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Achilles sat on the shore and looked out to the wine-dark sea
August 12, 2013 4:41 AM   Subscribe

That Homer used the epithet "wine-dark" to describe the sea in the Iliad and Odyssey so puzzled 19th Century English Prime Minister William Gladstone that he thought the Ancient Greeks must have been colorblind. Since then many other solutions have been proposed. Scientists have argued that Ancient Greek wine was blue and some scholars have put forward the case that Homer was describing the sea at sunset. Radiolab devoted a segment to the exploration of this issue, saying that Gladstone was partly right. Another interpretation is that the Ancient Greeks focused on different aspects of color from us. Classicist William Harris' short essay about purple in Homer and Iliad translator Caroline Alexander's longer essay The Wine-like Sea make the case for this interpretation.
posted by Kattullus (108 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

 
Related: James Joyce's homage to it in Ulysses: “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.”
posted by Hugobaron at 4:52 AM on August 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


Whatever Radiolab concluded, pick the opposite interpretation to be factually correct.
posted by spitbull at 5:00 AM on August 12, 2013 [17 favorites]


Reading Caroline Alexander's essay it strikes me that she almost arrives at, but misses, what may be the solution to the riddle.

So what color is the sea? Silver-pewter at dawn; gray, gray-blue, green-blue, or blue depending on the particular day; yellow or red at sunset; silver-black at dusk; black at night. In other words, no color at all, but rather a phenomenon of reflected light. The phrase “winelike,” then, had little to do with color but must have evoked some attribute of dark wine that would resonate with an audience familiar with the sea—with the póntos, the high sea, that perilous path to distant shores—such as the glint of surface light on impenetrable darkness, like wine in a terracotta vessel. Thus, when Achilles, “weeping, quickly slipping away from his companions, sat /on the shore of the gray salt sea,” stretches forth his hands toward the oínopa pónton, he looks not on the enigmatic “winedark sea,” but, more explicitly, and possibly with more weight of melancholy, on a “sea as dark as wine.”

The original meaning is not wine-dark but wine-like. The deep ocean is being compared to some aspect of wine. Is it color? She is making the argument that it is not but that it is another aspect of light. This other aspect is, I think, opacity.

The deep sea, the open sea, is opaque like wine unlike the shallow seas, the shores which are more like water.
posted by vacapinta at 5:01 AM on August 12, 2013 [32 favorites]


I've never gotten this, honestly. It's the wine-DARK sea, or the wine-ISH sea, not the wine-COLORED sea. Wine is a liquid that can be close to black at times, which is pretty dramatic and notable in an era when you can't just pop down to the store to buy ink or Coke. So like, the sea is a dark impenetrable liquid, perhaps also imbued with some other aspects of wine-ness like transformation, sacredness, age, the ability to mess with peoples' minds...

It's a beautiful metaphor that needs no weird justifications like "lol the Greeks literally can't see colors"
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:01 AM on August 12, 2013 [115 favorites]


Harris' whole site is worth browsing, by the way.
posted by thelonius at 5:03 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


the scrotumtightening sea.”

As black as sackcloth, I take it?
posted by ShutterBun at 5:06 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The way I understood Alexander, vacapinta, is that she's saying that Homer meant that the sea is both opaque and reflective, like wine.
posted by Kattullus at 5:09 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it is also misguided to deduce the everyday thoughts of Greeks by analysing poetic language.

Shakespeare never refers to the sky as blue either but I wouldn't base deductions about Elizabetheans on that.
posted by vacapinta at 5:13 AM on August 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I had no idea that over-analysis of this line was even a thing, and now that I do know, my reaction is the same as showbiz_liz's - namely, WTF, scholarship?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 5:14 AM on August 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's a beautiful metaphor that needs no weird justifications like "lol the Greeks literally can't see colors"

Agreed. This is the first I've heard of the line, and it's immediately recognizable and not the slightest bit odd to me.
posted by odinsdream at 5:17 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not a double, but I recall an earlier remark by delmoi in this thread about color perception: In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color.
posted by three blind mice at 5:27 AM on August 12, 2013


Whatever Radiolab concluded, pick the opposite interpretation to be factually correct.

Seriously. I don't get why this show is so revered. One guy hates science, the other loves it but doesn't know any. Also he hates math.
posted by DU at 5:28 AM on August 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


It wasn't just winedark, but also other color terms, e.g. honey being described as green.
posted by Kattullus at 5:31 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wait.. did that NYT article actually manage to get through its whole length without writing down the actual word used by Homer? That's kind of weird.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:33 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's a photo of something probably dyed with real Tyrian purple: Charlemagne's shroud. Tyrian purple was on its way out and this is later than I would have supposed, but presumably his family could have afforded it and, as Pliny says, it's the color of clotted blood.

I've found other instances where there seems to be conflation or confusion between blue, purple, and red. Consider hyacinths, the flower allegedly named after a youth loved by Apollo and created from his blood. Hyacinths are mostly a bluish purple, not blood-like at all; but then we have jacinths, red gems whose name sounds so very similar.

