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Homer’s Wine Dark Sea

It was not until about 4500 years ago that humans first gave a name to the color blue. The first ones to do so were the Egyptians who knew how to produce blue dye.

The standard interpretation of this is that blue was seen as a special shade of green. Without a separate word for blue, people didn’t see it as all that different from green. However, if this is true, then the sky and the sea should be described as green in ancient texts, and that is not the case. The sea is described as wine dark by the ancient Greek poet Homer. He also describes oxen in the fields as red and the sky as bronze in color.

Roman illustration of Odysseus on a wine dark sea

By Giorcesderivative work: Habib M’henni – File:GiorcesBardo54.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10353941

If the sky was bronze, it makes perfect sense that the light reflected off of the sea was wine dark, especially if there were threatening clouds hanging over it. Brown cattle would also appear red. With everything bathed in a golden red light, things would appear red and purple in color, and blue would be very difficult to distinguish from green.

It could be argued that the repeated references to the sky as bronze in color is in fact a reference to copper oxide, but this makes little sense because oxides are rarely referred to by the same name as their metals. Rust is not the same color as steel, and copper green is not the same as copper. A far more straight forward explanation for the color pallet used in Homer’s texts is that the sun was redder in color in our distant past.

This would mean that there really was a golden age before our age, and that we should take this quite literally. The golden age was golden in the sense that everything was bathed in a pleasant golden light. This literal interpretation may have been quite standard in ancient times, explaining why Homer stayed true to the original story even if he wrote it down in a time when the sky was very much as it is today. He saw nothing strange about the color pallet because he took it for granted that this was the color pallet seen by people during the golden age when the events recorded by Homer took place.

Further evidence for this can be found in the fact that all ancient languages deal with colors in terms of shades. Colors appear later, with blue being relatively recent. This indicates that reality itself may have been a world full of shades rather than colors, which is exactly what we get when we go into a room lit by a red lamp. Everything in the red room turns into shades of red and purple.

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