No One Could See the Blue Until Modern Times (?) — Colors in Antiquity —

Feb 27, 2015 @ BusinessInsiderUK

Remember this post few months ago? Good news! We found a great article, and here we share it with you!

The article appeared back in 1986 but a great Greek scholar, Mr Stylianos Alexiou, in the 2nd issue of the magazine published by the library of Iraklion, Crete (…/85-a…/publications/122-palimpsiston). Greek speakers can read it here (
English speakers will be happy to read this rough translation:

The Homeric «Οίνοψ Πόντος»: the colors in antiquity
By Stylianos Alexiou

The great Stylianos Alexiou left us on the evening of Tuesday, November 12, 2013, at the age of 92. In place of anything else, and since great men don’t need big words, we present today a note he wrote about the Homeric οίνοπα πόντο (:inopa p:onto = red wine open sea). Thanks to this short article, everyone, even a non specialist, can appreciate the strength of his writing and his thought. It appeared in the magazine Παλίμψηστος, Issue 2 (1986), a publication of the Vikelaia Public Library, Iraklio, Crete.

Κρήτη τις γαῖ ἔστι μέσῳ ἐνὶ οἴνοπι πόντῳ,
καλὴ καὶ πίειρα, περίῤῥυτος.
Είναι μια γη στους ρόδινους ορίζοντες, η Κρήτη
Όμορφη, πλούσια, ολόγυρα λουσμένη από το κύμα.
(Οδύσσεια τ 172)

There’s a land in the rose-colored horizons, Crete
Beautiful, rich, surrounded by waves.
(Ulysses, τ172)

The adjective “οίνοψ” (:inops) literally means reddish, “closely resembling the color of the red wine”. For the simple reason this sounds unmatching for the sea, annotators and translators explain it as “dark, black, sparky, foamy, red by the sunrise and sunset of the sun” etc. The fact is, nevertheless, that the phrase is identical with the equally Homeric “ιοειδής πόντος” (ioid:is p:ontos) (from the color of ίων (:ion) = violet), in other words mauve. To understand these seemingly strange adjectives, one must take into account that the original meaning of the word πόντος, is not “sea” in general, but “πέλαγος” (p:elagos), “the open sea; the sea far from the shore; the sea close to the horizon.”

Indeed, in the Aegean, during the summer and autumn months, when the light of the sun is so intense, the sea close to the horizon very often appears to have a mauvish tint, while the horizon becomes slightly rosy-hued. This is particularly noticeable when one’s standing at the shore on a day with etesian winds and storms. The sea then looks like it’s divided into distinguishable zones, and each of these, starting from the shore all the way to the horizon, is yellow, green, deep blue and mauve. This contrast makes the impression of the slightly reddish and mauve color of the far distant sea even stronger. For this reason, in his Μυθιστόρημα (ΙΓ’) [the poet] Seferis describes the open sea as μαβί (mauve):

«Το πέλαγο τόσο πικρό για την ψυχή σου κάποτε
σήκωνε τα πολύχρωμα κι αστραφτερά καράβια,
λύγιζε, τα κλυδώνιζε, κι όλο μαβί μ’ άσπρα φτερά,
τόσο πικρό για την ψυχή σου κάποτε,
τώρα γεμάτο χρώματα στον ήλιο».

The open sea, once so bitter for your soul
raised the colorful and sparkling ships
bowed and lurched them, all mauve with white wings
so bitter once for your soul
now full of colors in the sun

Long before Seferis, (the poet] Kavafis too, in the “Morning sea” wrote
«Εδώ ας σταθώ. Κι ας δω κ’ εγώ τη φύση λίγο,
θάλασσας του πρωιού κι ανέφελου ουρανού
λαμπρά μαβιά και κίτρινη όχθη
όλα ωραία και μεγάλα φωτισμένα».