Take that boy's name in Greek: υάκινθος, "Yakinthos". The Akkadians, who traded with the Greek islands, had a bluish dye called uqnâtu. Look at the consonants of the two words: K-N-T. That would explain the identification of "hyacinth" with blue, but how about red? Well, the Greek word for blue is κυανός (kyanos), cyan. It's thought to come from a Hittite word for copper: kuwanna(n). Copper is red, but its carbonates are a lovely blue. Is that the source of this conflation? That is, did two similar words spring from this coincidence, so that the rich color of a red wine can poetically occupy the same mental space as the deep blue shade of the sea? I don't know, but I think it's a real possibility.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:45 AM on August 12, 2013 [29 favorites]


It is just barely possible that a website reader's notion of "over analysis" doesn't line up with that of someone who studies Homer as a profession, or who translates Homeric poetry....
posted by thelonius at 5:48 AM on August 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


This is bizarre. "Wine-dark" is a famous MIStranslation. The phrase means "wine-faced" (having a surface like that of wine.). This is like hearing that scholars have been debating for a century whether the French wore glass slippers, or exactly how awful Ivan the Terrible must have been.
posted by kyrademon at 5:49 AM on August 12, 2013 [25 favorites]


JoeinAustralia, your comment's smarter than the Radiolab episode and the NYT article put together.
posted by aught at 5:51 AM on August 12, 2013


Or, maybe... And this is a big maybe...

Maybe we shouldn't read too much into the word choice of a poet who may have been:
A) Focusing more on keeping the rhythm
B) By some accounts was fucking blind
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 5:53 AM on August 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


Whatever Radiolab concluded, pick the opposite interpretation to be factually correct.

Is this a thing? Radiolab is known for coming to factually incorrect conclusions?
posted by quiet coyote at 5:55 AM on August 12, 2013


Two millenia from now, scholars will be debating what color a television tuned to a dead channel was.
posted by octothorpe at 5:55 AM on August 12, 2013 [39 favorites]


In the previous thread linked by three blind mice above, painquale points out the following:

Also, the ancient Greeks didn't have a word for blue

Sure they did. κύανος, the root of 'cyan', was used by pre-Homerics. Homer actually uses the word too, but he uses it oddly; for instance, he uses it to describe the color of Hector's hair. The likely conclusion to draw here is that Homer was color-blind and apt to confuse colors, not that the Greeks didn't have a word for blue.

posted by quiet coyote at 5:57 AM on August 12, 2013


Just to complicate matters, in Old English gold (the metal) is red -

Þu gelitenest swa read gold, ealra fugela king, Fenix gehaten
[You shine like red gold, king of all birds, called Phoenix]
posted by Major Tom at 6:01 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


And for Paul Celan milk is black ...

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
posted by Major Tom at 6:03 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's so nice to see the classics here on the purple.
posted by srboisvert at 6:04 AM on August 12, 2013 [36 favorites]


It's so nice to see the classics here on the purple.

Sun-purple or moon-purple?

purple purple purple
posted by curious nu at 6:10 AM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Whatever Radiolab concluded, pick the opposite interpretation to be factually correct.

Ah, so instead of being partly right, Gladstone was partly wrong.
posted by Segundus at 6:10 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Isn't "black milk" ink? That's how I've always understood it.
posted by Kattullus at 6:10 AM on August 12, 2013


This is a great post!

It reminds me of a hilarious misinterpretation that some friends and I made when we were working in Shanghai and none of us had much mandarin. We all arrived via Hongqiao airport, of course, and one of us (armed with a mandarin dictionary, a very dangerous tool in the hands of the novice) looked up "hong" and "qiao" separately, and somehow decided that the name of the airport was "Red [which is correct for this particular 'hong'] and strike/punch/blow. So all through our time there, we assumed that the airport had some kind of farcically communist name - "Red Strike airport! Welcome to Shanghai, the sophisticated and elegant business capital of coastal China!"

And then I was leaving, and in the cab to the airport (they had come with me to see me off) we all somehow realized that it was Red Bridge airport, and that "red" carries a secondary meaning of bright or beautiful, and that it was the red bridge, the bright bridge, the rainbow, Rainbow Airport - the bright bridge of the air bringing the airplanes!
posted by Frowner at 6:11 AM on August 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


Is this a thing? Radiolab is known for coming to factually incorrect conclusions?

Radiolab is a show that often focuses on scientific facts but is not hosted by scientists, so it should be taken as such. It's no worse and in many instances considerably better than most science journalism.

Mostly though it's a show that people who hate (mostly because of how it's produced) need everyone to know that they hate hate hate it so much.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:17 AM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Bathtub Bobsled: "Maybe we shouldn't read too much into the word choice of a poet who may have been:
A) Focusing more on keeping the rhythm
B) By some accounts was fucking blind
"

From the NYT article ..
Dr. Cattley dismisses the suggestion that Homer, being blind, made an unreliable witness in such matters. ''We don't know if Homer was blind,'' he said. ''It's a tradition, that's all. In fact, some people argue that there was no one person called Homer.''

So may be everything is not so settled about reasons for Homer's color related metaphors.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 6:21 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thought it was a literary metaphor. Just as drinking wine puts one into a dream state, so does peering into the ocean - the ocean being a metaphor for dreams and memory. There is also the pleasing color connection, wine being the color of blood, which is the color of the sea at sunrise and sunset, a time when journeys are started or ended.
posted by stbalbach at 6:23 AM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


The cartoon sea, the Homer-yellow sea.
posted by oulipian at 6:24 AM on August 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Is this a thing? Radiolab is known for coming to factually incorrect conclusions?

They've gotten some grief for sometimes seeming more interested in narrative punch and drama than exploring the actual science of the topic -- and the hosts' own cutsey discomfort with science and math alienate a lot of listeners and make some of us wonder if they would even know if they were presenting total nonsense, so long as it sounded good (literally, since Abumrad is mainly an award-winning audio engineer).

