It’s likely that sometime in your education career, an English teacher had you enjoy (or suffer through, depending on your tastes) at least part of that classic of classics, Homer’s Odyssey. It tells the story of Odysseus, a Greek general, who embarks on a 10-year journey back home after battling in the fall of Troy. The tale is filled with imagery that is referenced often in contemporary films and books. As old as it is, one would think that we’ve learned pretty much all we can from the book, but a new analysis of celestial events referenced in the Odyssey reveals that Homer may have documented a total solar eclipse.
Here’s a little background on the epic: Odysseus fights in the battle of Troy, which is believed to have occurred in approximately 1200 B.C. After the battle, he must find his way back to Ithaca in Greece, and the journey home is a harrowing one in which he is captured by the nymph Calypso, drifts on a raft at sea, battles a cyclops, resists the temptation of the Sirens and in general has hard luck. While he is away, his wife Penelope is living at his house with 108 suitors who are trying to convince her that she should accept her husband as dead and marry one of them.
Near the end of the story, a seer named Theoclymenus foretells the death of all the suitors, saying:
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.
The reference to the Sun being blotted out of the sky on the day Odysseus returns home to retake his house and slaughter the suitors has been thought for a long time to be a reference to an actual eclipse, and was debated by astronomers, historians and classicists until it was finally decided that there was not enough evidence in the book to pinpoint a specific date for the event.
An analysis of overlooked passages in the book by Marcelo O. Magnasco, who heads the Laboratory of Mathematical Physics at Rockefeller, and Constantino Baikouzis of the Proyecto Observatorio at the Observatorio AstronÃ³mico in La Plata, Argentina reveals that there is enough evidence â€“ if their interpretation of the events is correct â€“ to place the eclipse on April 16th of 1178 B.C. Magnasco and Baikouzis reported their findings in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
There are four celestial clues in the Odyssey that individually happen rather often, but rarely coincide within a short period of time. As Odysseus is making his way home on a raft, he navigates by the use of the constellations Bootes and the Pleiades, which only appear together in the sky in March and September. The Moon is new when Odyesseus returns home, and on that day Venus rises before dawn, which only happens during one-third of new moons. The most important clue, though, is that Homer refers to the god Hermes flying west to the island of Ogygia about a month earlier. This reference is likely to the planet Mercury, which is low in the sky and experiences retrograde motion â€“ seems to go backward in the sky relative to the stars – every 116 days.
Magnasco said, “Not only is this corroborative evidence that this date might be something important 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.”
Baikouzis and Magnasco analyzed all 1,684 new moons between 1250 and 1125 B.C. with commercial astronomy software for any dates that would match this confluence of events and came up with April 16th, 1178 B.C. Given that Homer matched the story to events in reality, this could help historians date the fall of Troy and shows that this great poet may also have had a penchant for astronomy.