Let me stand here. Let me see nature for a little while,
The morning sea and cloudless sky
bright mauves and yellow shore
everything’s beautiful and great illuminated

Centuries before Kavafis and Seferis, and centuries after Homer, Saint Basil the Great wrote in Homilia E’ in Hexaëmeros: «υδή (θέαμα θάλασσα) όταν πραείαις αύραις τραχυνομένη τα νώτα πορφυρούσαν χρόα η κυανήν τοις ορώσι προβάλλη». (Όταν με γλυκές αύρες η επιφάνειά της ταράζεται και προβάλλει σε όσους τη βλέπουν κοκκινωπό ή γαλανό χρώμα). “When sweet breezes wrinkle its surface (of the sea) reddish or cyan color shows to those who watch it”.

The solution therefore lies in the careful observation of nature in the east Mediterranean and the Aegean sea, as well as the ways in which people who shared the same land and the same language, expressed themselves in relation to this same nature, even if centuries later than Homer.

The Greek people of the classical and post classical era used the terms οίνοψ and οινωπός to refer to the color range of reddish, rose, dark red and mauve. Nearly all occurrences of these terms confirm the same meaning, as in οινωπός βότρυς (red grape) in Semonides of Amorgos, οινωπός γένυς (red cheek) in Vakhes by Euripides, οινωπός άχνη (red foam, of the wine) in Orestes by Euripides, οινωποί οφθαλμοί (red eyes) in Physiognomonics by Aristotle (and also the mauve eyes in the poem “Far” by Kavafis), οίνοπα πήχυν (for the rosy hand of the nymph raising a torch) in Trifiodoros, oίνοπα χιτώνα (for the purple robe of Christ) in Nonnus, οινόχροα τρίχα (red-hued hair) in the Annotator of Orestes, etc. The κυκλαμίς ιοειδής (the mauve cyclamen) in the orphic Argonautica, confirms the color meaning of this adjective (today we use the term “cyclamin” for the pale rosy mauve).

I should remind here that the development of an extensive terminology to describe the range of colors is a phenomenon typical of our times corresponding to an unprecedented development of fashion and the textile industry, as well as the modern analytic and scientific spirit. In times past there wasn’t any such terminology available to differentiate the subtleties between colors. Consequently, in modern Greek, the adjective γαλανός (galan:os) means γαλάζιος (gal:azios = bright blue), yet in Crete it means “white, pale”. Similar is the case of the adjective μαύρος (m:avros (black)): we are not speaking literally when we say μαύρο κρασί (m:avro kras:i, black wine), μαύρο ψωμί (m:avro psom:i, black bread), μαύρα σταφύλια (m:avra staf:ilia, black grapes), μαύρισα από τον ήλιο (m:avrisa ap:o ton :ilio, suntanned black) etc. Similarly, in the language of Homer, the adjective οίνοψ stands for more than one closely related color tints: the far distant sea has the color of red wine, it is “reddish” (i.e. mauve), while in other Homeric excerpts οίνοπε (reddish, i.e. brown) are the oxes.

Researches haven’t paid the proper attention to this reality. Thus, one of the meanings that have been attributed to the word οίνοψ is “foamy”. They claimed, in other words, that the Homeric man didn’t see the red wine the way we do in our transparent glasses, but rather they perceived it as something dark and foamy, inside large earthen jars, craters and cylices. For this reason, supposedly, they then called the sea πόντον οίνοπα, for its foamy quality. I wonder, did the ancients never really see this “black” wine pouring out of skinbags and into the amphoras in broad light, or never saw it spilling or staining a white clothe? Equally unsuccessful is the attempt to attribute this meaning to the oxes (βόε οίνοπε), providing that they too, when ploughing, “foam at the muzzle”. This explanation is unlikely, for a local, occasional and entirely neutral and insignificant foaming wouldn’t qualify for the creation of a poetic Homeric adjective. Besides, the word οινωπός or οίνοψ, is believed to be read in a sign in Knossos as the color of an animal (wo-no-ko-so), in other words, a certain reddish ox and certainly not a ox foaming! (See also the middle-ages and modern names of horses: Βάδεος (v:adeos, red-gray) Γρίβας (gr:ivas, gray), Μαύρος (m:avros, black), etc).

