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The Wine Dark Sea

W. J. Rayment / -- The descriptive phrase "Wine Dark Sea" first appears in Literature in Homer's Iliad. It helps describe a scene in which the grieving Achilles looks out to sea just after the funeral of his beloved Patroclus. The phrase is also used four times in the Odyssey. Homer had a gift for adjectival description, and here he evokes an image that has carried on for millenia in literature and imagination.

Of course, we must remember that Homer composed his verses in Greek and ancient Greek at that. Thus, the phrase was translated variously until, according to Carl Olson at www.Towson.edu, it was picked up by Andrew Lang, a writer and translator of fairy tales. The idea of a "Wine Dark Sea" seemed rather fantastic to later authors who thought it perhaps a touch romantic. However, it was later recognized that at times, when there is considerable debris and dust in the air, the sea will seem to turn a deep red.

It was this aspect of the red coloration of the sea that led Patrick O'Brian to name one of his Aubrey/Maturin novels The Wine Dark Sea. Although, all the references to Homer might make us think of the Mediterranean, the plot to this book develops in the South Pacific and the sea is colored by the activity of a growing volcano which intrudes upon a naval contest between the resourceful Captain Aubrey and his erstwhile enemy.

But the "Wine Dark Sea" has nevertheless remained largely a Mediterranean notion. Barry Strauss refers to it in an essay at his website, www.barrystrauss.com, about the Battle of Salamis. He also speaks of its darker allusions to blood. Wine has often been compared to blood in literature and the series of stories by Leonardo Sciascia about his native Sicily, The Wine Dark Sea play to this.

Thomas Cahill in his book, "Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter" uses the phrase to invoke an air of mystery. This book is not fiction, it is actually quite an excellent introduction to Greek thought, culture and history.

Interestingly enough, there are no less than twenty books with "wine dark sea" in the title. The phrase even has seeped into children's literature and there is a reference to it in one of the Redwall books Lord Brocktree (p. 81). A rock symphony has even been produced called The Wine Dark Sea. This is an inspiring work by Stephen Caudel about the Odyssey. It was first heard in performance at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London with Stephen Caudel switching between classical and electric guitars throughout the performance.

Thus "Wine-Dark Sea" sparks our imaginations to think of mystery, adventure, the aftermath of battle and perhaps a calm after a storm. In the Iliad, as Achilles looks out, thinking of the terrible loss of his friend at the hands of Hector. (His friend's death has already been avenged.) He looks to the west. He sees the sun setting, the sea and sky turning red. Mariners have long had a saying, "Red sky in morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight." Perhaps the intoxicating wine red sea is telling us that our work is done for now and that it is time at last to rest. Tomorrow we shall venture forth again as "rosy fingered dawn" spreads across the sky.

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