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A Winelike Sea | Lapham’s Quarterly

A Winelike Sea | Lapham’s Quarterly

2023-04-25 22:00:08

The well-known likening of the ocean to wine has endured by ages, from at the very least the late eighth century bc, the composition date of the Iliad and the phrase “wine-dark” is now so securely lodged in our collective consciousness as to be recognized even by individuals who have by no means learn Homer. It’s not the Odyssey, Homer’s sailor’s saga, however the earlier, land-bound Iliad, set on Trojan soil, that first launched one of many best-known of all Homeric epithets on the world. The phrase happens right here solely six instances, the identical incidence as “tumultuous” or “loud-sounding,” whereas the much less vivid “gray-gleaming” is used a dozen instances. But it’s “wine-dark” that has caught with us, and it’s clear why. The phrase is alluring, stirring, and indistinctly evocative. It’s also, strictly talking, incomprehensible, and for on a regular basis the phrase has been relished, readers and students have debated what the time period really means. In what method did the ocean remind Homer of darkish wine? And of the myriad methods to evoke the ocean, why examine it to wine in any respect? A translator’s activity is to render into English each the plain that means and the sensibility—the felt that means—of a Homeric phrase or phrase, and so it’s a responsibility, albeit a deadly one, to plunge deeper into this celebrated sea phrase, and grope for readability. Impertinent questions have to be floated: what does it imply—and is there presumably a greater rendering?

In historical Greek, the phrase is oínopa póntonoínopa being a compound of oínos, that means “wine,” and óps, that means “eye” or “face”—actually, “wine-faced,” and thus “wine-ish,” or “winelike.” The enduring “wine-dark” was established within the Greek-English Lexicon famously compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott and first revealed in 1843. Liddell, vice chancellor of Oxford College, dean of Christ Church, and probably the most well-known Greek students of his day, was additionally the daddy of Alice Liddell, the muse for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (One imagines the 2 males busy at their completely different labors throughout the quad, the dean looking for to mine and render with beautiful exactitude the innermost meanings of the vocabulary of the traditional Greeks, Carroll plumbing the English language for the impressed nonsense of “Jabberwocky.”) In response to Liddell and Scott, oínopa means “wine-colored” and is utilized by Homer, in each the Iliad and the Odyssey, solely of oxen and the ocean. When used of the ocean, the authors recommend, it’s best rendered “wine-dark,” that means, inside its broader context, “the colour of darkish wine.” They don’t hazard what Homer meant by this phrasing, and a survey of principal fashionable English translations offers neither consensus nor readability. Richmond Lattimore, in his landmark model of 1951, used, inexplicably, “the wine-blue sea.” Robert Fitzgerald in his translation of 1974 tweaked the dictionary to the collapsed “winedark,” whereas Robert Fagles stayed true to Liddell and Scott. Different renderings are Stanley Lombardo’s “the ocean’s grey wine,” and, most not too long ago, Stephen Mitchell’s “the ocean,” in a translation that ditches most epithets and even many easy adjectives.

Sightseeing, by Maria Passarotti. 2007.

Sightseeing, by Maria Passarotti. 2007. C-print from destructive. © Maria Passarotti, courtesy the artist.

This wine-dark sea has haunted many imaginations. Nineteenth-century British prime minister William Gladstone posited in Research on Homer and the Homeric Age that the Greeks had a type of color-blindness, their optical palette restricted to black and white, and presumably crimson. One other idea was {that a} sort of algal bloom, crimson tide, made the Homeric-era Aegean wine-red. Within the Nineteen Eighties, the view was superior that because the historical Greeks combined their wine with water, the alkaline water frequent to the Peloponnesus would have turned crimson wine to blue. One other view got here from a retired classicist who watched “an unusually vivid sundown” over the ocean on the mouth of the Damariscotta River, in Maine, on a night when the sky was crammed with ash that had floated east from the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and was struck by the colour of the ocean “mirrored within the outgoing tide of the darkish estuary.” The ocean, he stated, was the colour of Mavrodaphne, a wine of deep purple-brown hue, and the epithet for Homer’s wine-colored sea, he speculated, meant “sunset-red.” Lastly, many contend that the phrase is meaningless, an empty expression with a poetic ring whose objective is simply to fill out the metrical necessities of a line of the verse.