Such phrases like οίνοπα πόντον, νύκτα δι’ αμβροσίην etc, though standard, they undoubtedly have a lyrical content in Homer and they serve a poetic purpose. They convey to us how the ancient man saw the sea, his deep feeling of the night. The modern translator ought to render in his translation, as much as possible, this element of the psyche and the poetical nuances of those sentences. The modern Greek translators of Homer (Polylas, Eftaliotis, Sideris, Kontomihis) by translating οίνοπα πόντον as μαύρο πέλαο (black sea), μαύρα πέλαγα (black seas), μελανά πελάγη* (black seas), πόντο σκοτεινό (dark sea) rendered neither the right meaning nor the feelings of the poet. Really, to speak of “black and dark” as the main and almost permanent characteristic of the Aegean Sea (even in the very many occasions in the Homeric narration where it’s clear he’s referring to day), comes in complete contrast with reality! This same sea is described as White Sea, i.e. “bright” by modern Greek people. Some scientists turned to the color-blindness of the poet or the evolution theory of Darwin: ancient Greek saw the sea as black for their eyes were yet imperfect!

French, British and German lexicographers of the past, living in times when it was practically impossible to travel and briefly stay in one of the Greek islands, would naturally imagine Aegean as “dark”. Hence Voss translated οίνοψ and ιοειδής in German as “das Dunkle Meer”, “das finstere Meer”, i.e. “the dull, dark sea”. Τhey obviously didn’t seem notice that μέλας οίνος (m:elas :inos= black wine) in Greece is the red wine.

The modern Greek translators of Homer who learned ancient Greek from the West, they gladly accepted those renderings for οίνοπα / ιοειδή πόντον. Only Pallis rendered the former, in his Illiad, with the irrelevant “γαλαζό” (bright blue) and “αφρογάλαζο κύμα” (foamy blue wave) or with “κρασύ πέλαγο” (wine-like open sea)! Kazantzakis and Kakridis write το πέλαο το κρασάτο (a winy/scarlet open sea), improving Pallis. This solution, faithful as it may be to the Homeric text, is not really poetic, neither suggestive of any image and impression. The same can be said for the renderings of ιοειδούς πόντου as “μενεξέθωρου γιαλού” / faded violet seashore (Pallis), “μενεξιά πελάγη” / violet open seas (Eftaliotis), “γερανιά πελάγη” / geranium-like open seas (Kazantzakis-Kakridis, but also “μαβί πέλαγο” / mauve open sea). Let me include here Bérard’s translation as well: “vagues vineuses” and Mazon’s: “la mer aux teintes de lie de vin” which means “like the lees of the wine” which is indeed mauve. Maybe the best rendering of these ancient terms is just “μαβιά πελάγη” / mauve open seas (since we now have a term for the distant sea), or, more freely, as «ρόδινοι ορίζοντες» / rosy horizons.
With οίνοπα and ιοειδή πόντον, we therefore witness once more that in the artistic poetic speech, by some peculiar observation and sensitivity, a pointing out of details, unnoticed for the most part in the day-to-day experience, is being made, and this pointing out is expressed with terms that transcend the lingual daily routine. However, Homer is not lacking in ordinary terms color for the sea. This is signified by terms such as Ποσειδών κυανοχαίτης (cyan-hair Poseidon) and κυανώπις Αμφιτρίτη (cyan eyed Amfitrites). And there is also (just once) γλαυκή θάλασσα (glaucous sea).

Pictures (in the blog post):
1st on the right: Saffron gatherers. Mural in the Cape of prehistoric Santorini.
2nd on the left: Cyan-monkeys. Mural in the Cape of prehistoric Santorini.
3rd on the right: Mural in the Cape of prehistoric Santorini.

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