But we take colour for granted. Wine has been around for at least six thousand years and enjoyed by many societies, both ancient and modern. Would an Phoenician comment on the “blackcurrant notes” in his goblet of red? Would a Vestal Virgin draw attention to the “buttery yellow” of her glass of white? Not likely.
Case in point: The “wine-dark sea.” This phrase recurs throughout Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, both of which were put into writing around 730 BC. And it has puzzled scholars for centuries.
In terms of color, there is nothing about Aegean Sea that sets it apart from other coastal waters. On your average sunny Mediterranean afternoon, its colour is more swimming pool blue than malbec red. So what was Homer talking about?
Theories abound. Some scholars have argued that the Greeks of Homer’s time suffered a specific type of color blindness. Others have pointed to red algae blooms as the inspiration behind the famous verse, or wondered whether it was meant to evoke the sea at sunset. But there isn’t much hard evidence for the colour blindness theory, and “wine-dark” is used within the context of different time periods in both works, which would require a permanent algae bloom - or a very, very long sunset.
In 1983, two Vancouverites had a unique take on the problem. What if ancient Greek wine was blue?
Robert H. Wright and Robert E. D. Cattley (a research chemist and a classics professor, respectively) noted that Greeks usually diluted their wine with water, reaching water-to-wine ratios as high as eight-to-one. A lot of the action in the ancient epics takes place in the Peloponnesus, a geological region rich in chalk. This area would produce highly alkaline groundwater. Wright and Cattley reasoned that the combination of sufficiently alkaline water with wine could cause a chemical reaction, turning the liquid blue.
It’s an interesting theory, one that’s never been proven. The real answer may be more mundane. Homer was a poet, after all. “Wine-dark” was probably not meant to be taken literally. It could communicate the drunken unpredictability of the waves, or the rich, fathomless hue of deep water.
Plus, with the exception of the Byzantines and the Egyptians, virtually no ancient civilizations had words for the colour “blue.” Based on written sources, the palette of the Ancient Greeks revolved around black/white, metallics (gold, silver, bronze), yellow, and red. So for Homer, the purplish-red of wine - especially diluted wine - might be closest metaphor he could find for the hue of the Aegean.
All of this is pretty esoteric. The real kicker, though? From the original Greek, the phrase isn’t actually “wine-dark sea.” It’s “wine-faced sea.” One American translator, who favoured “wine-dark,” said that, as an attractive turn of phrase, it “can’t be improved on.”
Sometimes, poetry beats accuracy.