The Wine-Dark Sea: Was Homer Color Blind?

The Wine-Dark Sea: Was Homer Color Blind?

temple of poseidon

MacBeth shared this article on The Wine-Dark Sea’s Facebook page: Were the ancient Greeks and Romans colour blind?

I’ve read many articles about “the wine-dark sea.” As you might guess from my blog’s title, the phrase is a bit of a favorite of mine. This article has a slightly different take than any I’ve seen.

According to Mark Bradley, Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Nottingham, Gladstone observed, quite rightly, that colour operated in a very different way in antiquity from what we are used to today. ‘We have a great deal of difficulty in translating Homer’s colour terms into modern western languages,’ he says.

Gladstone noted that Homer actually uses very few colour terms, that black and white predominate, and that he uses the same colours to describe objects which look quite different.

‘He believed that although Homer represented the origins of western literature and had very sophisticated ideas about characterisation and tragedy and plot and genre, that in fact his colour vocabulary was comparable to that of a contemporary infant of about three years old,’ says Bradley.

This established the idea that Homeric Greeks had defective colour vision and that perhaps were colour blind en masse. It’s been a hotly debated scholarly topic for over a hundred years. Bradley says that one of the problems with what Gladstone and subsequent scholars did was to attempt to map ancient Greek colour terms onto how we understand colour. That is, the idea of a spectrum of abstract colours that we’ve inherited from Newton, where we can close our eyes and picture yellow and orange and red and blue.

I’ve shared other articles in the past that attempt to map the ways different cultures see color. A fascinating subject. (Drat, I can’t find the link now. I’ll post it if I can remember later.)

Bradley takes a different view. The important point for him is that Homer describes the sea as wine-dark following a tragedy. Odysseus mourns the death of his men after a shipwreck, when they’ve been swallowed up by the wine-dark sea. Achilles mourns the death of Patroclus looking out on the wine-dark sea. ‘The idea is that the sea is dangerous, it’s captivating, it’s intoxicating, just like wine’, he says. ‘It’s much more than just the colour, it’s more about what the object-metaphor is encouraging us to think about’.

I hadn’t tracked the pattern of when Homer uses the phrase an I found that fascinating. That it is associated with grief and Greek funeral rituals totally makes sense and fits neatly with my understanding of Homeric poetry. And seems kind of like it would obvious when you notice the pattern.

But I also found the whole discussion of color perception fascinating:

According to Bradley, the Greeks viewed chroma (in Latin color) as essentially the visible outermost shell of an object. So a table wouldn’t be brown, it was wood-coloured. A window would be glass-coloured. Hair would be hair-coloured, skin would be skin-coloured. ‘They wouldn’t talk in terms of the abstract colours that we are used to today.’

I think it’s interesting that he emphasizes the difference with colors being associated with the surface of things as so alien to the way we think of color, but it’s not at all alien to how little children perceive color, at least judging from my experience with my kiddos. I recall being very frustrated by not having colors to match skin and wood and such. Do we alter our perceptions to fit the tools we have to portray the world, gradually limiting our understanding of color to a box of Crayolas?

In fact even before I’d read this article, I’ve been wondering whether a huge part of the way we think of color isn’t due to crayons (and markers and colored pencils). I realized recently that I’ve always been baffled by the color indigo in the ROYGBIV schema. And I think that’s due in large part to the lack of an indigo colored crayon in my box growing up. I don’t really believe in indigo because I don’t really have a handle on what things are indigo colored. It isn’t a meaningful color for me. It describes nothing in my daily world.

But you don’t have to search far into the past or look to other cultures to find other examples of how we perceive color differently or at least name it differently. My mom and I have a long standing argument about the color purple. She refers to articles of clothing in her closet as purple that I would never call purple I think of them as a sort of wine-red, a dark claret or burgundy. And I have noticed at other times that something I will call blue another person will call purple and vice versa. Why is color so arbitrary, so difficult to pin down? And if my mom and I can’t agree, do I have any hope at all of understanding exactly what it was Homer saw when he looked at the sea?

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  • I have thought a lot about color perception. How do I know that the color that I see as ‘blue’ is the same color that you see as ‘blue.’ I know about the light waves and frequency and all the standard scientific explanations, but I just can’t shake this feeling that people do not see colors in the same way.

  • I do not know really about colour perception…but I am from Croatia and in croatian we say “black wine” when we mean “red wine” and the reds from these parts are really, really dark. And I know the adriatic sea can seem quite black when it storms. So maybe, this is similar for the greek red wine and the mediterranean sea ?

