For some reason the English-speaking world thinks it has to be translated as a color word. Maybe because it was incorrectly translated as wine-dark? But it's not exclusively a color word, just like "metallic" is not exclusively a color word in English. It means exactly what it says: wine-faced, having a wine-like surface.
The Greeks didn't drink wine in glasses like we do today. They mixed wine in a giant mixing bowl called a κρατήρ (krater). It could be different colors and was sometimes cloudy, like natural wines are today. They often mixed in honey, herbs, and fruit. Wine was also seen as a god: we say that Dionysos was the god of wine, but to the Greeks, wine itself was commonly thought of as being Dionysos.
So when imagining an oinops pontos, instead of picturing of a glass of pinot noir, imagine a huge bowl sitting in a candle-lit room, filled with a dark cloudy liquid, still swirling and bubbling slightly, shapes occasionally surfacing, a sheen reflecting the flickering candle light, containing a mysterious divine power. That's what Homer's referencing when he says wine-faced. The surface of the sea is like the surface of that bowl of wine–probably with the implication of a mysterious divine power beneath.
The ancient Greek word purphureos, which comes into English as purple, meant something like "dark and shimmering", and described wine and blood and the sea as purphureos. Much like we describe many things as "iridescent" that aren't rainbow-y (Gk iris = rainbow)
Translate it literally as "wine-face" and it usually makes sense in English. In the case of the sea, it's referring to its dark wine-like surface. In the case of the cows, it's their ruddy wine-like color. There's also an element of the cows being strong, since wine can create an invigorating feeling in the drinker.
Why not? This is poetry, not an exact science, so playing with the meaning of words is not only completely acceptable, but desirable. Why shouldn't 'wine-faced' relate to the surface texture of wine in one occasion, and to its color in another?
There certainly wasn't room for any confusion, because even if the ancient Greeks had a different understanding of colors than ours, they still knew that wine has another color than the sea (example: in our color system, wine is red, and a traffic light is red. Yet you distinctly know that a red traffic light does not have the color of wine). So it was perfectly clear that Homer meant the surface texture when referring to the sea. The Greeks also knew that there are no oxen which are liquid on the surface (as mentioned below, this may also relate to sweat), so it was perfectly clear Homer meant the color here.
But would you call the green light blue? Because I know some Japanese who do. Green/Blue is not as clear cut in some colors. And for many in Japan, the shinto gates (The torii) is not red. It is of its own color, between red and orange. I see it is often translated into "vermillon", which, let's admit, we would just call red.
So is it possible that in the distant past, a civilization would consider dark red and dark blue the same color? That instead of one "blue" category they would mix several other unnamed colors?
I can believe it. I think most civilizations will differentiate between the color of the blood and the color of vegetation but apart from that, I can imagine a very different palette.
And while I consider it unlikely just given the elements we have, let's not be totally closed to the possibility that the biological color perception changed since then. Arguably, nowadays, color-blindness is a bigger handicap than a slight myopia. It hinders you in several artistic or design-oriented careers. Even had a classmate struggling with resistors color code (in the good old days of the DIP components). Myopia will just be a problem for pilots and is easily corrected. Has it been the case for long enough to apply a selective pressure? I doubt it but am opened to being proven wrong.
But that was not my point. Obviously, color categories are not fixed and may differ from culture to culture, yet you still know that "wine" (classified as red in western culture) has a different color than a traffic light. It does not matter that Japanese would call the green light blue, the same color they would (probably) say a clear summer sky has, because just like you would recognize that a red traffic light has a different color than red wine, Japanese would recognize that a clear-blue sky has a different color than a "blue" traffic light.
Every time this color discussion comes up, I am surprised people find this so interesting. Of course there are different names for different things in different languages / cultures. Of course these names often have a wider or a narrower set of semantic meaning than in your native language / culture, and this will of course lead to some "strange" word / concept / category overlap. But this is just unavoidable if unrelated groups of people build a categorical representation of a continuous world in their brains.
If you have ever tried to learn a single foreign language, you instinctively know this, and these color category differences shouldn't come as any surprise to you.
And especially coming from a culture where some colors seem to be labeled as "objective" categories (we learn at school that magenta, yellow, cyan, are the core colors. Tech people learn the same for red green and blue) it is strange at first to realize that some cultures do not consider these categories so clear-cut.
Ask people what they consider cyan vs.turquoise, and some will insist they are the same and some will insist they are distinct. Ask them to draw a boundary between either and blue or green, and the boundaries will be different.
