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The Odyssey astronomically accurate?

June 23, 2008
Courtesy Rockefeller University
and World Science staff

Schol­ars have long de­bat­ed wheth­er there are bits of truth to The Od­ys­sey—the an­cient Greek ep­ic of a king’s long sea­far­ing strug­gle to get home as he bat­tles or out­wits mon­sters.

Now, sci­en­tists say some of the ce­les­tial events men­tioned in the tale might be ac­cu­rate, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that the story has more truth than sus­pected. Their find­ings include an spec­i­fic date for when King Ody­sseus would have re­turned home and—the story goes—slaught­ered a group of sui­tors who had court­ed his wife in his ab­sence.

Up­on his long-awaited re­turn home, Odys­seus slays a group of suit­ors who had tak­en ad­van­tage of his long ab­sence to court his wife. Above is The Re­turn of Odys­seus, an anon­y­mous en­grav­ing of un­known date. Al­though the pic­ture shows light en­ter­ing from the door, the po­em sug­gests an eclipse oc­curred on this date: "Poor men, what ter­ror is this that over­whelms you so? Night shrouds your heads, your faces, down to your knees—cries of mourn­ing are burst­ing in­to fire —cheeks river­ing tears—the walls and the hand­some cross­beams drip­ping dank with blood! Ghosts, look, throng­ing the en­trance, throng­ing the court, go troop­ing down to the realm of death and dark­ness! The sun is blot­ted out of the sky—look there—a le­thal mist spreads all across the earth!" (trans­la­tion by Rob­ert Fa­gles)


The re­search­ers stud­ied pos­si­ble ref­er­ences to as­tro­nom­i­cal events in the po­em, and matched them with cal­cula­t­ions show­ing the or­der in which these must really have oc­curred. The fit was ex­cel­lent, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors say. 

The catch: some of the po­em’s pur­ported as­tro­nom­i­cal ref­er­ences may be sym­bol­ic on­ly.

Among count­less dis­put­ed de­tails about the sto­ry, not the least wheth­er it is all at­trib­ut­a­ble to the po­et Hom­er, is wheth­er the king re­turns home to a to­tal so­lar eclipse. The po­et tells of a ter­ri­fy­ing “night” in which the sun is “blot­ted out of the sky” on this day.

The sci­en­tists fo­cused their anal­y­sis on this event.

To­tal eclipses, when the moon briefly but com­pletely blocks the sun, are rare—so much so that if what the poet de­scribes is an ec­lipse, it might help his­to­ri­ans date the stor­ied fall of Troy. That pur­portedly oc­curred not long be­fore the events de­scribed in The Od­ys­sey

Hun­dreds of years of dis­cus­sions over this point among his­to­ri­ans, as­tro­no­mers and clas­si­cists have proved in­con­clu­sive.

In the new stu­dy, sci­en­tists combed The Od­ys­sey for as­tro­nom­i­cal ref­er­ences that could be pre­cisely iden­ti­fied as oc­cur­ring on spe­cif­ic days of Odys­seus’s jour­ney. Then, they aligned each of those dates with his date of re­turn, when he mas­sacres the suit­ors.

The study is re­ported in this week’s on­line early edi­tion of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences. The re­search­ers are Marcelo O. Mag­nasco, head of the Lab­o­r­a­to­ry of Math­e­mat­i­cal Phys­ics at Rock­e­fel­ler Uni­ver­s­ity in New York, and Con­stan­ti­no Baik­ouzis of the Ob­ser­va­to­rio As­tronómico in La Pla­ta, Ar­gen­ti­na.

The pair iden­ti­fied four ce­les­tial events in the Od­ys­sey. The day of the slaugh­ter is, as Hom­er writes more than once, al­so a new moon, which is al­so a pre­req­ui­site for a to­tal eclipse. Six days be­fore the mas­sa­cre, the po­em sug­gests that Ve­nus is vis­i­ble and high in the sky, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists. Twen­ty-nine days be­fore, two con­stella­t­ions—the Plei­a­des and Boötes—are sim­ul­ta­ne­ous­ly vis­i­ble at sun­set. And 33 days be­fore, they said, Hom­er may be sug­gest­ing that Mer­cu­ry is high at dawn and near the west­ern end of its trajecto­ry. 

The author ac­tu­ally writes that the god Her­mes—whom the Ro­mans called Mer­cu­ry—traveled far west only to de­liv­er a mes­sage and fly all the way back east again. Mag­nasco and Baik­ouzis in­ter­pret this as a ref­er­ence to the plan­et Mer­cu­ry.

Such in­ter­preta­t­ions rest on a large as­sump­tion, Mag­nasco ad­mits: the as­socia­t­ion of plan­ets with gods was a Bab­y­lo­ni­an con­cept dat­ing to around 1000 B.C., but there’s no ev­i­dence it had reached Greece by Hom­er’s time, sev­er­al hun­dred years lat­er. “This is a risky step in our anal­y­sis,” he said. It may be “stretch­ing it, but when you go back to the text you have to won­der.”