They've further alienated other science-interested listeners with a lot of lazy religious-like woo in recent seasons ("What if, instead of science being right, there was... the Unknown???" kind of stuff that they lapse into too often) and a couple instances of weird insensitivity to the difficulties of guests they're interviewing (they grilled a Vietnamese massacre survivor until his interviewer cried), which has further made folks less likely to give the hosts the benefit of the doubt.

I mean, it's pop-science, presented by an actor and a studio whiz, really on a par with the Discovery channel in actual content, but gussied up in NPR trappings and the accompanying sense of authority.
posted by aught at 6:25 AM on August 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


This is a weird, prescriptivist way to look at language, especially from so long ago; Then again, on the subject of Homer, it's always bothered me that the word "Cyclopean" has come to mean "really big".
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:25 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a weird, prescriptivist way to look at language

Why?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:28 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Maybe we shouldn't read too much into the word choice of a poet who may have been:
A) Focusing more on keeping the rhythm
B) By some accounts was fucking blind
C) More likely than not, never actually existed, certainly not in the sense that loons like Gladstone imagined
posted by MartinWisse at 6:32 AM on August 12, 2013


It's just a flowery description, come on scientists. Why then is no one studying ancient astronomical texts to see if dawn really could have had rosy fingers?

see also kyrademon's comment on the likelihood of mistranslation
posted by elizardbits at 6:34 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Obligatory QI Clip: What color was the sky in ancient Greece?
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:34 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, count me as another one who doesn't really get why this needs solving. Sure, the sea looks blue when you're looking down on it from a distance. But when you're right up close to it in a small boat, which is how the Homeric Greeks would have experienced it, seawater looks very dark -- sort of navy-blackish -- with a little sheen on the ripples where the light hits. But mostly it's dark. Like dark wine. "Something dark and glossy with a sheen on it" is also a good way to describe the coats of healthy oxen, for whom this epithet is also used.

Not to mention: yes, most wine is garnet-like dark red, but how do we know that? Because we drink it out of containers made out of transparent glass. We can see the light shining through it. Whereas the ancient Greeks drank their wine out of clay vessels, in which it would have looked pretty damn opaque -- they only would have seen the red color when it was poured or spilled.
posted by ostro at 6:36 AM on August 12, 2013 [18 favorites]


it's always bothered me that the word "Cyclopean" has come to mean "really big".

Thanks, Mr. Lovecraft, for keeping that word alive.
posted by Artw at 6:37 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Based on my extensive expertise from struggling through The Iliad my freshman year in college (Lattimore translation, thankyouverymuch), I'm going to go with this explanation: "Besides, in Greek the phrase wine-dark sea made a perfect flourish at the end of the hexameter line used by Homer." It seems insane to not consider the literary explanation first.
posted by Nelson at 6:41 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


it's always bothered me that the word "Cyclopean" has come to mean "really big".

Unfortunately, your complaint is a little late.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:57 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Count me as another person who doesn't understand why "wine-dark" is an inscrutable metaphor. It made perfect sense to me. The interesting part of the Radiolab segment was all about how we perceive color and the use of language to describe colors we see vs. use. That would be an interesting topic to follow up on, at least regarding how much of the work in the Radiolab segment is true.
posted by deanc at 7:04 AM on August 12, 2013


Is this something you have to watch Hercules: The Legendary Journeys to understand?
posted by Atreides at 7:12 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Shakespeare never refers to the sky as blue either but I wouldn't base deductions about Elizabetheans on that.

But... but... The Elizabetheans did all talk in blank verse all the f'ing time, right?

Don't destroy my dreams!
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:19 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm a historian and not a philologist, so maybe this is just one of the hundreds of quirks of Greek that my Latin-leaning brain will never quite get, but there's no "dark" or even "purple" inherent in oinopa ponton. It's wine-eyed. It's the same construction used to call Athena "grey-eyed" (glaukopis), and no one argues that Athena is grey-faced. The sea is personified. The epithet has always seemed to me less of a description of color than something more to do with motion or spirit.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:33 AM on August 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


vacapinta: "I think it is also misguided to deduce the everyday thoughts of Greeks by analysing poetic language.

Shakespeare never refers to the sky as blue either but I wouldn't base deductions about Elizabetheans on that.
"

Yeah, I'd say this is all much ado about nothing.
posted by symbioid at 7:33 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, while Homer sparked the question, the issue was not over this single line or even just Homer. Early literature of various languages was studied, and the conclusion was reached that none of these writers used colors in the same way modern people do. The interpretation of that conclusion is certainly debatable, but it's not as if these people are hairsplitting over one bit of poetic license.
posted by tau_ceti at 7:48 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just to emphasize how different Homer as a writer was from a certain contemporary type of quasi-journalist writer soaking up world-details with his/her own senses and transliterating them into words: one of the major modern interpretations of what 'Homer' was is: not a fictive label for what was actually an accretive process of many poets over many generations (the dominant interpretation through the 19th-20th Cs), but in fact one person who was the heir and collater of just such a collaborative oral tradition, who took it upon himself to make a written copy of his own versions of 2 poems created by a bunch of people over centuries--Homer as the end-point of a collaborative tradition, not the beginning of one. This explains a) why the poems use language from vastly different times, even two different forms of the same word from eras hundreds of years apart, and yet b) why the poems appear to in fact have been written by a single person (based on style and cohesion), but also c) why it makes almost no sense to look to Homer's sense-perception as a reason for why he would choose a word. The oral tradition the poems emerged out of relied on stock phrases to an extraordinary degree (because, it's theorized, the poems would be party improvised in performance; improv-ers need stock memorized stuff to fall back on while thinking of the new stuff they're going to say). And the centerpiece of the stock phrase system was the epithets, of which 'winedark sea' is one, and which it's been convincingly argued (Robert Fagles) that the vast majority of the time were deployed solely for the stress pattern of their syllables.

