Swimming in a wine dark sea

In my course of research for the Hades and Persephone story, I’ve come across many interesting facts and I’ve had to make some difficult decisions about how much to stick to the time and feel and historically accurate descriptions.

For example, were you aware that the ancient Greeks had no word for blue?  In fact, it seems that they didn’t so much determine color by shade so much as by luster or from light to dark.

Rather than being ignorant of color, it seems that the Greeks were less interested in and attentive to hue, or tint, than they were to light. As late as the fourth century BC, Plato named the four primary colors as white, black, red, and bright, and in those cases where a Greek writer lists colors “in order,” they are arranged not by the Newtonian colors of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—but from lightest to darkest. And The Iliad contains a broad, specialized vocabulary for describing the movement of light: argós meaning “flashing” or “glancing white”; aiólos, “glancing, gleaming, flashing,” or, according to Cunliffe’s Lexicon, “the notion of glancing light passing into that of rapid movement,” and the root of Hector’s most defining epithet, koruthaíolos—great Hector “of the shimmering helm.” Thus, for Homer, the sky is “brazen,” evoking the glare of the Aegean sun and more ambiguously “iron,” perhaps meaning “burnished,” but possibly our sense of a “leaden” sky. Significantly, two of the few unambiguous color terms in The Iliad, and which evoke the sky in accordance with modern sensibilities, are phenomena of light: “Dawn robed in saffron” and dawn shining forth in “rosy fingers of light.”

And in this article, also discussing the neurological implications of color and perception and culture, someone points out in the comments that it may not really be about color at all:

The Wine dark sea is not translation but rather a traditional gloss of oinops – a compound of wine and face/expression.
the sea can be peaceful, quiet, sleepy, seductive… or suddenly tipsy, off-kilter, …or violent and irrationally destructive.
That is indeed the appearance of someone under the influence of wine.

Read the articles; they’re fascinating. In fact, I would suggest reading the comments, all of them. Most of them are interesting and bring up things I hadn’t known before. Such as that some cultures consider red a shade of yellow and some cultures differentiate between inanimate and animate when describing its color.

So, when I describe Persephone’s eyes as blue, I had to think about it and wonder if I should have used some other word instead. In the end I decided that it would be far too confusing if I said something about her wine dark eyes and took artistic license, but it’s definitely something that’s hovering on the edge of my consciousness now.


Comments Off on Swimming in a wine dark sea