Homer regarded wine, the sea, and sheep as all being the same colour, which is 'red'.As we saw last time, it's easy to get mixed up over colour terms in another language. Let's repeat an important point: different languages divide up the spectrum differently. As a result, colour terms often do not have one-to-one equivalents in different languages.
-- QI, series 2 episode 1 'Blue' (Oct. 2004)
We can't conduct experiments to see exactly which labels a live ancient Greek would attach to which shades, so we have to rely on surviving texts and how they use colour terms. The colours I listed last time come out roughly as follows:
|'Kyaneos': porpoise and barn swallow (source: Wikimedia.org)|
- kyaneos -- conventional translation 'blue'. Used of: porpoises, a swallow's feathers, black hair. So actual range = medium grey-blue ranging towards black; not vivid.
- melas -- conventional translation 'black'. Used of: soil, blood, wine, sacrificial rams. So actual range = black, but also ranging to deep browns and reds.
- porphyreos (in Homer porphyrios) -- conventional translation 'purple'. Used of: flowers (of unspecified species) and dyes; also blood, blushing cheeks, rainbows. So actual range = vivid colours of any luminosity throughout the indigo-lavender-violet part of the palette (and perhaps beyond). Porphyreos doesn't have a one-to-one equivalence to any English colour-term.
- chlōros -- conventional translation 'green' or 'pale'. Used of: the complexions of frightened people, leaves, live plants; also figuratively to mean 'unripe'. So actually = colours around chartreuse: low-saturation, high-luminosity colours with a high yellow component (i.e. not pink).
- glaukos -- conventional translation 'grey'. Used of: (dull green) olives, grapes, vine leaves; (blue) eye colour, the sea, a clear sky. Ancient technical descriptions consistently treat it as a light shade of kyaneos; see the Plato passage below. So actual range= light blue to dull green, with the latter also understood as a greenish-grey. Like porphyreos, this term doesn't have a one-to-one equivalence to any English colour-term.
- leukos -- conventional translation 'white'. Used of: snow, marble, an old person's hair, unusually fair skin. Pretty much = English 'white'.
- erythros -- conventional translation 'red'. Used of: wine, ruddy complexions, blushes, clay, egg yolk. Egg yolk is more prototypically ōchros for the Greeks (conventionally translated 'yellow'); but yolk colour is affected by a hen's diet, and hens that are given scraps often produce dark orange yolks. So 'red', but also used for neighbouring colours figuratively, as also in English ('red robin', 'red-head').
|Estimated palette ranges|
for the colours listed above
And again, when the intermediate kind of fire reaches the liquid of the eyes and is mixed with it, it doesn't gleam: rather, because of how the fire's light in blended through the moisture, it emits the colour of blood, and we call it erythros. But when lampros ('bright') is mixed with erythros and leukos, we call it xanthos ('light brown, fawn')... And erythros mixed with melas and leukos produces alourgos (lit. 'sea-worked'; apparently close to Tyrian purple in Xenophon Cyr. 8.3.3); but it is orphninos ('dark, dim'?) if these (pigments) are more burnt and more melas is added. And pyrrhos ('red-orange, russet') is made from xanthos and phaios ('grey'); phaios is made from leukos and melas; and ōchros ('yellow') is made from leukos mixed with xanthos. When leukos combined with lampros is poured into deep melas, it produces the colour kyaneos. And kyaneos mixed with leukos gives glaukos, and pyrrhos mixed with melas gives prasios ('light green' or 'khaki').The sky. After all this, by the way, it turns out that the question asked in QI, 'What colour was the sky in ancient Greece?', actually has the answer: either glaukos 'light blue' or lampros 'bright', depending on context. Neither is very strongly supported in ancient testimony, but ancient Greek texts just don't talk about the colour of the sky much. We find clear references to blue sky as glaukos in the 1st century CE writer Lucius Annaeus Cornutus (Compendium 10.20 -- he also likens it to olive-tree foliage, confirming that that is also part of the glaukos area of the colour palette) and in the 3rd century CE writer Philostratus (Life of Apollonius 2.5). Lampros, 'bright', is less specifically about colour than the other terms: more properly it refers to the aithēr, the intense light that supposedly lies beyond the misty aēr 'air, atmosphere' in ancient Greek cosmology. Lampros is regularly used of the sun and stars, and more metaphorically of things like 'clear' voices, 'brilliant' diction, and 'splendid' horses. Yet Plato, above, treats it as a pigment; and a handful of passages associate it with the sky itself, like Suda χ.326 and Iamblichus De mysteriis 2.7 ('earthly things display an earthly and blacker [melanteron] fire, heavenly things a brighter [lamproteron] fire'). Cornutus, too, calls the sky pyrōdēs 'fiery in appearance' (Compendium 2.10).