If this is right, it means at some point some improvising poet somewhere came up with 'winedark sea', it got taken up into the tvtropes.org of the time because it sounded nice or whatever and had a convenient stress pattern, and eventually Homer came along and used it a lot in the Iliad and the Odyssey because he liked it and it was functional. Also, the fact that Homer was blind is the only thing people are even hesitantly sure about him; i.e. it is the most sure fact about him.
posted by skwt at 8:05 AM on August 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


This is a weird, prescriptivist way to look at language

Why?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:28 AM on August 12 [2 favorites +] [!]



Maybe I've been reading poetry and metaphor incorrectly, but it strikes me as weird to get hung up on a word choice that doesn't actually appear to confuse the imagery he's invoking.

It reminds me as an (admittedly less hostile) version of the argument I found myself in with someone who used Wu-Tang as an example of particularly violent rap music, based on an overheard lyric concerning the rapper "kicking someone in the head", which, after some inquiry, turned out to be the line from C.R.E.A.M. which was "But shorty's running wild, smoking sess, drinking beer / And ain't trying to hear what I'm kicking in his ear"

I mean, i guess it COULD be that the light spectrum was radically different in ancient times, and I can see it making a good thought exercise, but I don't share the confusion I guess.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:10 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Regardless of what it "means," "wine-dark sea" is one of my favorite phrases in literature, period. In three words, Homer sends a coherent message to every human sense.
posted by griphus at 8:12 AM on August 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


Someone could track down the "recent" letter to Nature mentioned in the NYT (from 1983), as I suspect it used the Homer line more as a way to frame a discussion about the chemistry of wine than as a straight scientific argument. After all,
Dr. Cattley, though he shared authorship of the blue-wine idea, believes that as a phrase the wine-dark sea was less a description than a useful poetic device.
posted by muddgirl at 8:15 AM on August 12, 2013


If English was good enough for Homer, then it's good enough for me.
posted by chinston at 8:18 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Early literature of various languages was studied, and the conclusion was reached that none of these writers used colors in the same way modern people do.

I was actually thinking about this a bit on the train, and I wonder: is it because we've insisted on conceptualizing colors as fitting somewhere in ROY G BIV? Like, even colors that don't look like they belong in a rainbow are conceptualized as just variations on those "fundamental" colors, which themselves are just variations on red, yellow and blue.

That's all true from a scientific viewpoint, but if you never learned to think of colors that way, and for you, colors are not all just points on a continuous grid, then perhaps it makes more sense to, say, have a color word like the chlorós described in the last essay, where it's not necessarily a particular point on a color wheel, but instead an idea of the color of a new plant, which might be closer to green or yellow as the situation demands, but which always carries the implication of new-plant-likeness? Because we want to say, well, is it closer to #00FF00 or #FFFF00, but that's not the point of the word really.

I'm thinking about English words now and one that occurs to me is, pink. Why do we even have a single word for "any of the colors between purple and red, of medium to high brightness and of low to moderate saturation"? Weird, right? There are all sorts of shades of "pink" that a non-English speaker might categorize as different colors entirely. And if a modern-day English speaker describes something as pink in prose, it carries all sorts of implications beyond just the color- it might mean innocence, femininity, love, a kind of romantic sexuality, and depending on context, possibly homosexuality or breast cancer awareness... the list goes on.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:19 AM on August 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Shakespeare never refers to the sky as blue either

You lie, up to the hearing of the gods
posted by iotic at 8:29 AM on August 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Is there any possibility at all that what is being referred to there is not the color itself but the *density* of color? Does wine-dark have to be purple, or can it just be dark in that dense way that a darker wine is dark?
posted by Mooseli at 8:30 AM on August 12, 2013


Is this the thread where we gripe about Radiolab? Because I love that show - or at least I did, until the most recent episode, which was all about blood.

They presented blood as this mysterious and upsetting substance that "we" rarely see.

And I'm like, by "we" I guess they mean "dudes"?

Because women see blood quite a lot. Once a month, more or less, for their entire adult lives.

Hell, I have a line item in my financial budget for blood containment products. Blood containment products are a standing item on my grocery list. I am always on the lookout for a sale on blood containment products, because they are not cheap (and I am very brand-loyal).

Like it didn't occur to one single person anywhere down the line of production to say, "Wait, but periods?"

I was vexed. It was vexing.
posted by ErikaB at 8:38 AM on August 12, 2013 [31 favorites]


> Scientists have argued that Ancient Greek wine was blue

There is no idea so silly that some scholar will not offer it as a serious hypothesis.

That short essay by Harris is excellent and more plausible to my mind than the wordier pieces linked. (Also, I've been in that Khania museum; why didn't I think to swipe a chip of purple?)
posted by languagehat at 8:38 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm thinking about English words now and one that occurs to me is, pink. Why do we even have a single word for "any of the colors between purple and red, of medium to high brightness and of low to moderate saturation"? Weird, right? There are all sorts of shades of "pink" that a non-English speaker might categorize as different colors entirely. And if a modern-day English speaker describes something as pink in prose, it carries all sorts of implications beyond just the color- it might mean innocence, femininity, love, a kind of romantic sexuality, and depending on context, possibly homosexuality or breast cancer awareness... the list goes on.