Ask them what is magenta vs. purple vs violet or even pink and again some will insist two or more of them are the same,and some will have strong opinions of what falls on either side that may not match the ’objective' categorization.
I think though there are tiny ones that are interesting.
German "blaues Auge" - (blue eye) is a black eye in English (like one after a bar fight). This is because blue is associated with sadness in English and blue eyes (correct me if I am wrong, not an English native) are sad eyes. Blue in German is however rather overloaded with being drunk. And the blue eye doesn't seem to conflict with that. "Blau machen" is to call in sick to work while actually not being sick.
So who knows what associations were made with wine color? Maybe the lack of control, similar to being drunk..
For red, orange and yellow I think there is large variance in how people would classify a given color that is not really red or really yellow.
My personal guess would be that I could believe that Greeks did not really have a name for blue. I'd say it is implausible that they were biologically incapable of differentiating things, but it may just have been a different shade to them.
Also I came across a study that suggested primary colours were distinct and absolute categories (not relative). They put babies in front of various colours and measured how long their attention was on the colour. Primary colours got more attention, from this they deduced what we called primaries were perceived as having a common reality. I can't find the study so this paragraph is an FYI, sorry.
> I can believe it.
Different cultures divide the color space differently, but they don't lay it out differently. For a civilization to consider dark red and dark blue to be the same color, those colors would need to show similar activation profiles, both for blue-yellow cones and for red-green cones.
> ...but as two wine-faced oxen both strain their utmost at the plow which they are drawing in a fallow field, and the sweat steams upwards from about the roots of their horns – nothing but the yoke divides them as they break up the ground till they reach the end of the field – even so did the two Ajaxes stand shoulder to shoulder by one another.
Before the days of color charts, the colors and textures of objects were often described by analogy to other objects.
And the color descriptive analogies didn't have to be consistent across all their uses. They just had to work in the context in which they appeared.
Something that also struck me as strange was this remark in the Wikipedia article:
> The Bible mentions a "red horse", not far from Homer's red oxen, while honey is described using variations of green in both of these texts.
Here is a glass of honeydew honey:
For which, in my opinion, "variations of green" is a perfectly valid description.
I would also be perfectly comfortable with describing the color of this horse as "red":
Imagine a continuous colour wheel. Most people from the same culture today will draw the same boundaries between colors. Red, purple, blue, green, etc. What is to say these boundaries are objective? If in our own language red through orange was once referenced with a single word, why shouldn't red through blue have a single name in ancient Greek?
The word that today means green "yarok" was used in the past to describe gold and an egg: http://www.balashon.com/2006/08/yarok.html?m=1
They were the colors if plant growth - green in summer and yellow in autumn.
Close readings reveal dramatic differences between the book's setting and our world that aren't at all apparent if you rush through the books. The protagonist refers to his pet as a dog, but reading his descriptions of the creature closely you might realize his definition of a dog is very different from our own. At another point in the story, the protagonist has a vision of a blue sky and describes it as incomprehensibly bright, indicating that the sun has dimmed and the planet is stuck in a sort of perpetual twilight.
Once the reader notices these things, they might start to realize just how different the setting of the book is. Suddenly everything in the text is open to interpretation. At one point you realize that people who operate spaceships in this setting are referred to as sailors. Does that mean all of the other 'sailors' that Severian encountered previously are actually interstellar travelers? What about the character who spoke with a sailor's accent? Was that horse that Severian rode an actual horse, or some far-future alien analog? Many of these moments are very brief and easy to miss - the book doesn't take time to explain or emphasize this divergent use of language. You can read this book over and over and still get something new out of it.
It seems odd that English-speaking people would get overly literal about this expression when English itself is full of similar exaggerative coloring: someone “ashen-faced” is presumably not light gray and devoid of hue all over their skin, etc.
The later example in TFA of the Bible using the phrase "red horse" is an odd one. There are red horses. Hell Steinbeck wrote a novella titled "The Red Pony". They're pretty common. What's the big deal?
I don't know how you go from here to green honey, though.
Eg. green sky (ignoring northern lights) can happen just before dawn when there is a slight smog (bushfire perhaps). But it's more white than anything, but it's definitely a band between the red sunrise and the blue sky. The honey green is similar... It's definitely still a pale golden color.
It is used to describe gold and an egg: http://www.balashon.com/2006/08/yarok.html?m=1
The language shifted not the color.