There's no doubt that lampros would have been the most obvious term to describe a bright clear Mediterranean day. But someone who wanted to talk specifically about its colour would call it glaukos, as in Cornutus and Philostratus. (An overcast day would presumably be 'grey', phaios.)
Now, we still need to deal with the QI claim that Homer refers to red wine, red sea, and red sheep.
|Red wine (source: Wikimedia.org)|
Wine. The adjectives used for wine in early Greek epic poetry are:
- aithops: conventional translation 'shining, gleaming'; also used of burning torches, smoke (glittering with sparks), and the mythical Aithiopes (whose skin was burnt by the sun). Used for wine 12× in the Iliad, 10× Odyssey, 2× Hesiodic Works and Days.
- erythros: 'red'. 7× Odyssey, 1× Homeric Hymn to Demeter.
- melas: 'black, deep red'. 3× Odyssey.
The sea. The business of the 'red sea' is tied up with the colour of wine. The 'red sea' claim on QI is almost certainly based on a frequent formulaic phrase in the Homeric Odyssey, epi oinopa ponton, conventionally translated as 'on the wine-dark sea'. Based on the discussion of wine above, 'wine-dark sea' sounds like it ought to mean 'red sea'.
This famous phrase lacks any totally certain explanation. Stephanie West's 1988-90 commentary on Odyssey books 1-4 takes an agnostic position, simply calling it 'puzzling'. In 1983, R. Rutherford-Dyer argued, based on his own observations, that it referred to the colour of the Aegean Sea at particular times of day ('Homer's wine-dark sea', Greece & Rome 30: 125-8; subscription required). A few years earlier, in 1978, C. H. Gordon argued that 'wine-dark sea' was a traditional East Mediterranean poetic phrase also supposedly found in Hebrew taršiš -- according to Gordon, 'a qaṭlîl formation of the denominative root trš derived from tîrôš, "wine," paralleling ḥaklîl, and meaning "wine-red" or "wine-dark"' ('The wine-dark sea', Journal of Near Eastern Studies 37: 51-2; subscription required).
Personally I'm not taken with the romantic suggestion of colours at sunset. Yes, the Aegean can take striking colours at that hour, but an explanation that relies on a specific time of day needs something to justify interpreting it with that specificity. I'm even less impressed by Gordon's argument: it relies on oinops meaning 'wine-dark'. The trouble is, that's not a firm foundation. Strictly literally, the phrase straightforwardly means 'wine-faced sea', from οἶνος 'wine' + ὄψ 'face'.
[Corrigendum, 31 March: a 1995 article by Beekes shows that this is wrong. See comments. 'Wine' + 'face' would be οἰνο- + ωπ-; οἰνο- + οπ- is actually 'wine-looking', that is, 'looking like wine'. I've silently corrected the translations below, where relevant.]
|Sunset on the Aegean Sea (source: TrekEarth.com)|
That interpretation has a long-standing history prior to Lang, though. 'Wine-dark' appears as a secondary translation for oinops in the Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon. The older Greek-German dictionaries on which Liddell & Scott was based, those of Passow and Schneider, refer to darkness ('Dunkelheit') and dark red ('dunkelroth'). These translations probably go back ultimately to the early Byzantine lexicographer Hesychius. His dictionary contains these entries [edit: and two more on the previous page]:
οἰνωπόν· πορφύρεον, μέλανα. ...So, why does Hesychius gloss 'wine-faced' as 'black'? Probably because water in early epic, especially drinking water, is often melas: three rivers have melas water (Iliad 2.625; 21.202; Odyssey 6.91); ships take on stores of melas water (Od. 4.359); the sea nymph Calypso disappears into a melas wave (Od. 5.353); the sea around Charybdis is melas (Od. 12.104); a freshwater spring has melas water (Od. 13.409), and in five places there is a κρήνη μελάνυδρος 'melas-watered spring'. A mostly lost epic, the Cypria, referred to the 'barren melas water (of the sea)' (fr. 9.6 ed. Bernabé).