You might be interested to know that Hungarian has two completely different words for "red" - piros, which is used to describe everyday objects that just happen to be red, and vörös, which is reserved for Important Red Stuff that's defined by its redness, like the Red Army, red carpets, and red wine.
posted by theodolite at 8:51 AM on August 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


middleclasstool: It's no worse and in many instances considerably better than most science journalism.
I'm gonna need an example on that latter claim.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:07 AM on August 12, 2013


Maybe I've been reading poetry and metaphor incorrectly, but it strikes me as weird to get hung up on a word choice that doesn't actually appear to confuse the imagery he's invoking.

It reminds me as an (admittedly less hostile) version of the argument I found myself in with someone who used Wu-Tang as an example of particularly violent rap music, based on an overheard lyric concerning the rapper "kicking someone in the head", which, after some inquiry, turned out to be the line from C.R.E.A.M. which was "But shorty's running wild, smoking sess, drinking beer / And ain't trying to hear what I'm kicking in his ear"

I mean, i guess it COULD be that the light spectrum was radically different in ancient times, and I can see it making a good thought exercise, but I don't share the confusion I guess.


That's all fine, but I don't know what it has to do with prescriptivism.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:08 AM on August 12, 2013


Shakespeare never refers to the sky as blue either

There's also this: "And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault" (from The Tempest.)
posted by yoink at 9:16 AM on August 12, 2013


Some people have made the mistake of seeing Homer's work as a load of rubbish about greek pre-history, but clever people like me, who talk loudly in restaurants, see this as a deliberate ambiguity, a plea for understanding in a mechanized world. The points are frozen, the beast is dead. What is the difference? What indeed is the point? The point is frozen, the beast is late out of Troy. The point is taken. If Homer's Odysseus would spurn Calypso, the cyclops must be our head, the Sirens our oesophagus, the leather bag our left lung, Circe and the swine our shins, Scylla and Charybdis the piece of skin at the nape of the neck and the olive tree bed a satyr called Papposilenus. The clarity is devastating. But where is the ambiguity? It's over there in a box. Homer is saying the wine-dark sea when in reality he means wine-like sea. The sea is the same, only the colour is altered. Ecce homo, ergo elk. Oedipus knew his mother and knew her bloody well. The point is taken, the beast is moulting, the fluff gets up your nose. The illusion is complete; it is reality, the reality is illusion and the ambiguity is the only truth. But is the truth, as Plato observes, in the box? No there isn't room, the ambiguity has put on weight. The point is taken, the suitors are dead, the boat stops at Ithaca, Odysseus stops at nothing, I'm having treatment and Radio Lab can get knotted.
posted by Herodios at 9:19 AM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


ROYGBIV

Why do we even have a single word for "any of the colors between purple and red, of medium to high brightness and of low to moderate saturation"?

Hungarian has two completely different words for "red"


Color terms again.
Berlin and Kay again.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:28 AM on August 12, 2013


You know, everyone here who is saying "well DUH, 'wine-dark sea' is self-explanatory you stupid-head stupid stupid classical scholars who have devoted your stupid lives to stupidly reading this completely self-explanatory text" might just like to pause for a moment and note that "wine dark sea" is an interpretation of Homer's epithet, not a translation. Homer calls the sea "wine-faced" (literally) which means "wine-like." The translation "wine-dark" (which is not of great antiquity in English translations of Homer's text; Pope, for example, whose translation was the "standard" English translation for a good long time, simply ignored the epithet altogether, so far as I can tell) is the result of someone saying "hmmm, what on earth could he mean by calling the sea 'wine-like'? I know, I'll guess that he means it is dark like wine is dark." That may well be right, but it's an interpretation; it's not what Homer simply, and self-evidently, said.
posted by yoink at 9:44 AM on August 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


As everyone knows, Homer's "wine-dark sea" was one of the earliest examples of product placement. So why not pour yourself a kylix of Homer's Iliad Chardonnay, which has a wooden, almost "horsey" nose, masking notes of Greek iron and a short, bloody finish?
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:48 AM on August 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


wine-eyed, eh? Like the eyes of a drunk person, swaying, seeking, while the person topples over, lurches up, topples over again like someone imitating the movement of the surface of the sea? Like, um, the drunk, lurching sea?

I enjoyed Caroline Alexander's article. The sea as an unreliable unpredictable causeway. (Is it pontos that's the adjective or ponton?) Hellespont, strait of Helle, a place where a crossing is possible. So is it related to the word for bridge?

And gosh, that was ever so eponysterical, oinopaponton. I got chills!

