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I remember once being given a writing assignment in which I had to list seven meaningful colours, and write about them… How very fun, was my first reaction – only to find myself hopelessly bogged down as soon as I tried.

I could attach no particular meaning to any one colour – say orange or blue – let alone seven… I ended up writing about a mix of very specific hues and combinations of colours or colour and texture… It was the first time I paused to think that “colour” might be something far more complex than the list on a crayon box.

Then last week, while preparing for a talk about wine in ancient Greece, I came across οίνοψ πόντος again. Oinops pontos, the wine-dark sea, is an image Homer uses repeatedly both in the Iliad and the Odyssey – and, because no matter how you look at it, wine and sea hardly have the same colour, it has been something of a puzzle to Greek scholars and language historians for ages. I’d heard about it when studying Greek in high school – but unfortunately my “Homer” year was spent in the care of and elderly and… shall we say bizarre lady teacher, very set in her way, and very single-minded in her fondness for early Nineteenth century translations. And dissecting every syllable of Vincenzo Monti’s Iliade left no time to wonder why Homer would compare the sea to wine – all the more because Monti himself elegantly shirks the matter.

If Mrs G. bothered with it at all, it was to say that Homer, poor fellow had been blind: how would he know what the sea looked like? As I said, she was very set in her old ways. Even as a schoolgirl I knew that, whoever or whatever Homer was, he was hardly one old blind storyteller… So that explanation didn’t add up – but I cannot say that I spent much thought about it. In time I came across other theories, such as that the addition of ground stone might have turned certain wines bluish, or that volcanic ashes or algae could have given some stretches of sea a reddish tinge, or even that all Greeks in “Homer’s” time might have been colour-blind…

None of which seemed to me enough to explain the wine-dark sea. Much better I liked the idea that ancient Greece may have lacked the very concept of “blue”, since little blue is found in nature except for sea and sky, and those might have been interpreted as voids, rather than something with a colour…

And that was the idea I held to – whenever I happened to think of oinops pontos, until last week, when I found two things. First there was William Gladstone’s theory* that colour perception is linked to evolution, and therefore Homer’s Greeks just hadn’t reached yet the stage for blue. It seemed much better than either powdered marble or a whole colour-blind culture, and I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that we may see what our distant ancestors did, but not the way they saw…

But what truly convinced me was this article about the work of Nottingham University’s Mark Bradley. Professor Bradley argues (very convincingly, I think) for a wholly different colour-perception, and not a cruder one. Homer’s Greeks, he says, did not think of colours in the abstract the way we do – a much more recent idea, in fact. To them, colour was the skin of the object and, as such, entailed far more than visuals. He calls it a synaesthetic perception, in which a colour comparison in fact might also involve texture, smell, sound, taste and more abstract ideas and association.

So the sea was like the wine in its dark and intense colour, perhaps the light-reflecting surface, certainly its lures and intoxication, and its dangers as well… Lovely isn’t it? At last an elegant, satisfying explanation of oinops pontos, perfectly dovetailing with one of the most beautiful characteristics of poetry – the compression of different meanings and ideas in a single word or image.

And also a personally satisfying parallel with my own inability to attach too much meaning to a single colour out of the wheel.


* Yes, that Gladstone.