The picture Homer hoped to conjure along with his winelike sea significantly depended upon what wine meant to his viewers. Whereas the Greeks doubtless knew of white wine, most historical wine was crimson, and within the Homeric epics, crimson wine is the one wine particularly described. Drunk at feasts, poured onto the earth in sacred rituals, or onto the ashes round funeral pyres, Homeric wine is usually mélas, “darkish,” and even “black,” a time period with broad utility, used of a brooding spirit, anger, dying, ships, blood, evening, and the ocean. It’s also eruthrós, that means “crimson” or the tawny-red hue of bronze; and aíthops, “vibrant,” “gleaming,” a time period additionally used of bronze and of smoke in firelight. Whereas these phrases notably have extra to do with mild, and the play of sunshine, than with shade correct, Homeric wine was clearly darkish and crimson and would have appeared particularly so when seen within the terracotta containers by which it was transported. “Winelike sea” can not imply clear seawater, nor the white splash of sea foam, nor the pale shade of a transparent sea lapping the shallows of a sandy shore.

Many, many steeples must be stacked one on high of one other to achieve from the underside to the floor of the ocean. It’s down there that the ocean folks reside.

—Hans Christian Andersen,

The Greeks knew the ocean intimately, for seafaring was the engine of their tradition. As late as 408, Synesius, the bishop of Ptolemais in Libya, invoked his distance from the ocean to convey how far he lived from civilization. “Don’t assume that I’m exaggerating,” he wrote, “once I say that folks right here don’t take to the ocean, even for the aim of getting their salt.” He felt, he stated, like Odysseus, who, on the finish of his wanderings, is distributed by an oracle amongst “males who know not of the ocean, nor eat meals combined with salt.” To Xenophon and the military of the Ten Thousand, struggling again from Babylon, the cry “The ocean! The ocean!” meant they have been in attain of house. To reside removed from the ocean was to reside in relative isolation, for the ocean alone was the freeway for concepts in addition to commerce. It was additionally feared—the Greeks, like all seagoing peoples, knew that sea voyages could possibly be perilous. “If ever you flip your misguided coronary heart to buying and selling and want to escape from debt and joyless starvation, I’ll present you the measures of the loud-roaring sea,” wrote Hesiod, who’s believed to have composed his didactic poem Works and Days a era after Homer’s Iliad. Solely males determined for wealth, in his view, danger taking to sea; “of their ignorance males do even this, / for wealth means life to poor mortals; however it’s fearful to die among the many waves.”

The Iliad evokes the ocean in dramatic scenes and similes throughout the vary of human expertise: males at sea, lonely shorelines, sea storms, waves of males crashing into battle. Its presence is asserted early, within the first ebook of theIliad’s twenty-four, the place, though most motion takes place throughout the Achaean camp, evocation of the ocean is essential to some half a dozen scenes. The primary point out happens after an previous Trojan priest leaves the Achaean camp, having failed to influence King Agamemnon to just accept ransom for his captured daughter:

And in silence he went alongside the shore of the tumultuous sea.
Then going aside, the previous man prayed fervently
to lord Apollo.

In response Apollo sends a withering plague to punish the Achaeans for refusing his priest, and Agamemnon lastly capitulates, calling for his males to organize her departure:

“Come allow us to drag considered one of our darkish ships to the brilliant salt sea,
and assemble in it appropriate rowers, and place the sacrifice in it,
and embark the lady herself, Chryseis of the stunning cheeks.”

Later, a small band of Achaeans coming back from this mission underneath the management of the sailor Odysseus expertise the flying pleasure of crusing a quick boat on a fantastic day:

They stepped the mast and unfold the glistening sails,
and the wind blew gusts in the course of the sail, and round
the cutwater the bow wave, shimmering darkish, sang loud because the ship proceeded.
She swept over the swell, making her course.

When Achilles receives phrase that he should quit his personal captive lady to compensate for Agamemnon’s loss, and lack of face, he reminds his commander, in a blistering speech, that:

“It was not on account of Trojan warriorsI got here
to wage battle right here, since to me they’re innocent
—by no means but have they pushed off my cattle, or my horses,
nor ever in Phthia whose tough earth breeds warriors
have they destroyed my harvest, since there are a lot of issues between us,
each shadowy mountains and clashing sea.”


His lady prize confiscated, Achilles calls upon his mom, Thetis, a nymph of the ocean, imploring her to hunt redress from Zeus; it’s at this second that he stretches forth his fingers in imprecation to the “winelike sea.” (The rendering of “winelike” right here relies on a brand new version of the Greek textual content of the Iliad, first revealed in 1998. As a substitute of oínopa, earlier editions had apeírona, “infinite, boundless” sea, which was adopted in nearly all earlier translations.) Listening to her son, Thetis rises “from the grey salt sea, like mist.” We’re nonetheless solely in ebook one.

None of those references are gratuitous, nor merely poetic. The ocean not solely units the scene of motion, but additionally the temper. A lonely shore is the background for a priest’s prayerful grief, whereas the tumult of waves mirrors the unrest in his thoughts. A “vibrant” sea guarantees a profitable voyage: to males crusing house from a righteous mission, the smiling sea is the pleasant, broad street of journey. “Clashing” waves evoke a harmful distance between Achilles’ homeland and Troy. And the ocean’s grey depths are the place supernatural beings, forces of nature, abide.

