General · Non-Fiction

The Wine-Dark Sea

I read Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher last week.

In it, he says something surprising, that the phrase “the wine-dark sea” from Homer’s epic is not poetic license (it certainly looks like poetic license to me!) but straight description. And not even description of the color of the sea – the Ancient Greeks apparently had no word for the color blue – but a description of the darkness of the sea.

And not just sheep, but oxen, too: the wine-dark oxen.

Also, Homer also apparently uses violet to describe the sea, sheep and iron.

I was really quite astonished. The idea of describing how dark a color is instead of the specific color strikes me as odd.

But if you have no word for blue – blue things being rare in nature; the color of the sky and ocean are vastly different from each other and change based on the time of day anyway and weather. With such few blue things around you, maybe you don’t need a word for blue. And how would you then describe the sea or the sky?

13 thoughts on “The Wine-Dark Sea

  1. I find his choice of the word wine dark unusual unless of course they only made wine from red grapes and not white….. I think it would be a difficult thing to convey the colour of the sky without the words for the various shades of blue, the sea could also have been green,viridian etc. I assume they had a word for green?

    1. Yeah, they did, but according to the book, and the word means green in modern Greek. But they used the word to describe lightness. Faces pale with fear and honey and so on.

      And the book says Homer never did describe describe the sky as blue. LOL

  2. I guess it makes sense. Languages evolve in different ways. Throughout history in Japanese colors have faded in and out of the lexicon. Some colors were only used based on the object that was being described. Some colors were combined to mean two colors. If everyone agrees on the mechanics of the language, then it’s doing it’s job, but looking back on things from today, it seems confusing, because we don’t share those same mechanics.

  3. It was more sensible in Homer’s time and culture when they didn’t identify things so much by color. He didn’t mean that the sea or oxen were the color of wine, but that they had a luster comparable to it. Mountains are also bronze in some of his poetry for the same reason.

  4. It’s strange to think of cultures not having names for certain colors that we take for granted. It makes sense though. Like you said, blue is not the most common color. I had never thought to describe something based on the luster or depth of color before. Then again, color is a personal thing and it’s hard to say what a color really is. Color is just how our eyes and brains perceive light waves. It gives me a bit of a headache to think about it, tbh. 🙂

  5. I’ve not read much of Homer, but have delved much into Polycarp and Tertullian; still, I often stand amazing and inspired by how these fascinating men pondered on such small aspects in life only to uncover more of its depth. I love reading about these philosophers they often wake me up from my complacency 🙂

  6. Wow, really? No word for blue? I can’t imagine that, or what other colours or words it might apply to. Thanks for sharing this!

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