    • “Black wine”? That’s really interesting.
      The standard explanation, and the one I first heard is that the wine the Greeks drank was really dark, especially when drunk from an opaque ceramic kalyx instead of a transparent glass, and that the ocean can seem really dark and that the two look alike. But I also like looking at other options too, the idea that what Homer is playing with is not visual similarity at all, but metaphor. And I love looking at how color is represented in different languages suggesting that people literally see the world differently because of the language they use.

  • +JMJ+

    I remember reading a similar theory in high school that I found more disturbing. The author suggested that there’s no way to be sure that people even see the same hues, even though we learn to say that the hue of the trees and grass is “green.” So if I get into your head, I might “see” that all the trees are actually “red.” His theory hinted at a world in which everyone is essentially disconnected from each other, and I absolutely hated the thought.

    On the other hand, I’m fascinated–in a good way–by the idea of certain colours as abstractions rather than realities. And I want it to inform my creative writing. “Real” colours like orange and turquoise are okay; but “blue” doesn’t cut it any longer, when the sky (depending on the time of day), the sea (depending on the weather), and even different birds can be all sorts of what we’d classify as “blue”!

    To answer your question, yes, I do think that a box of Crayolas can alter our perception of the world. A few months ago, I wondered whether the physical design of a crayon, which pairs limitations with its real advantages, puts children’s understanding of art and creativity into a small box. One whose lines they are discouraged from colouring outside of. =P In contrast, “homemade” crayons, made from melting old Crayolas and pouring them into moulds, may be difficult to use with commercial colouring books, but they open up other doors of creativity.

    Finally, there’s “pink.” I believe that only English gives “pink” the same dignity as the ROYGBIV pantheon (perhaps at the expense of indigo!); everyone else in the world would call it “pastel red.” Having said that, the 80s cartoon Rainbow Brite had a character named Indigo, though it had no character for “pink.” I remember finding it odd, even as a child, that Indigo was Indian when all the other Colour Kids were white. Perhaps that reflects the relative foreigness of “indigo” in American culture and among Anglophones in general.

  • As a lover of pink (my favorite is a light baby pink) I am so frustrated when the color peach or apricot is referred to as pink. I see them closer to orange. Just a little quirk of mine.

  • For many years I had a running argument with my parents about whether one of our neighbors’ houses was green or yellow, resolved only when said neighbors repainted it blue.

  • just had a eureka moment while looking for an image to attach to a pin I was pondering for inclusion on my “Canny countenances” (homage to the Holy Face/imago dei) related to a well known face-profile optical illusion related to a wine glass
    and wanted to draw your attention to the numinous in the poetry of Homer in response to “Do we alter our perceptions to fit the tools we have to portray the world, gradually limiting our understanding of color to a box of Crayolas?”. Could Homer be drawing our minds eye *deeper* revealing something we can’t see? He used the meme first in Illiad in the mouth of Achilles mourning Petroclus over the sea at sunset (a liminal reflection of light across the air-water boundary expresses the transcent mystery or embedded Platonic form of friendship abiding in death, visions of light and dark as inherent visage-forms (faces in profile) beheld profoundly in the heart’s deep recesses not colors abstracted into mere superficial mental categories. In the Odyssey this play on a metaphysical deeper sense is attenuated when he puts the words in the mouth of the nymph Calypso (the “veiled” one) the chiasm-meme echoes the impenetrable mortal-immortal boundary
    Indeed in Greek the very words
    οἴνοπι πόντῳ
    reflect one another in mirror image:
    oy-nop -y- pon-tu

    Note an ancient linguistic root of the Greek word for the sea isn’t “expanse of water” but “path” as in voyage, route of passage:

    … the form of the wine chalice used at Mass is not coincidental IMHO – fermentation has played a social role in experience of religious celebration since time immemorial … by design, dare I say, such that we humans always will find ourselves intrigued by the recognition of such impressions across the vast expanse of cultural experiences? God penetrates our melancholy sombre occluded minds with sparkles of eternal light!

  • There’s a reason for your (and other people’s) confusion over indigo, it’s actually the most common form of ‘color blindness’, it’s not really thought of as such, but that’s essentially what it is. Only about 20% of people can actually differentiate between the last three colors of the rainbow spectrum, most people only see two, one or other of the purples disappears for most people. This results in a lot of disagreement in perception of what color something is, especially in the darker end of the blue-purple area of the color wheel.

