Colours (concluded)


The Aegean sea has its variations of light. On a bright morning, you can set sail on the ‘gleaming brine’—ἅλα δῖαν. But if you are casting off at dusk to sail through the night unseen by pirates, as Telemachus and Athene do at the end of Odyssey II, it is the ‘wine-dark sea’—οἴνοπα πόντον.

It is not necessary to posit that Homer or his peers were colour blind, as has been suggested; but perhaps we do need to accept that for the Greeks of those times, naming colours was not part of literary convention, nor perhaps of speech in general.

We get glimpses. Menelaus is ξανθὸς Μενέλαος: but that covers a range from blond to auburn. Athene is γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη: that could suggest anything from blue to green to grey, and perhaps expresses no more than the brightness of her eyes, or that they are ‘flashing’, and this word is used by some translators.

Pindar praises Athens as violet-crowned—ἰοστέφᾰνος. Connected with that word may be the reason why colours do not get aired in Greek literature, and why there are so few attempts by painters to show the landscapes and seascapes of Greece. There are places in the Aegean where the light and the ether is so dazzling, so ravishing, that words are of no account. And to be in Athens at dusk in summer and see the Acropolis and its temples, and beyond them Mount Hymettus, taking on that progression of violet hues is to realise that words, even Pindar’s ἰοστέφᾰνος, will not answer.

One can have too much describing, as one thoughtful student has suggested: she finds suspect the assumption that everything is reducible to words.

Of interest:
homer’s sea – wine dark#52f41a0

Next post: Anchors, angles and ankles.


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