Seeing Oinops through a Different Lens

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~A guest post by Jacqui Donlon and the Oinops Study Group~

This photo inspired me to think about light. Notice how sometimes the waves appear dark, while some waves glisten and reflect light. It has to do with the angles of light, called technically the angle of incidence.

I wanted to know more about light but my dim memories of high school physics were not going to suffice. This is research that is going outside of the text, but for me a valuable tool, it is a personal preference. Knowing more about the properties of light will allow me to spot associated patterns or natural phenomenon when I close read within the texts. The Greeks, like all successful civilizations were keen observers of their environment—a necessity for survival. It stood to reason that these observations of their natural world might be reflected in their culture, in their poetry.

Angle of Incidence

The angle of incidence has to do with the transmission of light from one medium through another, specifically in this case sunlight from the air (sky) into the water (sea). The amount of light that passes through the water is dependent upon the angle of the sun. Here is a link to the Physics Classroom website that will show mathematically why this is so. To put it in terms of our oinops study, it means that at noon, the sun is straight up, perpendicular to the sea. The amount of light that passes from the sun straight down through the surface and into water is almost at 100%, meaning that at noon, one can see well below the surface of the water.  However, as the sun sets (or rises) the angle becomes more oblique. When light hits the surface of the water at a slant only partial amounts of light penetrate the surface, the rest of the light is reflected back into the air.

Therefore, as Jenna beautifully examined in her last blog, Connecting with Oinops, oinops is connected to the time of day. The lower the sun, the more “glare” off of the water surface, the more it will glisten; but less light penetrates the surface so the water appears darker to our eye, and we humans tend to interpret darker as “deeper”. So during the times of “wine-dark, or wine-deep, or wine-surfaced”, the ability to see through the water – or see clearly is impaired and this condition of course lends itself to beautiful metaphors. It is a time of bright light and dark waters. But oinops does not only refer to the sea, it also refers to oxen — βόε οἴνοπε (boe oinope).  Can the properties of light apply to animals too?

Eye color and Reflection

It turns out the dynamic of light passing through air into water is very similar to the way light passes through air, hitting the eye lens (surface) and into the back layers of the eye. In addition, eye color plays an interesting part in all of this. The darker the eye is, the more melanin the eye has. The greater the amount of melanin, the more the eye 1024px-Pferdeauge copyabsorbs the amount of light at the surface layers of the eye. This means for dark eyes, more light will bounce off the surface causing more reflections. However with lighter colored eyes such as blue, light can pass further back into the eye. Light rays then bounce off of the back of the eye and bend causing the eye to look blue. Grey eyes are even more interesting. Grey eyes have the least amount of eye proteins, so when the light bounces off the back of the eye, the light scatters around equally causing the gray effect.  Grey colored of course is created by the dispersion of black and white. Recall an epithet of Athena, which we saw last week, is glaukōpis. According to Lenny Muellner, in a comment on the Discussion Board of HeroesX v1, there is more to this story:

If we look at other adjectives applied to the sea for context, the main one is glaukos, which is usually translated ‘grey’, so the epithet of Athena, glaukōpis, which recalls oinops, is translated ‘grey-eyed’ by some people, and ‘owl-eyed’ by others, because there’s a small owl with big eyes called glaux — in fact it’s the ‘wise’ owl that’s the emblem for ‘Wise’ potato chips because of the association of Athena with wisdom and with that kind of owl, which appeared on the coins of the city-state of Athens. But the term glaukos may in fact mean ‘sparkling’, and there is also an epithet of wine aithopa ‘burning-faced’ which seems to refer to reflectivity and not color….