I speak my father's language very badly, but used to think there only are three colour words in Yoruba, red, white and black - though I've been told since that's not so. But certainly in common usage, only those three are used, and the nuance evoked by each word is very much mediated by its practical applications. For instance, the word for white also means unripe, and thus the picture you might get in your head from it might be of green, unripe fruit. I suppose this is the same for any colour-naming system, as Frowner has eloquently explained above: colour names have connotations that are not that clear to people who don't speak the language colloquially.
posted by glasseyes at 9:50 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


not very hard to accept that the term was purely lyrical, and also not hard to accept that different cultures have different numbers of names for colors (as linked above by Herodios, thanks, saving me the trouble. e.g. Japanese use of 'aoi' for green in traffic lights, but also 'aoi-zora' ("blue sky") as was also mentioned upthread) - and also not hard to accept simple mis-translation, deliberate/poetical or otherwise.

in the past, looking into my surname, which, yes, is in fact 'Gray', I came across a lot of stuff like this -
glass
where we can see that the same root word could refer to any of 'gray, blue, green, and yellow'
which is a pretty wide margin, no? and I seem to remember looking more into the indo-european root and finding that it could refer to even more colors than that. both light and dark. chomsky much?
posted by dorian at 9:50 AM on August 12, 2013


This is bizarre. "Wine-dark" is a famous MIStranslation. The phrase means "wine-faced" (having a surface like that of wine.). This is like hearing that scholars have been debating for a century whether the French wore glass slippers, or exactly how awful Ivan the Terrible must have been.

This is kind of an "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" instance, I think.

First up, it isn't a phrase, it's a word - οινοψ . The constituent bits kind of mean "wine-face" - or "wine-eye", for that matter. But to go from there to "that literally means the surface of the water is like wine" is a leap in itself. First, because ωψ means face (or eye) - it isn't necessarily being used to mean "surface". The double meaning of "face" to convey both the thing at the front of your head and the top of a larger object (rock face, marble facing) is one that is much more natural in English.

Second, because words don't necessarily mean the simple sum of their constituent elements. Ladyfingers are not the actual fingers of ladies.

Closer to lexicographical home, αιθοψ means literally "fire-faced", but is used both of metal (to indicate the reflection of light on the blade) and of wine (to represent the play of light on the liquid). You can see how both are related to fire - sudden amorphous motion of pattens - but it sort of does and doesn't mean "with a surface like fire".

And Athena is called "γλαυκῶπις". Glaukos is an adjective applied both to the moon and to olives. So, generally it gets translated as "sparkling-eyed" or something like it, since light reflects both off the pale surface of the moon and the dark surface of the olive. However, it turns up elsewhere apparently decribing the color of an olive. So, if you feel like it, you can make a case for "green-eyed" or "grey-eyed", or "dark-eyed".

Then again, there's also γλαύξ - a type of small owl. Particularly for those who see the Olympian deities as originally theriomorphic - having the form of animals - and thus see Athena's association with the owl as being more than simply companionable, it's very tempting to assume that the stem "glauk" actually comes from that. At which point you have "unblinking Athena", "Athena with amazing night vision", "owl-eyed Athena", "owl-faced" Athena (since ωψ can mean "face" as well as "eye") and so on.

Sometimes, it's just best to accept that some things are not intrinsically amenable to direct interpretation or simple understanding. γλαυκῶπις might mean any of those things - most likely it is intended to recall a number of different images and impressions. Searching for a scientific reason why the sea gets an particular compound adjective seems diverting, but it's sort of missing the point.
posted by running order squabble fest at 9:51 AM on August 12, 2013 [40 favorites]


They presented blood as this mysterious and upsetting substance that "we" rarely see.
And I'm like, by "we" I guess they mean "dudes"?

Unless you're Ron Athey or someone.

Because women see blood quite a lot.
But luckily not, I can quite confidently assert, for our entire adult lives. Usually.
posted by glasseyes at 9:56 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


why not pour yourself a kylix of Homer's Iliad Chardonnay, which has a wooden, almost "horsey" nose, masking notes of Greek iron and a short, bloody finish?

Right, a bottle with a message in, and the message is 'beware'. This is not a wine for drinking, this is a wine that should be used only for hand-to-hand combat.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:06 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


You know what I think? I think people don't read all the comments before they comment. That's what I think.
posted by goatdog at 10:13 AM on August 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


> "But to go from there to 'that literally means the surface of the water is like wine' is a leap in itself."

Yes, absolutely, you're right. I was writing quickly on a phone, and simply wrote what the particular crowd of translators I hang out with considers to be one of the most likely interpretations, although not of course the only one.

But I think my larger point still stands -- treating this like the original necessarily meant "wine-colored" or even "dark like wine" is taking an incorrect translation (or, if you want to be charitable, a very very heavily interpreted translation) and acting like it means something revelatory ABOUT THE ORIGINAL. It's baffling.

The only other place I can think of such a thing happening is with the Bible, where poor translations ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live", "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind", etc.) are regularly treated like, well, holy writ.
posted by kyrademon at 10:15 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Glass slippers" is not a mistranslation.
posted by unsupervised at 10:17 AM on August 12, 2013


That's all fine, but I don't know what it has to do with prescriptivism.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:08 PM on August 12 [+] [!]


Okie doke.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:18 AM on August 12, 2013


Wine-dark? No way. Any idiot can observe that the sea looks dolphin-torn and gong-tormented.
posted by adso at 10:26 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


But I think my larger point still stands

Thank you, I will have a lager.

 
posted by Herodios at 10:28 AM on August 12, 2013


I've read a lot of (probably horribly popularized) articles about how different cultures divide up the spectrum in distinctive ways; indigenous peoples in Latin America who when you show then a color wheel or a spectrum from a prism will see three nameable colors rather than the seven or so we'll pick out, none of which are centered on the line where we'd identify a basic color as opposed to an in-between one.

Also, I've always thought it odd that around these parts we make a far greater distinction between pink and red than between equivalent shades of lighter and darker blue for example. Light blue is still blue, ditto green, but nobody ever seems to say "light red".
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:30 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


gong-tormented sea

Go home Yeats, you're wine-faced.
posted by yoink at 10:33 AM on August 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


> "'Glass slippers' is not a mistranslation."

