The ‘wine-dark sea’, or ‘oínopa pónton’, is probably one of Homer’s most romantic and simultaneously confusing epithets. It is certainly one that has always captivated me.
One popular explanation stems from the frequent practice of the grape loving Greeks to dilute their wine with as much as six or eight parts of water. The water from the Peloponnesus peninsula, home to a large number of limestone and marble formations, could have produced a high level of alkaline in the ground water. Perhaps even enough to change the burgundy red wine to a shade of blue!
However, some scholars, such as Robert Fitzgerald, believe in a meteorological explanation, citing the ability of a high dust content in the atmosphere to provide a dark red sunset that reflected most brilliantly on the glassy sea. Recalling a trip by ship he took from the Corinth Canal into the Saronic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, he writes:
”The contrast of the bare arid baked land against the sea gave the sea such a richness of hue that I felt as though we were sailing through a bowl of dye. The depth of hue of the water was like the depth of hue of a good red wine. So I associate the expression with the richness of hue rather than a specific colour. I’ve been content with that as my personal interpretation.”
I’d put this question to the back of my mind for some time, simply enjoying the poetry of the enigmatic phrase and taking pleasure in these complex and scientific explanations. Recently, my curiosity was piqued once again, in part because of an assignment that warranted another read of the the Iliad but also in response to the high number of articles questioning just when our ancestors were able to see the colour blue. Indeed, there is no Greek word for ‘blue’, but a collective colour blindness seems quite extraordinary…
This article on Business Insider, based around the findings of philologist Lazarus Geiger (and former 19th century P.M. William Gladstone), was a particulalry enlightening and involving read:
“He studied Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. Of Hindu Vedic hymns, he wrote: “These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again … but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs … and that is that the sky is blue.”
“Every language first had a word for black and for white, or dark and light. The next word for a color to come into existence — in every language studied around the world — was red, the color of blood and wine.”
“It seemed the Greeks lived in a murky and muddy world, devoid of color, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow.”
“The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians — and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.”
So…did red wine turn blue? Did the blue waters become red? Do we look to geology, astrology or maybe even a phenomenon of red algae?
Or, as much evidence suggests, did the colour blue merely not ‘exist’ at all, unperceived by many ancient civilisations?
But then how does the adoration of the astonishingly blue lapis lazuli, something that began in antiquity, fit into all this? Or indeed the frequent use of the indigo dye secreted by the hexaplex trunculus sea snail, primarily for aristocracy, among the Phoenicians?
All we have is conjecture…but uncertainty is one of my favourite things about Classics.
However, the effect of the imagery of the ‘wine-dark sea’ cannot be doubted. Mentioned only a handful of times (I think a mere six in the Iliad?) the memorable epithet remains both alluring and mysterious. Both glaukós (gleaming) and mélas (gloomy, dark) and retaining the ability to frame narrative, vividly reflect mood and influence atmosphere, it is surely a powerful character of its own in the world of gods, heroes and monsters that inhabit Homeric epic.