The Wine Dark Conundrum

The Wine Dark Conundrum

I always like to drink with classicists, because they (and medievalists) know all the best dirty jokes, and in an impressively wide range of languages.  They also ask really interesting questions.

Because it is both an interesting question, and a question that remains unanswered, AND a question about drinking, a particularly delicious query to ponder while gazing into one’s wine glass during the hours between midnight and the arrival of rosy fingered dawn is the question of exactly what Homer meant when he referred to “the wine dark sea.”

Scholars have suggested a wide range of theories–nicely summarized here. Maybe the alkaline ground water of the area produced wine that looked more like Romulan ale than a nice chianti. Maybe the ancient Greeks lacked a word for blue. Maybe colorblindness was overwhelmingly common in the ancient world. Maybe the way the sunset reflected off the sea and the dust in the air changed the color of the water. Maybe it’s not a good idea to take a blind poet’s use of color language seriously. Maybe there was the kind of red tide that kills off shellfish and sends tourists to the ER.

Now that's a wine dark sea!

An article in The Prospect is what has me thinking about this topic again this morning, when I am (alas) neither drinking nor hanging out with classicists. (And where have I gone wrong, that this should be my fate?) Philip Ball nicely summarizes the long-posited and much-debated philological theory about the order in which humans create words for color.

[The] hypothesis has since fallen in and out of favour, and certainly there are exceptions to the scheme they proposed. But the fundamental colour hierarchy, at least in the early stages (black/white, red, yellow/green, blue) remains generally accepted. The problem is that no one could explain why this ordering of colour exists. Why, for example, does the blue of sky and sea, or the green of foliage, not occur as a word before the far less common red?

We don’t know why. But it increasingly seems that red comes first. Maybe that’s because of our endless preoccupation, as human creatures, with blood. (And now I wonder what color Homer thought blood was.) Maybe there’s something to the theory that the ancients didn’t as yet have a word for–or a conception of–the color blue.

Or maybe Homer’s description of the sea is a question of paying attention to a different aspect of color. If we looked at the wine and the sea of the ancient world in gray-scale, would they look the same? They might. Wine-dark might not be a question of hue, but of value or of intensity.

It’s a great question to think about over a glass of wine, looking out at the sea. It’s a question that’s about great poetry and ancient stories, but that’s also about modern science, philosophy, and the simple and terrifying fact that we do not, in fact, see even the simplest things in the same way.



  1. Rachel Lomasky
    Aug 27, 2012

    I’ve heard a theory (and now I can’t remember where), that a culture doesn’t have a word for a color before it can make a dye that color. Blues are notoriously hard to produce.

  2. Rachel Lomasky
    Aug 27, 2012

    Ah, right. Radio Lab. Best source of popular science:

  3. SarahS
    Aug 27, 2012

    Awesome, Rachel. And yes, every dyer I know who’s worked with indigo has been…challenged.

  4. suzanne
    Aug 27, 2012

    perhaps the wine dark of the sea was not a reference to color, but rather to the allure and danger, and dark depths can be accessed within both?

    she says, and blushing a wine dark, right now, at her own ignorance…because she has not read homer. alas!

    oh your blog is beautiful!