There is another aspect of eyes and light that relates here. In some animals there is a thin layer of tissue in the backs of the creatures’ eyes to let them see better at night. It is called the tapetum lucidum and it reflects light back toward the retina like a mirror filling the eye full of the available light. This is what causing animals eyes, such as owls, to glow brightly in the dark. But what does that mean in terms of poetry when we read passages such as this – when Athena, disguised as Mentor, departs at sundown in a ship with Telemakhos and crew:

[420] Owl-vision Athena sent them a fair wind from the West, that whistled over the deep blue waves [ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον]….
Odyssey  ii (Sourcebook[1])

So now I am getting a better understanding of the connection between owl-eyes or flashing-eyes and Athena — it is a metaphor, she is able to see in the dark, she can see the way.  However a metaphor does not necessarily address the why.  What does light emanating from flashing eyes have to do with the Homeric system and oinops. To answer that question, we must look within the texts.


As a result of the outside research I was more sensitive to key words around the occurrence of “oinops” within the texts.  As explained in a previous post, oinops is related to the Greek word ‘ōps’ (ὤψ)  a root word for “eye” or “to see”, and in our close reads and discussions we tracked the instances of “seeing” in addition to light/dark. Consider these passages:

img_leukothea cropped[333] But the daughter of Cadmus, Ino [the White Goddess] of the fair ankles, saw him, even Leucothea, who of old was a mortal of human speech, but now in the deeps of the sea has won a share of honor from the gods. She was touched with pity for Odysseus, as he wandered and was in sore travail, and she rose up from the deep like a sea-mew on the wing, and sat on the stoutly-bound raft, and spoke, saying: “Unhappy man, how is it that Poseidon, the earth-shaker, has conceived such furious wrath against thee, that he is sowing for thee the seeds of many evils? Yet verily he shall not utterly destroy thee for all his rage. Nay, do thou thus; and ..….. methinks thou dost not lack understanding. Strip off these garments, and leave thy raft to be driven by the winds, but do thou swim with thy hands and so strive to reach the land of the Phaeacians, where it is thy fate to escape. Come, take this veil, and stretch it beneath thy breast. It is immortal; there is no fear that thou shalt suffer aught or perish. But when with thy hands thou hast laid hold of the land, loose it from thee, and cast it into the wine-faced [oinops] sea [pontos] far from the land, and thyself turn away.” [351] So saying, the goddess gave him the veil, and herself plunged again into the surging deep, like a sea-mew; and the dark wave hid her.
Odyssey v, (modified from A.T. Murray translation[2])

Telemakhos went on board, Athena going before him and taking her seat [as steersman] in the stern of the vessel, while Telemakhos sat beside her. Then the men loosed the hawsers and took their places on the benches.[420] Owl-vision Athena sent them a fair wind from the West, that whistled over the deep blue [oinops] waves [pontos]   Odyssey ii  (Sourcebook)
So the two went back beside the ships of the Achaeans, and with them, all unwilling, went the woman. But Achilles burst into tears, and withdrew apart from his comrades, and sat down on the shore of the grey sea, looking forth over the wine-faced [oinops] deep [pontos]. [350]….So he spoke, weeping, and his lady mother heard him, as she sat in the depths of the sea beside the old man, her father [Nereus, son of Pontus]. And speedily she came forth from the grey sea like a mist, and sat down before him, as we wept [360].
Iliad 1  (modified from A.T, Murray translation)

In all these excerpts, the goddesses are near or across from the mortals.  So just like at noontime when there is maximum transmission of light, the goddesses, Ino, Athena, and Thetis are looking at, or being near, respectively Odysseus, Telemachus and Achilles. They are counseling or consoling them — they are transmitting their knowledge. Athena with her flashing eyes, not only can transmit light to see in the dark, but she — as steersman — is also showing the way.

