The Wine-Dark Sea

This particular phrase came drifting up from my memory as I was first composing my web page on a UNIX text editor in May of 1995.  Sometime later I received an email from someone looking to answer a newspaper trivia contest, asking me where the phrase originated.  This page is the result of my research.

I was aware the phrase was originally from Homer.  What came to mind sitting in class was a line from Nick Danger, Third Eye, from the Firesign Theatre album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once when You're Not Anywhere at All:

"I've built the perfect time machine.  We're going to Greece."
"And swim the English Channel?"
"...No, no, to Ancient Greece, where burning Sappho stroked the Wine-Dark sea, in the temple by the moonlight, wa-de-do-dah..."

 Patrick O'Brian's novel of the same name (Norton, 1993, ISBN 0393035581) is part of the greatly esteemed Aubrey/Maturin series on naval warfare (and much besides) in the Napoleanic era, available at or through your local library.  

The best history of this phrase is an article by R. Rutherford-Dyer, "Homer's Wine-Dark Sea", Greece & Rome, v. 30 (October 1983), p. 125-128.   Homer's Greek for "wine-dark" is oinos, an expression that translates to something like "sunset-red."  It occurs in the Iliad when Achilles, after Patroclus' funeral, is looking out over the water with the sun going down, in the Odyssey when Telemachus sails all night to Pylos, and when Odysseus' ship is destroyed in a storm.  It is translated in many ways, such as "wine-blue" in Richard Lattimore's version, and scholars had thought it a romantic nonsense phrase.  Pr. Rutherford-Dyer happened to be on the coast of Maine when Mt. St. Helens erupted, and the sunsets became quite glorious, turning the Atlantic to the color of Mavrodaphni wine.  From that he reasoned that Homer was describing the dark red sunsets that obtain when large amounts of dust are in the air, or when storm clouds are gathering.

The actual English rendering "Wine-Dark Sea" comes from the Iliad translated by Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers. London: Macmillan, 1883, and from The Odyssey translated by Andrew Lang and Samuel Henry Butcher. London: Macmillan, 1887.  Andrew Lang was a Scottish scholar and author, perhaps best known for his English renderings of classic fairy tales. These two were very popular editions using the language of the King James Bible as their model.  In this century they were both republished as Modern Library editions, and can be found where used books are sold.

Carl Olson


Last updated 12/02/2004