Color in Homer

An interesting article in Aeon magazine:

The sea was never blue

The Greek colour experience was made of movement and shimmer. Can we ever glimpse what they saw when gazing out to sea?

Homer used two adjectives to describe aspects of the colour blue: kuaneos, to denote a dark shade of blue merging into black; and glaukos, to describe a sort of ‘blue-grey’, notably used in Athena’s epithet glaukopis, her ‘grey-gleaming eyes’. He describes the sky as big, starry, or of iron or bronze (because of its solid fixity). The tints of a rough sea range from ‘whitish’ (polios) and ‘blue-grey’ (glaukos) to deep blue and almost black (kuaneosmelas). The sea in its calm expanse is said to be ‘pansy-like’ (ioeides), ‘wine-like’ (oinops), or purple (porphureos). But whether sea or sky, it is never just ‘blue’. In fact, within the entirety of ancient Greek literature you cannot find a single pure blue sea or sky.

Yellow, too, seems strangely absent from the Greek lexicon. The simple word xanthos covers the most various shades of yellow, from the shining blond hair of the gods, to amber, to the reddish blaze of fire. Chloros, since it’s related to chloe (grass), suggests the colour green but can also itself convey a vivid yellow, like honey.

The ancient Greek experience of colour does not seem to match our own. In a well-known aphorism, Friedrich Nietzsche captures the strangeness of the Greek colour vocabulary:

“How differently the Greeks must have viewed their natural world, since their eyes were blind to blue and green, and they would see instead of the former a deeper brown, and yellow instead of the latter (and for instance they also would use the same word for the colour of dark hair, that of the corn-flower, and that of the southern sea; and again, they would employ exactly the same word for the colour of the greenest plants and of the human skin, of honey and of the yellow resins: so that their greatest painters reproduced the world they lived in only in black, white, red, and yellow).”

How is this possible? Did the Greeks really see the colours of the world differently from the way we do?

Read more at the link. I was curious to discover that William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of the UK in the nineteenth century, also wrote a book entitled Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858), in which he advanced the novel theory that “the visual organ of the ancients was still in its infancy, hence their strong sensitivity to light rather than hue, and the related inability to clearly distinguish one hue from another.”

Speaking of “wine-like,” here is Ian Johnston’s commentary on that most Homeric of epithets:

All similes are inherently ironic. For while they insist upon the similarities between two apparently different things, they also implicitly call attention to those differences. The effect of a simile depends upon an appropriate balance between these two contrasting tendencies. If the differences are too extreme (“heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together,” as Dr Johnson says of the Metaphysical poets) the comparison is too strained to work. If, on the other hand, the comparison is too familiar and obvious, the simile has become inert and trite, what we call a cliché. A successful simile retains enough difference to be fresh and enough similarity to be apt and, in the process, pulls the reader in different directions.

Consider, for example, Homer’s most famous comparison, the “wine dark sea.”  At once the metaphor suggests the rich attractiveness of the ocean, the fascination with the hidden emotional powers of nature. For the sea, like wine, benefits a man, tempts him, intoxicates him, and can overpower and kill him. On the other hand, the sea in many ways is not like wine at all. Wine is produced by human skill and has become an essential part of civilized life in homes and temples. It is an important part of those occasions where human beings celebrate among themselves. The sea, by contrast, follows its own whims and cannot be made a permanent and predictable part of anyone’s peaceful social existence. Its eternally bitter vintage arises from and works by some mysterious, ambiguous power uncontrolled by human beings. The complex paradox in this apparently simple metaphor simultaneously insists upon the similarity and the difference.

By calling attention to nature in this way, Homer’s style creates and sustains throughout the poem a constant ironic tension.

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