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.