Higgs Ocean #8, by Andrea Galvani, 2010.

Higgs Ocean #8, by Andrea Galvani, 2010. C-print mounted on aluminum dibond, 37.43″ x 47.28″. © Andrea Galvani, courtesy of the artist, Artericambi, Italy and Marso, Mexico Metropolis.

The ocean’s acquainted attributes are additionally drawn upon within the magnificent phrase footage of the Homeric similes to make vivid these scenes and occasions of which its viewers might need had no firsthand expertise, corresponding to ranks of warriors on the march:

As when waves of the ocean sprint on the thundering shore,
one after one other underneath energy of the West Wind shifting—
the wave rises first within the open sea, then
shattering on land it roars mightily, and curling because it goes
breaks across the headland, and spatters foam of the salt sea—
so on this method did the ranks of Danaans transfer one after one other
ceaselessly to warfare.


Just because the English language marks distinct facets of the ocean with distinct terminology, corresponding to sea, ocean, and the deep, so too does Homeric Greek. In probably the most primary sense, the ocean is háls, the identical phrase for “salt,” and is used, in keeping with Liddell and Scott, “usually of shallow water close to shore.” The ocean as distinct from heaven and land and different water is thálassa, the fundamental sea that Achilles evokes to sign the nice distance between his house and the Trojans: “Since there are a lot of issues between us,/each shadowy mountains and clashing sea.” However the “winelike” sea, the ocean that’s oínopa, is known as pónton—“the open sea,” “deep sea,” “excessive sea,” the ocean, or what sailors name “blue water.” Indo-European cognates recommend the phrase’s origin lies within the notion of a “path” or “passage” throughout the water: “a street the place there are obstacles, a crossing,” in keeping with one grammarian. When weeping Achilles appears towards “the winelike sea…stretching forth his fingers,” he’s reaching for the oínopa pónton, the ocean that regardless of its hazard may nonetheless present him passage to the place his ideas at all times flip—house.

Homer’s sea, whether or not háls, thálassa, or póntos, is described as misty, darkly troubled, black-dark, and grayish, in addition to vibrant, deep, clashing, tumultuous, murmuring, and tempestuous—however it’s by no means blue. The Greek phrase for blue, kuáneos, was not used of the ocean till the late sixth or early fifth century bc, in a poem by the lyric poet Simonides—and even right here, it’s unclear if “blue” is strictly meant, and never, once more, “darkish”:

the fish straight up from the
darkish/blue water leapt
on the lovely track

After Simonides, the blueness of kuáneos was more and more asserted, and by the primary century, Pliny the Elder was utilizing the Latin type of the phrase, cyaneus, to explain the cornflower, whose fashionable scientific identify, Centaurea cyanus, nonetheless preserves this lineage. However for Homer kuáneos is “darkish,” presumably “glossy-dark” with hints of blue, and is used of Hector’s lustrous hair, Zeus’ eyebrows, and the evening.

Historical Greek phrases for shade usually are notoriously baffling: Within the Iliad, “chlorós concern” grips the armies on the sound of Zeus’ thunder. The phrase, in keeping with R.J. Cunliffe’s Homeric lexicon, is “an adjective of shade of considerably indeterminate sense” that’s “utilized to what we name inexperienced”—which isn’t the identical as saying it means “inexperienced.” It’s also utilized “to what we name yellow,” corresponding to honey or sand. The pale inexperienced, maybe, of susceptible shoots struggling out of soil, the sickly inexperienced of males gripped with concern?

See Also

The Seashore at Palavas, by Gustave Courbet, 1854.

The Seashore at Palavas, by Gustave Courbet, 1854. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. 

Trendy examination of the Greek sense of shade started with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who concluded in his Concept of Colours, revealed in 1810, like Gladstone after him, that Greek shade notion was merely faulty. Others wanting past the Greeks to the traditional world usually found astonishing lapses, together with the full absence in any historical textual content of reference to the sky as blue. Blue, it was theorized, is uncommon in nature—few individuals have blue eyes, blue crops are uncommon—and so this unusual, troublesome to duplicate shade went unrecognized. But the traditional world knew of, and coveted, lapis lazuli; and flowers, such because the cornflower and flax, are in truth blue.