The four ce­les­tial events pur­portedly de­scribed in the book re­cur, in the real sky, on dif­fer­ent timescales. Thus they nev­er re­cur in quite the same pat­tern.

Baik­ouzis and Mag­nasco checked wheth­er there was any date with­in 100 years of the esti­mated fall of Troy that would fit the pat­tern in the book. They found one: April 16, 1178 B.C., the day cal­cula­t­ions show a to­tal eclipse must have oc­curred. “Not only is this cor­rob­o­ra­ting ev­i­dence that this date might be some­thing im­por­tan­t,” Mag­nasco said, “but if we take it as a giv­en that the death of the suit­ors hap­pened on this par­tic­u­lar eclipse date, then eve­ry­thing else de­scribed in The Od­ys­sey hap­pens ex­actly as is de­scribed.”

Ul­ti­mate­ly, wheth­er they’re right or wrong, the re­search­ers say they’re in­ter­est­ed in re­open­ing the de­bate. “Even though there are his­tor­i­cal ar­gu­ments that say this is a ri­dic­u­lous thing to think about, if we can get a few peo­ple to read The Od­ys­sey dif­fer­ently, to look at it and pon­der wheth­er there was an ac­tu­al date in­scribed in it, we will be hap­py,” Mag­nasco said.


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Scholars have long debated whether there are bits of truth to The Odyssey—the ancient Greek epic of a king’s long seafaring struggle to get home as he battles or outwits monsters. Now, scientists say some of the celestial events mentioned in the tale might be accurate, raising the possibility that the tale has more truth than suspected. The researchers studied possible references to astronomical events in the poem, and matched them with calculations showing the order in which these events must really have occurred. The match was excellent, the investigators say. The catch: some of the poem’s purported astronomical references are symbolic only. Among countless disputed details about the story, not the least whether it is all attributable to the poet Homer, is whether King Odysseus returns home to a total solar eclipse. The poet tells of a terrifying “night” in which the sun is “blotted out of the sky” on this day. The scientists focused their analysis on this event. Total eclipses, when the moon briefly but completely blocks the sun, are rare—so much so that if what the author describes is an eclipse, it might help historians date the fall of Troy, which purportedly occurred not long before the events described in Odyssey. Hundreds of years of discussions over this point among historians, astronomers and classicists have proved inconclusive. In the new study, scientists combed the Odyssey for astronomical references that could be precisely identified as occurring on specific days of Odysseus’s journey. Then, they aligned each of those dates with his date of return, the same day he massacres a group of suitors who had exploited his long absence to court his wife. The study is reported in this week’s online early edition of the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.The researchers are Marcelo O. Magnasco, head of the Laboratory of Mathematical Physics at Rockefeller University in New York, and Constantino Baikouzis of the Proyecto Observatorio at the Observatorio Astronómico in La Plata, Argentina. Magnasco and Baikouzis identified four celestial events in the Odyssey. The day of the slaughter is, as Homer writes more than once, also a new moon, which is also a prerequisite for a total eclipse. Six days before the massacre, the poem suggests that Venus is visible and high in the sky, according to the scientists. Twenty-nine days before, two constellations—the Pleiades and Boötes—are simultaneously visible at sunset. And 33 days before, they said, Homer may be suggesting that Mercury is high at dawn and near the western end of its trajectory. Homer actually writes that the god Hermes—whom the Romans called Mercury—traveled far west only to deliver a message and fly all the way back east again. Magnasco and Baikouzis interpret this as a reference to the planet Mercury. Such interpretations rest on a large assumption, Magnasco admits. The association of planets with gods was a Babylonian concept dating to around 1,000 B.C., but there’s no evidence those ideas had reached Greece by Homer’s time, several hundred years later. “This is a risky step in our analysis,” he said. It may be “stretching it, but when you go back to the text you have to wonder.” The four celestial events purportedly described in the book actually recur on different timescales. Thus they never recur in quite the same pattern. Baikouzis and Magnasco checked whether there was any date within 100 years of the fall of Troy that would fit the pattern in the book. They found one: April 16, 1,178 B.C., the day calculations show a total eclipse must have occurred. “Not only is this corroborative evidence that this date might be something important,” Magnasco said, “but if we take it as a given that the death of the suitors happened on this particular eclipse date, then everything else described in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described.” Ultimately, whether they’re right or wrong, the researchers say they’re interested in reopening the debate. “Even though there are historical arguments that say this is a ridiculous thing to think about, if we can get a few people to read The Odyssey differently, to look at it and ponder whether there was an actual date inscribed in it, we will be happy,” Magnasco said.