οἰνώψ· οἶνοψ. μέλαν.
wine-faced [noun]: porphyreos, melas. ...
wine-faced [adjective]: 'wine-looking', melas.
And how does that get us to wine? The answer can only be that Homer calls wine melas in three places. Wine is melas; water is melas; therefore (goes the argument) 'wine-looking' is 'dark'.
But as we saw above, Homer doesn't just call wine melas: he calls it erythros more often, and aithops more often still. So Hesychius' gloss doesn't look well-founded either. West, commenting on the phrase in Od. 1.183, is also unimpressed: 'the conventional rendering "wine-dark",' she writes, 'does not inspire confidence, [but] it is more convincing than alternative suggestions.'
Can we do any better? Maybe. I suggest that an explanation for the 'wine-looking sea' can be conjectured based on the Homeric system of metrical formulas. My suspicion is that epi oinopa ponton was designed to be a substitute for an unattested phrase, *ep' aithopa ponton 'on the bright-looking sea', but with a different rhythm. Hypothetically, an epic poet could choose which formula to use depending on the rhythmical context. *Ep' aithopa ponton was the original version (since it actually makes sense), but either it died out in the pre-Homeric phase of the epic tradition, or it was never permissible in strict hexameter; as a result only the oinopa variant is attested.
The hypothesised *aithopa/oinopa pair follows a pattern of rhythmic variants like the following --
polyēraton eidos echousa-- where the formula is versatile because a syllable can be added or removed without a second thought. A pair of this kind would be absolutely typical for the epic tradition.
epēraton eidos echousa
'(a woman) possessing lovely beauty'
Technical discussion: [Note: a few changes and corrections have been made to this discussion, 20/1/16.]Epi oinopa ponton has the extra syllable because the preposition epi ('on') gets abbreviated before aithopa ('bright-looking') but not before oinopa ('wine-looking'). In phrases like epi + aithopa, ancient Greek regularly contracted a short vowel at the end of one word when followed by a vowel in the next word. However, that couldn't happen with epi + oinopa, because when the formula was devised, oinopa had an extra consonant, w, which had dropped out of the epic dialect by the time the Iliad got written down. Originally the phrase was *epi w(o)īnopa (*w(o)īn- 'wine' comes from the same root that produced Latin vinum, originally pronounced wīn-). Again, it is absolutely typical for Homeric formulas to respect this lost consonant when deciding whether to contract a vowel or not. The phenomenon is known as 'observing digamma': digamma was an archaic letter used to write the w sound in some parts of Greece. Aithops never had a w sound at the beginning (it comes from the verb aith- 'gleam, shine') so there would be nothing to prevent contraction of epi + aithopa → *ep' aithopa.
Why do we never see *ep' aithopa ponton? If this conjecture has a weak point, this is it, because there is no convincing explanation. The formula epi oinopa ponton appears after a fourth-foot caesura: *ep' aithopa ponton in the same position would violate Hermann's bridge. Put simply, what that means is that it's nearly impossible in Homeric metre. Given that, where could it have come from?
- Aithops and wine are each closely associated with the other in early epic poetry:
- aithops is the most typical adjective for wine (24×; cf. erythros 8×, melas 3×);
- wine is the substance most typically described as aithops (24×; cf. 'bronze' 12×, 'smoke' 1×, 'hunger' 1×).
- Aithopa and oinopa are closely parallel forms.
- Oinopa ponton is almost impenetrable on its own, but makes perfect sense if it is understood as a substitute for a similar-sounding word meaning 'gleaming, shining'.