Slightly than being unaware of shade, evidently the Greeks have been much less all for and attentive to hue, or tint, than they have been to mild. As late because the fourth century bc, Plato named the 4 major colours as white, black, crimson, and vibrant, and in these circumstances the place a Greek author lists colours “so as,” they’re organized not by the Newtonian colors of the rainbow—crimson, orange, yellow, inexperienced, blue, indigo, violet—however from lightest to darkest. And the Iliad comprises a broad, specialised vocabulary for describing the motion of sunshine: argós that means “flashing” or “glancing white”; aiólos, “glancing, gleaming, flashing,” or, in keeping with Cunliffe’s Lexicon, “the notion of glancing mild passing into that of fast motion,” and the basis of Hector’s most defining epithet, koruthaíolos—nice Hector “of the shimmering helm.” Thus, for Homer, the sky is “brazen,” evoking the glare of the Aegean solar and extra ambiguously “iron,” maybe that means “burnished,” however presumably our sense of a “leaden” sky. Considerably, two of the few unambiguous shade phrases within the Iliad, and which evoke the sky in accordance with fashionable sensibilities, are phenomena of sunshine: “Daybreak robed in saffron” and daybreak shining forth in “rosy fingers of sunshine.”

So too, on shut inspection, Homeric phrases that seem to explain the colour of the ocean, have extra to do with mild. The ocean is usually glaukós or mélas. In Homer, glaukós (whence glaucoma) is shade impartial, that means “shining” or “gleaming,” though in later Greek it involves imply “grey.” Mélas (whence melancholy) is “darkish in hue, darkish,” typically, maybe crudely, translated as “black.” It’s used of a variety of issues related to water—ships, the ocean, the rippled floor of the ocean, “the darkish hue of water as seen by transmitted mild with little or no reflection from the floor.” It’s also, as we’ve seen, generally used of wine.

And to our age’s drowsy blood / Nonetheless shouts the inspiring sea.

—James Russell Lowell,

So what shade is the ocean? Silver-pewter at daybreak; grey, gray-blue, green-blue, or blue relying on the actual day; yellow or crimson at sundown; silver-black at nightfall; black at evening. In different phrases, no shade in any respect, however moderately a phenomenon of mirrored mild. The phrase “winelike,” then, had little to do with shade however should have evoked some attribute of darkish wine that may resonate with an viewers aware of the ocean—with the póntos, the excessive sea, that perilous path to distant shores—such because the glint of floor mild on impenetrable darkness, like wine in a terracotta vessel. Thus, when Achilles, “weeping, rapidly slipping away from his companions, sat/on the shore of the grey salt sea,” stretches forth his fingers towards the oínopa pónton, he appears not on the enigmatic “wine-dark sea,” however, extra explicitly, and presumably with extra weight of melancholy, on a “sea as darkish as wine.” For the reason that Greek occurs to make use of two completely different phrases for sea on this specific verse—háls, the salt sea, in addition to póntos—the English rendering is greatest stretched even additional:

However Achilles,
weeping, rapidly slipping away from his companions, sat
on the shore of the grey salt sea, and appeared out to depths as darkish as wine.

If communication and commerce, the bulwarks of Greek civilization, have been seaborne, so have been dis­aster and break. The warfare at Troy was triggered, as Hector sharply reminds his brother Paris, when he, Paris, carried Helen off throughout the ocean:

“Have been you such a person when in seagoing ships
you sailed the ocean, assembling trusty companions,
and mingling with overseas males led away an exquisite lady
from a distant land—a lady associated to spearmen—
mighty break to your father and metropolis and all of your individuals,
however nice pleasure to our enemies and shame to your self?”

Later, Helen, remorseful, fantasizes a few seaborne deliverance that would have averted the hated warfare. “Brother-in-law, of me, an evil-thinking canine that strikes chilly concern,” she says to Hector, on what can be the final day he would spend within the metropolis of Troy:

“Would that on the day when first my mom bore me,
some foul-weather storm of wind carrying me had borne me
to a mountain or a swelling wave of the tumultuous sea,
the place the wave would have swept me away earlier than these deeds had occurred.”

That the ocean brings destruction is a reality of historical past in addition to poetry. The Greek Bronze Age that Homer described collapsed round 1200 bc for causes nonetheless debated, however data of the time make anxious reference to “sea peoples” or raiders from the ocean. A touch of coming menace is preserved on a clay pill from the palace archive of Pylos, on the coast of the southwestern Peloponnesus. The palace, it seems, was burned down by the enemy; the inscribed clay pill, baked within the ensuing blaze, survived due to the conflagration. “Watchers on guard over the coastal lands,” the pill reads, within the Linear B script of the Mycenaeans. Lists of deployments, of males and locations, comply with: “Detachment of Maleus at Owitono…thirty males from Oikhalia to Owitono, and twenty…males from Apuka…” One can image them, these lookouts on the coast, armed, on excessive alert, staring out to the horizon of a sea as darkish as wine.

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