There's a lovely line in the Anabasis about seeing an enemy army approaching from afar which describes "the flash of bronze". I always found that image so powerful; you can barely see these guys in the distance, just a smudge on the horizon, and then there's this flash of light as they lower their spears and the sun glints off them, and you know you're about to have a bad day.
There is a line in the Odyssey where someone (Telemachus?) puts an arrow on a table for the suitors to try and shoot from Odysseus's bow. The arrow is described as "naked", which i think is a poetic way of saying it was alone and conspicuous. This is the arrow with which Odysseus will soon begin his execution of the suitors, and you know that's coming, so this is a moment of real foreboding. The line ends "... γυμνός", and the feel of those syllables in my mouth is somehow incredibly heavy, like a gavel falling in judgment, or a tomb being sealed. I read that twenty years ago and the feeling is still with me.
Maybe you mean Horace? Homer wrote in Greek. It seems like if you were going to translate a Latin epic you'd go for the Aeneid.
I always considered that phrase in Homer as a poetic flourish, or maybe just something that was a figure of speech in his time period.
The sculpture reconstructions you've linked are rather imaginative -- German grad students with UV lights, not chemical reconstructions -- and are probably only vaguely like the original colors. Where original colors have actually survived, in frescoes, etc., the ancients display a reasonable eye for beauty in color.
(I had seen that video before, it's very enlightening.)
And yet, the reconstructions there are reminiscent of Indian religious art today. Do Indians not have a reasonable eye for beauty in color?
I'd say it's a worthy phrase—to put it mildly—whether or not you know what blue is. I wouldn't count it as evidence that they were unfamiliar with the concept of blue.
I believe this was a 20th-century discovery, no less, and even "ancient" texts have dimensions that are easily overlooked
The Cal Watkins book "How To Kill A Dragon" is superb for a discussion of formulae in Indo-European languages
> This would explain the obsession with mixing wine and water when it is is unheard of today.
In Italy we still mix water with wine, especially when drinking during a meal. It's not like we do this all the time, but it's a thing.
I can relate to this idea as my memories are not filled with vivid colors. They are also not completely colorless as I remember there being colors but pinpointing what color certain objects had is sometimes difficult if the color was not a significant property of the object.
For example, remembering/picturing that grass is green is not a problem. Or that the sea at the beach was of a vivid blue because this was the memorable impression. But remembering which exact color the dress somebody was wearing had, this might be difficult. I'll remembering that it was a brightly colored dress and therefore will be "seeing" in my mind a bright dress that is colored, but without "seeing" a specific color but also "seeing" it with some excluded colors (like dark gray, brown, jeans blue) that are not bright.
It might be significant that Homer's stories were told for a relatively long time before they were written down. Oral poetry has other requirements than written poetry as you have to keep everything in memory and can't rely on an external source.
edit - found the passage
How unlike to this the expression which is used of Sorrow by Hesiod, if indeed the Shield is to be attributed to Hesiod:
Rheum from her nostrils was trickling.
(Shield of Heracles 267)
The image he has suggested is not terrible but rather loathsome. Contrast the way in which Homer magnifies the higher powers:
And far as a man with his eyes through the sea-line haze may discern,
On a cliff as he sitteth and gazeth away o’er the wine-dark deep,
So far at a bound do the loud-neighing steeds of the Deathless leap. (Iliad 5. 770)
He makes the vastness of the world the measure of their leap. The sublimity is so overpowering as naturally to prompt the exclamation that if the divine steeds were to leap thus twice in succession they would pass beyond the confines of the world.
It preserves the fact that you are reading something that comes from a world no one alive today truly understands, even at a vocabulary level.
Even "yellow" comes from "grow" although the sound changes there are significant enough that it's not as obvious as "green" is.
What are the chances this is more a description of the murkiness or opacity of a dark sea (compared to water near the shore) rather than the literal color of the water?
Blue pigments are quite rare in nature, but seeing the open sky has to be a universal human experience.
People from cultures we like to call "primitive" are routinely astonished at how blind most of us are to critical distinctions in their world. Imagine, we have only one kind of uncle! "We" doesn't say whether the listener is included, or whether the group are all blood relatives. There's no end to this stuff, including in ancient Greek, so quibbling about color distinctions when we have to wash out so much to translate is distinctly ... hick.
Not drawing a distinction between blue and dark, however, is quite alien. And there isn’t anything hick about admitting that.