The Wine-Dark Sea

The Wine-Dark Sea

In the Odyssey, Homer almost never refers simply to “the sea.” Invariably he uses the phrase, “the wine-dark sea.” My guess is that with the tortuous meter in which he worked it was useful to have phrases he could just plug into a line, knowing they’d scan. Also, the repetition probably helped him developed a loping pace that would carry the story along. He does the same thing when referring to the gods and leaders of the Trojan War. Got it. What I don’t get is the image. I’ve never thought of the sea as “wine-dark.” “Deep and dark,” “dark as night,” “deep blue sea” all paint a picture for me but “wine-dark sea” just makes me think of purple water. Or, in less lucid moments, blue wine.

I spend long moments here looking at the color of the sea. Today, under a bright, hazy sky and strong winds, the sea was predominantly cobalt with lacy whitecaps setting off the blue. Sand washing from the point upwind created a turquoise streak about a hundred meters offshore. I’ve seen the water gunmetal blue, cold grey, and something Susan called “azure.” I’ve seen it ultramarine, sea green, cerulean, Caroline blue, midnight blue, navy blue, sapphire, and teal but I’ve never seen it any color that reminds me of wine.

I don’t think Homer was simply referring to an absence of light, eg: the bottom of the sea is as dark as the bottom of a wine amphora. I think there was some cultural/linguistic/semantic significance to the image that resonated with ancient Hellenes. Maybe the association of wine with a rolling gait, the sensation of the ground moving, an unsteady horizon had something to do with it. Maybe drinking wine was thought to be like taking a sea voyage. Maybe dipping into the amphora was as uncertain as setting sail. Maybe it was even dangerous.

For modern Greeks the highest compliment bestowed on the water is “the sea is like oil.” For us, that simile has a distinctly unpleasant connotation but, for swimming, the Greeks like still water, and a perfectly flat, mirrored surface is the best of all — a sea as calm as a bowl of olive oil. I think something like that made Homer’s image work for the ancients. I just don’t know which bit of communal experience he was tapping into. Perhaps one day, sitting out on the balcony, maybe even sipping a glass of wine, there’ll be a eureka moment and the penny will drop, the skies will open, the angels will sing. Maybe not. But I’m enjoying rolling this particular nut around in my mouth, searching for something my tooth can pry into. Consulting a text on ancient Greek would probably be easier but what fun trying to meld one’s imagination to an ancient consciousness.

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