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Homer's Wine-dark Sea (Part 1)



 In Homer's two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the phrase "wine-dark sea" occurs dozens of times. Actually, it's more like "wine-looking" (oinops, from oinos, wine and op-, the root for "see," as in optic). The phrase isn't just of interest to scholars of ancient literature, but has attracted an abundance of scientific interest. Was Homer simply playing with a nice metaphor? Was he color-blind? (Or totally blind as one tradition has it.) Did a repeated "red tide" (red-colored marine algae) suggest the phrase to him? Or maybe it was the wine that looked vaguely aqua, after it had been diluted with alkaline groundwater which, Photoshop-style, decreased red and increased blue.

William Ewart Gladstone, 10 years before becoming one of Britain's most liberal and effective prime ministers, took up the challenge. He was enamored with the Iliad and the Odyssey, calling them "the most extraordinary phenomenon in the whole history of purely human culture." In his 1858 opus Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, he proposed that ancient Greeks lacked our rich sense of color, seeing their world much as we see at dusk when vivid noonday hues have been diluted to weakly tinted grays. As one line of evidence, Gladstone cites Homer's curious color vocabulary: In the two poems, the words for "black" and "white" occur 170 and 100 times respectively, while Homer's most common color word "red" appears a mere 13 times. "Blue" appears not at all -- in fact, there was no word for blue in the Greek of that time. (The word that later meant blue, kuaneos, was simply "dark" for Homer, as in "dark-browed Zeus.")

How to explain the ancient Greeks' apparent color-deficiency? In an out-of-the-box speculation, Gladstone proposed that humans acquired their sensitivity to the color spectrum only since the time of Homer, as a result of Lamarckian inheritance. Lamarckism, the theory that an organism can pass on characteristics acquired during its lifetime to its offspring, was current at the time of Gladstone's speculations (and would be until about 1880, when it was overtaken by Darwinian evolution). The theory in its simplest form is not true, although some argue it is being partly revived as we better understand epigenetics. For Gladstone, Lamarckism was a mechanism by which essentially color-blind humans could evolve color-sensitivity in the space of a few generations. He cited the invention of artificial paints and dyes, starting around 3,000 years ago, as the catalyst for kick-starting our forebears' newly acquired sense of color.

Several 19th century anthropologists took up Gladstone's proposal, noting that the living languages of "primitive" societies routinely lack the full spectrum of color words employed by "civilized" Europeans. Perhaps, they argued, our darker-skinned brethren share the ancient Greek's putative color-blindness -- conveniently forgetting (again taking an obvious example) that their offhand use of "black" and "white" for skin coloring misrepresented reality. (When's the last time you saw a really white or black person?)

Next week we'll look at the modern (Lamarckian-free!) answer to the lack of color words in both ancient Greek and many modern languages.

Barry Evans ( sees only six colors in a rainbow -- which is three more than the purple, green/yellow and red noted by Greek philosopher Xenophanes.

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