Odd Colours in The Odyssey

Homer was a Greek poet writing around 750BC and we think he’s the author of The Odyssey.

It’s an epic poem about Odysseus and his ten-year journey back to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. There’s an awful lot of intelligent discussion to be had about this important piece of literature but today I’m just going to look at Homer’s use of colours. It’ll be fun, I promise!

If you know bit of trivia about The Odyssey it’s likely that it’s about Homer’s repeated description of the wine-dark sea. Ancient Greek doesn’t have a word for blue, but then that’s lacking from a number of other ancient languages too. Blue is notable by its absence in things like the Vedas, the Icelandic Sagas, even the Bible.

Did he intend wine-dark to mean blue? Well, do you know what else he described using that wording?

[A] man aches for his evening meal when all day long his brace of wine-dark oxen have dragged the bolted plowshare down a fallow field[.]

Probably not blue then. In fairness, he only ever talks about a few colours – metallics, black, white, yellow-green and red – so his descriptions can seem a bit odd, for example, the sky is often bronze regardless of the time of day, and honey is green. Homer does use the word κυανός (which in later stages of Greek meant blue) but for it probably meant dark at the time he was writing. For example, in The Illiad he says:

The son of Cronos spoke, and bowed his dark [blue?] brow in assent, and the ambrosial locks waved from the king’s immortal head; and he made great Olympus quake.

Did Zeus have blue eyebrows? I mean it’s possible, he’s a God and all, but it seems like an unlikely description to me. I’m not going to look at every example of Homer’s use of colour but, well, they’re generally a bit odd. What’s going on?

There have been a number of theories put forward and some are more believable than others, for example, it’s been suggested that Homer was blind and just didn’t ‘get’ colours; that there was a lot of algae in the sea near him so it look red, and he thought that was normal (although that doesn’t explain the green honey or his use of strange colour descriptions more generally); that human eyesight has developed since then and people in ancient cultures didn’t see colours in the same way that we do; that they saw the colour blue but never really noticed it, as they didn’t have a word to describe it (although there are languages in the world today that don’t have a word for blue but they still use colour words significantly more frequently than Homer did).

The most popular answer seems to be that it was poetic licence, but the fact that Homer’s descriptions are amazing but tend not to include any mention of colour (and on the occasions he does talk about colours, they’re very limited and sometimes just seem wrong) puts me off that idea. Perhaps that was how people spoke in that time and place, maybe it was more a reflection of the culture than actual perception? What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Odd Colours in The Odyssey

  1. I’ve never heard this before, nor the fact that some languages have no word for blue. Curious since so much of our world, the sea and sky, are blue.
    Maybe Homer in his blindness was ingesting the wrong sort of mushrooms?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Once again Josbees you have me thinking deeply about Greek Mythology, however I never thought I would be giving much thought to Homer and his use of color, which I noticed you spelled the english way coulor. I can only assume that you are from Great Britain. I remember when writing some sort of essay on The Odyssey, my teacher Mrs. Brisland would always correct my americanization of the word color. However you are discussing Homer here and his use of the word color. Yes, it does seem odd he would explain the sky as being bronze. Perhaps he thought it was bronze do to the sun. How about that dark blue. I have often wondered whether Zeus did have blue eyebrows, or maybe I am getting him mixed up with Neptune, who I have seen drawn with blue eyebrows. I have never been able to figure that one out either. Great piece. I loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a fascinating topic, and one I’d not really considered—all I remember from the Iliad at school was ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ along with your ‘wine-dark sea’. I need to check further with epics from other cultures. I do however remember an essay on Tolkien’s limited colour palette in his Middle Earth fiction…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoy the theory that old timey people didn’t see the same colors that we do. It’s one of those fun theories that impossible to prove. If I ever travel back in time I’m going to lord over everyone all the sweet colors I can see. Even if it’s not true.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I saw the title of this post, right away I remembered hearing an episode of Radiolab on colors. A fascinating episode to learn about how different animals see different ranges of the color spectrum. And they discussed, as you have, about how ancient languages didn’t have a term for “blue.” If you haven’t heard the episode, it’s here: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/episodes/211119-colors. The discussion about colors in The Odyssey and other ancient texts starts around 47:00.

    Liked by 1 person

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