Odysseus on the Wine-Dark Sea

So, here I am with my maritime theme; am I interested in seafaring? I think not, and yet, as a literary subject, I think I very much am. Or, if you will, as a chronotope. From Margaret Cohen’s fascinating essay, “The Chronotopes of the Sea”:

There are six waterside chronotopes across the history of the English and French literary traditions that date back to the novel’s prehistory in antique forms. These chronotopes are (1) blue water, the open sea; (2) brown water, the murky depths of the river; (3) white water, when bodies of water are riled up into extreme natural danger; (4) the island, land entirely surrounded by water; (5) the shore, a zone of contact between land and sea; and (6) the ship, an unstable piece of terra firma that propels humans across the sea’s inhospitable territory.

I will say that I am not terribly interested in brown water, although Cohen’s discussion makes it sound like I could be. And while I am interested in the island and the shore, I have tried to segregate them from my current undertaking, though I have considered a future island/seaside course of reading as well.

Cohen describes blue water as

the realm of the open ocean containing immense and violent powers of weather, terrain (currents, tide, water depth), monstrous animals, and aggressive warriors, as well as pirates and adventurers seeking gain in unpoliced zones beyond the control of sovereign and law. On blue water, individual characters test their agency by meeting these violent forces and struggling to survive the clash among them.

There is a lot of blue water in The Odyssey. (In fact, Cohen does not limit her discussion to the English and French literary traditions, as she brings up The Odyssey to illustrate several points.)


To a man, everyone is awed by the sea—including arrogant Odysseus. Every description calls forth its great size, depth, danger, and the difficulty in understanding it.

“…a sea so vast not even cranes could wing their way/in one year’s flight—so vast it is, so awesome…”

“No need in the world for him to board the ships,/those chariots of the sea that sweep men on,/driving across the ocean’s endless wastes…/Does he want his very name wiped off the earth?”

“Who would willingly roam across a salty waste so vast,/so endless? Think: no city of men in sight, and not a soul/to offer the gods a sacrifice and burn the fattest victims.”

“Just for hunger we rig and ride our long-benched ships/on the barren salt sea, speeding death to enemies.”

All this comes to a head when blue water turns to white water, which Cohen rightly characterizes as “not only a dangerous space but a dangerous time, a representation of time as crisis.” Clearly this happens to Odysseus quite a bit. Otherwise he’d probably have gotten home sooner, no? And these white water crises are really exciting.

At that a massive wave came crashing down on his head,
a terrific onslaught spinning his craft round and round—
he was thrown clear of the decks—
the steering-oar wrenched
from his grasp—
and in one lightning attack the brawling
galewinds struck full-force, snapping the mast mid-shaft
and hurling the sail and sailyard far across the sea.
He went under a good long while, no fast way out,
no struggling up from under the giant wave’s assault,
his clothing dragged him down—divine Calypso’s gifts—
but at last he fought his way to the surface spewing
bitter brine, streams of it pouring down his head.

And he is hardly finished. But time, which passes so slowly on the blue water, where nothing much happens except continuous movement over the vastness of the sea, has sped up dramatically. Everything is happening at once, in “a terrific onslaught.” Most, if not all, such onslaughts are brought on in The Odyssey by supernatural powers, which also bring tragedy at land. But at sea they seem even more capricious and dangerous, and sailors like Odysseus fully expect and accept it.

Poseidon has struck
their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds
and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming,
struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore,
their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy
as they plant their feet on solid ground again,
spared a deadly fate.

That is the life of a mariner on the blue water, which can turn to white so quickly, and where survival depends on “luck, combined with cunning and resourcefulness…epitomized by Odysseus….” (Cohen)

This essay is really great, and has given me a lot of insight into why I’m doing this in the first place. There’s a lot more to it, too much for one day.


Cohen, Margaret. “The Chronotopes of the Sea.” In The Novel: Volume 2, Forms and Themes, edited by Franco Moretti, 647-666. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1996.

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