Monday, February 28, 2011

Wine Dark Sea

In a burst of self-improvement this week I am now halfway through Virgil’s Aeneid, in the Penguin Classics translation by David West. Whenever I read an ancient author I am mindful of Colin Wilson’s claim in The Occult that the ancients were colour-blind, citing Homer’s famous expression ‘wine dark sea’ as proof that ancient people could not distinguish between blue and red. This has always struck me as an astonishing and implausible claim. (1) I’m not an expert, but elementary psychology suggests both that colour blindness has a neurological basis and elementary biology suggests that neurological changes in the human brain take millions of years, not a few thousand years; (2) there are ancient paintings with reasonably accurate colours such as those at Pompeii (3) people wrote about rainbows in the book of Genesis.

Nonetheless I kept a sharp eye out for colour words in Virgil, and it turns out there are a few. Mostly purple, but lots of greens and yellows. Also two references so far to things that have ‘many colours’. The first a flock of birds, the second to the ‘thousand colours of the rainbow’.

As for Homer’s sea, there is a discussion here about whether or why Homer got it wrong. I always took it as a poetic allusion. The sea in the Mediterranean can look like dark wine sometimes, particularly when deep and transparent. In any case, a better translation is ‘wine faced’. There is something else here suggesting that the ancient Greeks did have a limited colour perception - Xenophanes apparently described the rainbow as having three bands of color: purple, green/yellow, and red. But this conflicts with Virgil’s allusion to the ‘thousand colours’ of the rainbow – perhaps it was a Greek vs Roman thing? See also this.

Why I am not reading Virgil in the original Latin? Well I do, but it is hard going. Partly because my Latin vocabulary is limited to technical terms of logic and philosophy – there no colour words in Ockham as I recall. Partly because the Latin poets did not use a natural word order and reading them is a bit like undoing a complex jigsaw puzzle.

On the fact that philosophical and logical vocabulary is so limited, perhaps this supports my claim that the reason for believing in ‘queer objects’ must not be observable or empirical, that arguments for their existence should involve no reference to the observable world. The reason Ockham does not use many colour words is not to do with colour blindness.

Labels: , , ,

2 Comments:

Blogger Bill Wallace said...

Try reading "Through the Language Glass" by Guy Deutscher for a thorough discussion of the phenomenon you are alluding to. According to Deutscher, the serious discussion of Homer's odd color vocabulary began with William Gladstone (then future Prime Minister of Great Britain). It was Gladstone's position that the eye itself was insufficiently trained in Homer's time and through training over time it came to be able to see the full rainbow. Deutscher, by following the research over the last 150 years, shows this position to be nonsense.

Today, we know through experiments that everyone can perceive really small differences in color throughout the spectrum. However, there is a large difference in what colors can be reported as being seen. Some languages have far fewer color terms the we do in English and some have more (e.g Russian). Homer's color terms were probably limited to black, white, red, and yellow. Some languages are limited to black and white.

6:27 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

Thank you Bill that was really useful. I'm glad my untutored intuition (no knowledge of Greek and schoolboy physics) was reliable.

9:41 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home