    I find their idea that earlier cultures did not perceive color in the same way as rather laughable, considering we have documented evidence to the contrary, in fact what is considered the earliest example of chemistry experimentation (as a theoretical practice to explore the unknown not an engineering process) was by the Ancient Egyptians in their search for a blue paint. They used lapis from the Afghanistan region, but could not maintain a good supply, so looked for a cheaper version. It is possible that the Greeks didn’t think about color in the same way, but we often forget that pigment tests on Ancient Greek statues and monuments have indicated that they were predominantly painted in bright, garish colors, the white marble we see was not how they were displayed then. So color was evidently a significant part of their culture. The same Egyptian Blue pigment was recently found on the statue of Iris at the Parthenon, being the goddess of the rainbow, and having her symbol as the blue and yellow iris flower, it would indicate that the Greeks were able to see and appreciate the connection between the comparative colors of the pigment and the flower. Certainly there is no evidence in all the statuary and friezes of the ancient world, from Crete to Persia, that suggests they accidentally painted faces blue and hair green. They could see the connection between pigment and color just fine. Which implies they understood the perception of specific colors on the color spectrum with relative ease. In fact in Minoan statuary we have figurines painted with red skin and faces, as it was the closest approximation to skin color they could manage, which indicates they understood more complex ideas of tonal similarity and substitution.

    • Sorcha, That’s fascinating about the indigo color blindness. Do you have a source with more information? I’d love to read up on it, but the only articles I can find are about red-green and blue-yellor color blindness.

      To say that color was a significant part of their culture, isn’t to say that they perceived it the same way that we do, though. Right? I’d love to see someone further explore pigmentation in ancient art to see if there are further clues about color perception.

      • I put the phrase ‘color blindness’ in quotes because it’s not directly associated with conventional color blindness, it’s actually an artifact of how our eyes see color. We have 3 types of color sensor in our eyes: red, blue, and green. When something is red, the sensors respond in this reading: {red: 100%, blue: 0%, green: 0%}. Because of how light works we can see yellow hues because both the red and green sensors respond to it, in other words: {red: 50%, blue: 0%, green: 50%} Your brain reads the response and says, if both red and green are 50%, the color must be half way between red and green on the linear color spectrum, so it must be yellow.

        With purple hues we have a problem. The color spectrum is a straight line, going Red>Orange>Yellow>Green>Blue>Indigo>Violet. Beyond Violet is ultra violet and various different radiation waves, before red is infrared and microwaves, none of which we can see (though some animals can see ultra violet). So we have the problem that the only sensor we have for anything blue and beyond is the blue sensor. This means we can’t actually ‘see’ purple hues at all.

        Instead, what happens is, the color sensor for the opposite end of the spectrum, red, also reacts just slightly to indigo and violet hues. This results in a response like this: {red: 25%, blue: 75%, green: 0%} So you end up ‘seeing’ a color that is a mix of red and blue, which we then name the same as the wavelength it’s reacting to: indigo or violet. So what we’re seeing is not purple as it actually is, it’s what our brain approximates purple to be, based on the limited range of sensors it has to detect it. (This is why we convert the color spectrum from a linear form to a circle, which depicts what our eyes see, but not what wavelengths are actually being described.)

        Different people’s light cones (the sensors) react in different extremes to the colors that they’re designed to detect. So for some people, their red/green sensors might not react as strongly as they should, resulting in what we know of a red/green color blindness. In the same way different people’s red sensors react either strongly or only weakly to violet and indigo, resulting in difficulty identifying the difference between those colors. But it’s not classed as color blindness in the conventional sense, because it’s just a result of how everybody’s eyes respond to color. Only those with a strong red response to indigo and violet can actually see them distinctly with ease, and that’s a fairly small % of the population.

        There’s a good discussion and a much better explanation on the reddit r/askscience board:

        I hope that makes some sense.

        • I should add for clarity, that with red/green color blindness the color sensors are not reacting as they should be, whereas with difficulty seeing different purple hues the red sensor is working fine, for red, it just doesn’t respond as strongly to purples, so it’s not considered a deficiency in the same sense.

        • Thank you for the explanation and the link.

          This is illuminating. It reminds me of how I used to have arguments with my mother about the colors of clothing. She had several pieces which she’d call “purple” and which looked red to me. Maybe a dark wine-red, but not purple by any stretch of the imagination. I always thought she just was confused about colors. Now I’m thinking she was just seeing something I couldn’t see. So if perhaps she’s reacting strongly to indigo that plus red registers as purple while my receptors are not reacting to the indigo at all so all I’m getting is the red.