Snopes is being a little quick off the mark there. There is an argument, for example, that "verre" was also a variant spelling for "vair" that happened to be used by Perrault.
posted by kyrademon at 10:35 AM on August 12, 2013


This idea that it must of course be solely one thing (a lyrical device, a literal description of color, a metaphor) is strange to me. It can be all of these things and more.

I've known the shiny seas of dawn and dusk, like new wine, sunlight flashing
I've seen the inky red-black of the sea under storm, full of froth like wine poured too quickly
I've sailed the simple calm purple seas, and milky rushing green seas
I've known the pitching deck, that gives every sailor a drunkard's walk
And the treacherous, homebringing sea, a road of fear and hope, similar to memories that come unbidden after much wine, of faces long-gone, of places never to be seen again.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:36 AM on August 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:36 AM on August 12

Well, I guess it was only a matter of time until you showed up here. (As Penelope once said.)
posted by yoink at 10:41 AM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Also, I've always thought it odd that around these parts we make a far greater distinction between pink and red than between equivalent shades of lighter and darker blue for example. Light blue is still blue, ditto green, but nobody ever seems to say "light red".


Russian actually does make the distinction between light and dark blue, and my understanding is that Russian speakers consider these two colors to be as distinct as we would blue and green.
posted by tau_ceti at 10:42 AM on August 12, 2013


Go home Yeats, you're wine-faced.

Oh holy shit you guys I'm totally οínops right now

Woooooo
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:50 AM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, I guess it was only a matter of time until you showed up here.

[Sings]I knew you were polutropos when you got here...[/sings]
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:53 AM on August 12, 2013


I've always secretly hoped that the true meaning of that phrase will be revealed to me when I reach book sixteen of O'Brian's saga.
posted by Quonab at 10:58 AM on August 12, 2013


pour yourself a kylix of Homer's Iliad Chardonnay, which has a wooden, almost "horsey" nose

Never trust Greek wine.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 11:00 AM on August 12, 2013


Timeo Danaos, et vina ferentes?

Sorry.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:01 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Radiolab is a show that often focuses on scientific facts but is not hosted by scientists, so it should be taken as such. It's no worse and in many instances considerably better than most science journalism.

Mostly though it's a show that people who hate (mostly because of how it's produced) need everyone to know that they hate hate hate it so much.


That’s a little strong, I just don’t like it. And it can be really annoying. And I don’t think they know what they’re talking about.

Radiolab came up in a discussion here before, and although I had listened to it several times I was surprised to learn it was supposed to be a science show. Nothing up until that point had tipped me off.
posted by bongo_x at 11:56 AM on August 12, 2013


I don’t think they know what they’re talking about

They don't claim to. They interview people who do claim to know what they're talking about, and they give you sufficient information about those people's bona fides so that you can draw your own conclusions.

I was surprised to learn it was supposed to be a science show. Nothing up until that point had tipped me off.


It's not really a "science show," either. They're usually interested in getting scientists to weigh in on the topics they take up (so you could call it a show that is always interested in the scientific perspective), but they are also interested in what artists, philosophers, people-in-the-street etc. have to say about it. On their website they call themselves a "show about curiosity," which sounds about right.
posted by yoink at 12:03 PM on August 12, 2013


Echoing the man of twists and turns, above, I suggest we start calling 'nothingbutists' all those who think that 'explanation' means 'The One Thing That Explains It All'.

(Or perhaps 'nothingbuttists'. This one has 'butt' in it.)
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:12 PM on August 12, 2013


Thanks for bringing "γλαυκῶπις" up, rosf. It's a better case of a word we're unsure about.

(Is it pontos that's the adjective or ponton?)

It's the same word in different cases (nominative and accusative).

Also, I've been in that Khania museum; why didn't I think to swipe a chip of purple?)

Your conscience, lh. Wouldn't be much left in those museums otherwise.

Sun-purple or moon-purple?

Deep purple.

posted by ersatz at 1:15 PM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I wonder if Homer's use of it had any religious or thematic connection to Dionysus. In the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, there's a part where the god causes wine to flow on a ship at sea.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:52 PM on August 12, 2013


There's another thing that is possibly relevant here: what does Homer mean when he says "wine"? Because retsina (which nowadays is basically the Greek wine known outside Greece) isn't red; it's pale yellow. And wine spoilage was a problem before the invention of Pasteurisation and modern containment, so wine was spiced and sweetened and resinated and heaven knows what for storage, and then was heavily diluted for drinking. The translators' use of "wine dark" seems to assume that Homer drank something like a nice red claret, but it's vastly more likely that the color of his wine would have been ... well, clear-ish. Watery.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:10 PM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Alexander goes into this question in her essay linked in the post:
The image Homer hoped to conjure with his winelike sea greatly depended upon what wine meant to his audience. While the Greeks likely knew of white wine, most ancient wine was red, and in the Homeric epics, red wine is the only wine specifically described. Drunk at feasts, poured onto the earth in sacred rituals, or onto the ashes around funeral pyres, Homeric wine is often mélas, “dark,” or even “black,” a term with broad application, used of a brooding spirit, anger, death, ships, blood, night, and the sea. It is also eruthrós, meaning “red” or the tawny-red hue of bronze; and aíthops, “bright,” “gleaming,” a term also used of bronze and of smoke in firelight. While these terms notably have more to do with light, and the play of light, than with color proper, Homeric wine was clearly dark and red and would have appeared especially so when seen in the terracotta containers in which it was transported. “Winelike sea” cannot mean clear seawater, nor the white splash of sea foam, nor the pale color of a clear sea lapping the shallows of a sandy shore.
posted by Kattullus at 3:09 PM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


