens towards black at the red end of the spectrum.

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  7. I agree Sophie that wine-dark does seem oddly appropriate for Greek waters, especially when you're out in them - and dawn's rosy fingers are purely descriptive (well if the weather's right)...

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  8. It may be that we have more need to refer to colours than the ancients did. I'd guess it's a language thing rather than perception - in Britain gold was usually "red" wasn't it? "The gude red gold"? And what word was used for orange before oranges were first imported?
    All that being said, remember Homer wouldn't have drunk his wine from a transparent glass vessel, but from one of bronze, silver or gold. Wine was usually stored and transported in conainers of pottery or bronze.So the colour would be less obvious (until spilt on the settee, of course). Pour red wine into a dark cup and the red colour pretty much disappears. What you see is most obviously a dark liquid - dark but still transparent - that might actually be quite close to the colour of a sea in failing light, particularly if seen from directly above.

    Maybe.

    Pete

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  9. I think orange was red (a fox was red) and red could be pink (the coats of those who hunt him). Good point about wine vessels - in fact good points galore here. Thanks to all.

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  10. Hi Nige,

    All of the pictures and tones created by Homer when referring to the Greeks are dark and the only lightness in the entire poem are Trojan. His method can be seen a tad clearer in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam where you have the garden (civilisation)and the wilderness. In Hesiod's Work and Days, between the farmer (civilisation) and the Sheepherder. And in all of the Greek plays, where you have the new and old gods.
    Homer uses the interface -the beach- between the two as the area of conflict. But leaves up to you to make the judgement, for when he addresses either the Trojan or the Greek, the action is in degrees of darkness or light.
    Rome came down on the side of Troy, to be expected really. While we tend to the Greek side. The launching of the thousand ships and all that. So, it's not really a question of colour or its absence. Nevertheless, there might be a simple explanation, for the tongue on either side and up and down the coasts was different. Think on the issues in English between one region and another.

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  11. Ruskin, in Queen of the Air, has a rather different explanation, and a more beautiful one. I'm sure the text is online somewhere...

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  12. "The gude red gold": impurities?

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  13. freewheelinfranklin10 November 2010 at 16:58

    I am a Mediterranean yacht charter Captain who has spent many years gazing over the sea, I have passed many of the sites mentioned in Homeric poetry. I have often seen the sea 'wine dark', particularly as the 'rosy fingered dawn' of the sunrise appears. I have always thought that Homer was an experienced seafarer as this is a view of the sea that landspeople rarely encounter.Any way thats the view from my bridge and I hope that is useful info for the debate.

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  14. Having just seen the Aegean for the first time, I'm now obsessed with this question too. But I think the key is that it's not the COLOR of the sea Homer was describing with "wine-dark", but rather it's darkness. And indeed, in a photo I took of the Aegean I noticed it did have a particularly inky quality. The wine reference may also suggest the sea's beguiling quality.

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  15. I've just been reading a book called "Language through the looking glass" which goes into this very well. The author makes the point that it's about terminology, not the actual perception of colours. for instance, why do we consider turquoise and navy to both be shades of blue when in fact they are very, very different colours indeed.

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  16. It is with gratitude that I have quoted your post (and acknowledged its source) in my blog:

    http://nixpixmix.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/wine-dark-sea.html

    Thank you.

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  17. didnt read all the comments but the blog up there and the 1968 study it refers to is plain retarded. you need to see the aegean sea and live it day by day to understand what homer is referring to. on a cloudy day the color can be beautifully described as close to that of wine. this is especially relevant to a people for whom wine forms a basic staple of life. sorry but i cant take 'western' manipulations/miscalculations and the resulting "stretching" of symbolism and meanings 'eastern' art.

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    Replies
    1. the retarded part is the suggestion that a living piece of art like the illiad (not written down until very late and then edited by generations of poets) describes the sea wine dark because it simply lacks understanding of color and shades! dam!

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