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A Winelike Sea

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          But Achilles,
weeping, quickly slipping away from his companions, sat
on the shore of the gray salt sea, and looked out to the wine-dark sea.
—Homer, The Iliad

The famous likening of the sea to wine has endured through ages, from at 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 known even by people who have never read Homer. It is not The Odyssey, Homer’s sailor’s saga, but the earlier, land-bound Iliad, set on Trojan soil, that first launched one of the best-known of all Homeric epithets on the world. The phrase occurs here only six times, the same incidence as “tumultuous” or “loudsounding,” while the less vivid “gray-gleaming” is used a dozen times. Yet it is “wine-dark” that has stuck with us, and it is clear why. The phrase is alluring, stirring, and indistinctly evocative. It is also, strictly speaking, incomprehensible, and for all the time the phrase has been relished, readers and scholars have debated what the term actually means. In what way did the sea remind Homer of dark wine? And of the myriad ways to evoke the sea, why compare it to wine at all? A translator’s task is to render into English both the plain meaning and the sensibility—the felt meaning—of a Homeric phrase or word, and so it is a duty, albeit a perilous one, to plunge deeper into this celebrated sea phrase, and grope for clarity. Impertinent questions must be floated: what does it mean—and is there possibly a better rendering?

In ancient Greek, the phrase is oínopa póntonoi´nopa being a compound of oínos, meaning “wine,” and óps, meaning “eye” or “face”—literally, “wine-faced,” and thus “wineish,” or “winelike.” The enduring “wine-dark” was established in the Greek-English Lexicon famously compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott and first published in 1843. Liddell, vice chancellor of Oxford University, dean of Christ Church, and one of the most famous Greek scholars of his day, was also the father of Alice Liddell, the muse for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (One imagines the two men busy at their different labors across the quad, the dean seeking to mine and render with exquisite exactitude the innermost meanings of the vocabulary of the ancient Greeks, Carroll plumbing the English language for the inspired nonsense of “Jabberwocky.”) According to Liddell and Scott, oínopa means “wine-colored” and is used by Homer, in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, only of oxen and the sea. When used of the sea, the authors suggest, it is best rendered “wine-dark,” meaning, within its broader context, “the color of dark wine.” They do not hazard what Homer meant by this phrasing, and a survey of principal modern English translations provides neither consensus nor clarity. Richmond Lattimore, in his landmark version of 1951, used, inexplicably, “the wine-blue sea.” Robert Fitzgerald in his translation of 1974 tweaked the dictionary to the collapsed “winedark,” while Robert Fagles stayed true to Liddell and Scott. Other renderings are Stanley Lombardo’s “the sea’s gray wine,” and, most recently, Stephen Mitchell’s “the sea,” in a translation that ditches most epithets and even many simple adjectives.

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  • Most interesting background. I had a discussion regarding the 'wine-dark sea' not more than a month ago with a Facebook friend who used the phrase in one of her haikus, and came to the conclusion that the 'wine-dark' allusion could perfectly match the deep purply appearance that a sea could take on at sunset under certain conditions. There is also a sense of the wine-dark sea being like a cup of wine in which sorrows can be drowned, as Achilles may very well be alluding to in his agony.

    Posted by Sujatha on Thu 25 Jul 2013

  • Hi,

    I have heard of linguistic studies that show that Homeric Greek had no word for blue.

    For example see: http://www.putlearningfirst.com/language/research/colour_words.html

    As languages develop the number of colour words increase over time. This means that many different hues end up with the same name. A modern African tribe with no word of blue cannot distinguish between green and blue hues as they have no way categorising the difference.

    Posted by Iain Bertram on Fri 2 Aug 2013

  • Guy Deutscher's book "Through the Language Glass" discusses the evolution of colour-words in Greek and other languages - notably in very recent Japanese. It's fascinating and well-worth a read. It certainly explains the quirks of the Homeric epics.

    Posted by Judi Sutherland on Mon 5 Aug 2013

  • See the rim interior of this wine mixing vessel at the Getty Museum. When the vessel is filled with wine, ships appear to float on the surface - a "wine-dark sea."

    Posted by Frida on Tue 6 Aug 2013

  • In the quote where Achilles seeks solitude along the grey salt sea and looks out upon the wine-like sea I have always taken the wine reference to call to mind the spiritual role of wine in offering libation. Here Achilles is seeking the aid and comfort of his mother from the sea in a way similar to that of how wine is used to call upon and please the gods.

    Posted by Michael Gibbons on Mon 2 Sep 2013

  • Good Lord. How can scholars have discussed this question for so long and never hit on the "blindingly" obvious? The one and only biographical datum about Homer that every source agrees on is that HIS VISION WAS PROFOUNDLY IMPAIRED, and that is why he made his living reciting poetry.

    Posted by Robert Eckert on Thu 5 Sep 2013

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About the Author

Caroline Alexander is the author of The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty and The War that Killed Achilles. She is working on a new translation of The Iliad for Ecco Press. Her last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Summer 2010 issue, Sports & Games.

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