Homer’s colour blindness

Posted on October 29, 2010

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A scene from Homer's poetry

When I first read The Iliad and The Odyssey I was very confused.

Not by the phalanx of characters which come flooding at you, sometimes referred to only by their leitmotifs rather than their actual names (you need to juggle about twenty family trees in your mind, as well as remember who is “swift-footed”, who is “of the spear” and so on in your mind in order to fully appreciate Homer’s epics), but by something else.

The sea was “wine-dark”. Now that always puzzled me, even when I was too young to have properly examined the contents of a wine glass. White wine is in no way dark, which means that Homer was describing a maroon-coloured sea; a beaujolais lapping up on the beach. Or at least to modern sensibilities he was.

Colour, as most of us know, can be subjective. Whether it’s an argument over whether you’re going to put Vanilla creme or Marble white paint on your walls (because to some eyes there is a difference between the two) or the old philosophical response to a child asking¬† “why is the sky blue?”: “what is blue, anyway?”. Some languages, even today, only really talk about colours in black, white and red. Homer’s colour lexicon extended a little beyond that – you get some green, too.

But it does seem that the ancient Greeks weren’t as attuned to colour as we are today (though again, saying that takes as granted that the way that we view colour, arranged by shades and on a strict colour wheel, is the ‘right’ way to see it). Their gaudy decorations of monuments we view as resplendent in their natural white marble today – like the Parthenon – are a shock to many. That such a building could once have looked like a clown’s clothes, a hodge-podge of colour is to some concerning and to others alarming.

Greeks did think about colour somewhat, though. Empedocles is best known for being the philosophical soul that established the four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. However he also looked at colour, light and vision in the fifth century BC and divided it up likewise into four areas. There was light/white, dark/black, yellow and red. Of course it’s eminently possible that to an ancient Greek “red” wasn’t what it is to a western European, just as what “red” is to some tribes in today’s world isn’t either.

Which explains why Homer’s sky is bronze, and hair is often green. What it also shows, perhaps more importantly, is that things we take for definite, such as the sky being blue and the sea being the same (though if you’re in England then it can often be grey or worse, an off-brown) aren’t necessarily so.

Of course the fact that Homer mentions colour at all is to some scholars extraordinary. He is the blind poet from rocky Chios, a proto-Miltonic character who used his lack of one of the key senses to instead foster a sense of personality and affinity with the mind, creating from his impediment a benefit. Through his lack of sight he was able to amplify other senses, and to empathise with the unseen emotions of the characters he wrote about. That’s even if you believe that he was a single person, and not a conglomeration of a bunch of jobbing bards telling stories that at some point was squeezed together into a single narrative.

(Colour)blind or not, the use of colour in The Iliad and The Odyssey demonstrate the great leap in thinking that must be made when considering the two great epic poems. For all their timeless themes, there is still something idiosyncratically of the moment of their composition about them which cannot be ignored.

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