Far Seeing

In many of the passages we close-read, there was a reference to a lone man scanning the seas, a watchman, or a helmsman. This is the person in charge of navigation, who operates the steering oar, and as we learned in H24H is very skilled – one with mētis. One needs mētis to survive on the open sea especially at the point of no return when one is farthest from shore and equally far from one’s destination—a mid-point. Here is just one of the many texts we analyzed that had this reference:

[770] As far as a man can see when he looks out upon the wine-faced [oinops] sea [pontos] from some high beacon, so far can the loud-neighing horses of the gods spring at a single bound. When they reached Troy and the place where its two flowing streams Simoeis and Skamandros meet, [775] there Hera of the white arms stayed them and took them from the chariot.
Iliad V  (modified Sourcebook)

But it was this following passage that propelled me at late at night to email dear Claudia Filos in unabashed excitement after rereading the passages below for this theme. It is our old friend Nestor talking to his son, Antilokhos, at Patroklos’ funeral race.

….. therefore, my dear son, see if you cannot hit upon some artifice [mētis] whereby you may insure that the prize shall not slip through your fingers. [315] The woodsman does more by skill [mētis] than by brute force [biē]; by skill [mētis] the helmsman guides his storm-tossed ship over the wine-faced [oinops] sea [pontos], and so by skill [mētis] one driver can beat another.
Iliad XXIII (modified Sourcebook)

This passage is shortly followed by Nestor’s reference to:

“I [= Nestor] will tell you [= Antilokhos] a sign [sēma], a very clear one, which will not get lost in your thinking. [327] Standing over there is a stump of deadwood, a good reach above ground level. [328] It had been either an oak or a pine”
Iliad XXIII (Sourcebook)

This was a much-discussed passage on the HeroesX Discussion boards and the question I had put forth to Dr. Douglas Frame during a Visiting Scholar Hangout (Question: “Why does Nestor do this? Surely he knows the difference between oak and pine”).  Truth be told I did not know what to make of his answer, it seemed so simple: “…Another (and I think better) point is that merely talking about the turning post draws attention to it, and that, I think, is the real point of Nestor’s speech: everything is meant to draw attention to the turning post without ever saying why.”  But now after going through all these passages and highlighting “seeing” references I realized it was EXACTLY that. Nestor was transmitting his knowledge to Antilokhos. He was teaching Antilokhos to far see, to far see for the sēma, the safe harbor, “the high beacon”, the saving light. Now pieces are starting to click into place – this is the reason for the proximity of the words like “headlands”, and sēma surrounding “oinops”.  A headland or a light beacon will be the first thing a helmsman will be looking for — and will see — when out on the open sea.

And someday one will say, one of the men to come, steering his oar-swept ship across the wine-dark [oinops] sea[pontos], ‘There’s the mound of a man who died in the old days, one of the brave whom glorious Hector killed.
Iliad VII, l.101–104, Fagels[3]

Clearly our study group is now making connections between light, seeing, and the juxtapositions of light and dark such as a big bolt of lightning hitting a dark sea, or when a white goddess emerges from a dark wave. When one is in a dark dangerous place one searches for the saving light on the headlands. Just like the light from Achilles’ sēma that guides the sailors on the Hellespont, oinops is associated with the light of salvation. And when Nestor points to the stump and says his speech, he is getting charioteer Antilokhos to perform the same action as does a watchman on the shore, a helmsman on the sea. They are looking for the emitting light of the sēma, a  “high beacon”, to guide them to safety. Some will make it and some will not, because like the race circuit, the open sea is a dangerous place and only those that are more skilled, smarter, and far-seeing will succeed. So what do you see?  Join the Oinops Team in conversation here in the forum, Return to the Wine-Dark Sea Part II.

Coming up next: Oinops Across the Wide Open Sea

Download Oinops Word Study Passages here:
Oinops Word Study Passages (PDF)


[1] Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor.
[1] Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919. Online at Perseus.
[3] Fagels, R. The Iliad, Penguin Classics, 1990

Image credits

Sailing to the Sunrise@jefras, Shutterstock
Eye of HorsePferdauge.jpg Waugsberg, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. via Wikimedia Commons
Ino: Leucothea & Palaemon, Roman mosaic C4th CE, Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Amerina,