They puzzled and argued over this kind of thing in antiquity, too. In this text from the mid 100s CE, we find an argument between two well-educated gentlemen about color words in Latin and Greek. Favorinus, the man playing the role of "Greek," provokes his Latinist friend Fronto into detailing his language's wealth of different color terms. This then necessitates breaking each color word down and trying to explain exactly what it refers to.
Fronto: "But the colour "fulvus" seems to be a mixture of red and green, in which sometimes green predominates, sometimes red. Thus the poet who was most careful in his choice of words applies fulvus to an eagle, to jasper, to fur caps, to gold, to sand, and to a lion; and so Ennius in his Annals uses fulvus of air. "Flavus" on the other hand seems to be compounded of green and red and white; thus Virgil speaks of golden hair as flava and applies that adjective also to the leaves of the olive, which I see surprises some; and thus, much earlier, Pacuvius called water flava and dust fulvus. [...]"

Favorinus: "But not only have I listened with pleasure to all your learned remarks, but in particular in describing the diversity of the colour flavus you have made me understand these beautiful lines from the fourteenth book of Ennius' Annals, which before I did not in the least comprehend:
The calm sea's golden [flavo] marble now they skim;
Ploughed by the thronging craft, the green [caeruleum] seas foam;
for 'the green seas' did not seem to correspond with 'golden marble.' But since, as you have said, flavus is a colour containing an admixture of green and white, Ennius with the utmost elegance called the foam of the green sea 'golden marble.' ""
Ennius predated these guys by ~3 centuries, and his language was held up as exemplary "archaic" style. And some people already had the kinds of questions, reading him, that we still have reading Homer.
posted by Theophylactic at 3:21 PM on August 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


(Is it pontos that's the adjective or ponton?)

>It's the same word in different cases (nominative and accusative).

Oh, and pontos is a noun, not an adjective. /sleepy
posted by ersatz at 3:21 PM on August 12, 2013


Blue wine huh. I no fancy am.

I no go drink am-o.

At all, at all. Never. Not me an you.
posted by glasseyes at 3:59 PM on August 12, 2013


"Wine-dark" is a shade, not a hue. It feels like everybody else is taking crazy pills!
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:22 PM on August 12, 2013


"Wine-dark" is a shade, not a hue. It feels like everybody else is taking crazy pills!

Which would be great, if Homer had written "wine-dark." He didn't. "Wine dark" is an interpretation of what Homer wrote, one seeking to make sense of his very unspecific likening of the sea to wine ("the wine-like sea" or "wine-appearing sea" would be closer translations of Homer's Greek). Had Homer written "wine-dark sea" this controversy would likely not exist.
posted by yoink at 4:50 PM on August 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Homer was actually a big Gogol Bordello fan.
posted by homunculus at 6:00 PM on August 12, 2013


Probably it was some kind of crazy algal bloom then.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:13 PM on August 12, 2013


Great post (and comments)
Here is a list of English translations of Homer (a favorite because it's where I first heard of Christopher Logue)
posted by abecedarium radiolarium at 6:39 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


somehow decided that the name of the airport was "Red [which is correct for this particular 'hong']

Sorry to be pedantic, but the name of the airport is 虹桥, which literally means "rainbow bridge." 虹 (虫/insect radical) is a different hong than "red", which is written 红 (糸/silk radical).
posted by bradf at 7:30 AM on August 13, 2013


Two millenia from now, scholars will be debating what color a television tuned to a dead channel was.

The funny thing is that, despite an inkling that Gibson is referring to a staticky gray sort of color, when I read the line I think of that garish blue screen that happens when the cable is out or there's no video in the player, circa 1998.
posted by Sara C. at 12:25 AM on August 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm really enamored of the idea that the specifics of a particular time and place affect how we think about color.

I mean, I lived in New York for twelve years, and then I moved to southern California. I brought some things with me. Some of those things, I would have called "white". When I unpacked them in Los Angeles, it turned out they were all... well, a lot of different colors (beige, oatmeal, cream, gray), but definitely not white.

If one person's assessment of the colors of a few household objects can vary so much just across time zones, think of how much our collective sense of color changes based on all kinds of things. Someone mentioned the type of vessel wine is seen through. Someone else mentioned different winemaking methods.

One thing I've noticed before is that, when you're looking at the sea in comparison to the sky, "dark" is the most obvious descriptor. Upthread it's been pointed out that the word isn't literally "winedark", but I don't find it a stretch to think of a group of people who spent so much time on the sea describing the landscape in terms of lightness/darkness contrasts rather than specific tones. Because in a world without much possibility of travel, with no chemical dyes, where most people spent most of their time outdoors, where artificial lighting didn't exist, where the vast majority of things you saw every day were nature things and not colorful plastic gewgaws, and where objects tended to get weathered by the sun and salt air, yeah, light vs. dark probably seems a lot more meaningful than green vs. blue.
posted by Sara C. at 12:56 AM on August 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think of that garish blue screen that happens when the cable is out or there's no video in the player, circa 1998.

Ah yes. Like Microsoft's famous Wine-colored Screen of Death.
posted by yoink at 11:17 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


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