  • Gladstone’s suggestion that ancient Greeks were color-blind can no longer be taken seriously, since the majority of color-blindness is genetic.

    In line with what Zagorka wrote above about ‘black wine’, compare with these lines from the Iliad:
    for the Gods eat not
    Man’s food, nor slake as he with sable wine
    Their thirst
    (from the Wikipedia page on “ichor”)

    So it would seem that Homer thought wine was black, first and foremost, and if the sea was black, he called it wine-dark.

    • Right. And despite the title, the point of the linked article was giving an alternative explanation to Gladstone’s now outdated theory. The real focus was on Bradley, not Gladstone. Gladstone was a jumping off point for the author of the piece and an excuse for an eye-catching headline.

  • I don’t think the Greeks were colour blind. Biologically they were modern humans like us.

    When I first studied Homer I thought that “wine dark sea” was simply poetic licence. Then I went on a Classics school trip to Greece in sixth form, and was very surprised to see that in certain weather and light, the sea around Greece literally looks the colour of dark red wine. In Scotland, too, I have seen the sea looking the same colour as red wine.

    Have you ever actually observed the sea for yourself? The sky is not always blue. It is capable of a great range of colours. It can look blue or green or turqoise or grey or black or pink or purple or gold or silver or red or orange, and many shades between. The sea reflects and is influenced by the great range of colours of the sky: sunny weather, cloudy weather, stormy weather, rose coloured sunrise, the many colours of sunset, the sky at night, the sky at midday, the sky in the morning, the sky in winter, the sky in summer, and the ever changing weather.

    This is the problem with armchair academics. They simply haven’t travelled enough and observed things enough for themselves.

    • hi Rachel, your comment is confusing me. Who are you referring to as an “armchair academic”, Gladstone or Bradley? While the title of the linked piece references Gladstone’s 19th century colorblindness theory, the rest of the article is devoted to explaining Bradley’s alternative explanation. Bradley doesn’t think the ancient Greeks were color blind and neither do I, so I’m not sure why you’re arguing against that point. Did you read the linked article?

      You ask, “Have you ever actually observed the sea for yourself?” Maybe you meant it as a rhetorical flourish, but it comes across as really rude if addressed to me and sort of obtuse if addressed to Gladstone. Yes, as a matter of fact I’ve lived blocks from the sea. And I’ve even travelled to Greece by ferry. I’m quite well aware of how the sea looks in different lights.

      The point of this piece, however, is more about linguistics than about color perception. The question at hand is: How does our vocabulary alter the way we perceive color? Can simply having or not having a word for a particular shade of color change the way we perceive that color? Can having a distinct word make us see a distinction more sharply? And conversely if we lump blue and green into one category with one word does that make us less able to distinguish between those colors? I forget which language it is– Japanese maybe?– that has one word for the color of sea and sky and leaves. To an English speaker leaves and sky are two very distinct colors– green and blue– and we’d usually laugh at someone who confused the two and called the sky green or leaves blue except under very particular meteorological conditions (like before a tornado) or for a small subset of plant species (like blue spruce). And most people would still say that blue spruce is really green.

  • The puzzle there for me is not that Homer used the descriptive “wine-dark sea”, but that modern scholars have interpreted this meaning he (and thus all Ancient Greeks) saw the sea as red, since that is the colour of dark wine. When all the sea you can see is blue, describing it as blue is superfluous, just as you don’t need to call grass green or wood brown when everyone already knows that grass is green and wood is brown.

    What Homer is describing is not the colour (hue) of the sea, but its shade (saturation and lightness) at very specific moments in time. That is, the sea is blue with the same shade as dark wine since he uses the phrase wine-dark, not wine-coloured.

    • Which scholars have interpreted it as him seeing the sea red? I’ve seen it argued that the Greek’s didn’t quite perceive blue in the same way we do, but that’s not the same as red. For one, red wine in an amphora or kalyx or any ceramic vessel as the Greeks used doesn’t really look red. It’s more of a blackish purple.

  • I kind of like the argument that if perhaps Gladstone had seen the Greek seas, the wine-color aspect might not have seemed so odd, but I haven’t seen the Greek seas either.

    However, we know from texts that ancient Greeks painted representational art although very little of it survives.

    The few examples that do suggest that when they had access to suitable pigments, their assignment of color was not wildly different than ours.

    Consider this panel painting…

    There are also Roman-era copies of older Greek paintings that suggest a perception of color similar to our own.

    I don’t think anyone has found a Greek seascape yet. 🙂