Homer’s “Odyssey” May Chronicle Ancient Eclipse

Article written: 24 Jun , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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 Astronómico in La Plata, Argentina reveals that there is enough evidence – if their interpretation of the events is correct – 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 – 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.

Source: EurekAlert, Scientific American


24 Responses

  1. Justin says

    Doesn’t seem very logical to try to calculate this type of information.

    The Odyssey contains sirens, a cyclops, and men turned into pigs by magical beings. In the midst of all of that, we thing that the sun being “blotted out of the sky” is an accurate portrayal of celestial events? I would have to motion on this course of logic that we start trying to figure out what island has the sexy magic chicks on it so I know where to plan my next vacation.

  2. Neko says

    Story of odysseus?? perhaps ullises should be angry

  3. Sili says

    Haven’t ecclipses alway been known of – and just as importantly been taken as bad omens?

    In fact, it would be very odd indeed if ‘Homer’ didn’t apply some sort of foreboding in his narrative. Let the listeners know that all is gonna end well.

    That the ecclipse must have been real is a big assumption. Extrapolating from there to the whole of the story being true (for some value of “true”) is completely unfounded. It’s the exact same fallacy as employed by the people saying (for instance): “There was a Pontius Pilatus working in Judaea, therefore Jesus must have been the son of God.”

  4. Jozef K says

    Whether or not it’s absolutely true is one thing, but to examine a story so old for actual possible dates is just cool! If all the pieces fit, the epic may not necessarily be true, but the fall of troy, for example, can be narrowed down. The thing with epics is that they’re obviously stories about gods, monsters, and adventure…but they tend to revolve around actual events.

    Either way, I think this is one of the coolest uses for astronomy I’ve ever heard. All the clues of the story managed to serve as somewhat of a calendar, ha ha.

  5. Dark Gnat says

    Surely, eclipses had been witnessed in these times. Homer may have witnessed one, or at least heard of one, and was inspired by it. Celestial events inspire literature to this day.

    It’s also possible that the Odyssey was loosely based on real events, and was embellished for dramatic reasons. That also happens a lot with movies that are “based on a true story”.

    The article doesn’t say for certain when the story takes place, but the eclipse seems to fit the description. Interesting!

  6. Colin says

    This is pretty aweful historical science if anyone takes this too seriously.

    I can probably randomly come up with “four celestial clues… that individually happen rather often, but rarely coincide within a short period of time” and try to find an eclipse, to come up with a date somewhere in the 1300 – 1000 BC range.

    Otherwise, I’m off to find the island of the lotus eaters!

  7. Casey S. says

    I am actually a Ph.D. student in Classical Studies currently writing my dissertation. While it is fascinating and tempting to look for these kinds of astronmical clues, and it certainly adds another possible piece of the puzzle to a greater understanding of Homer’s works, the historical value of such investigations is dubious at best.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think it is very interesting and worth pursuing, however the methodology used to determine the dates of the ‘astronomical signs’ is fundamentally lacking in its understanding of how the Odyssey was composed. The Odyssey has its roots in oral traditional poetry which was a collection of myths likely arranged in cycles of stories. Oral tradition has its origins in nonliterate societies as a means of recording information. Because there are limits to the length that an audience can sit and listen to any given performance, these stories tend to be somewhat episodic and divided up into smaller sections that are more manageable (about 1000 lines).
    Over the years as these stories are passed down from generation to generation orally, poets are constantly adding and subtracting, updating, and manipulating their poems. Keep in mind that these were not written down for a long time and simply learned and created through memory and talent. In attempts to appeal to different audiences, oral poets made changes, keeping some details, adding in new ones that are relevant.
    So what does all this mean? First, it is important to remember that Homer, if he was a real person, did not invent the Odyssey or their stories; he simply combined his versions of many separate traditional short stories into a longer narrative and had someone write them down. Because of oral tradition’s performance limitations and the modification of details to the stories over the years, it is methodologically unsound to take items from different parts of the epic and piece them together into an artificial whole. The detail about the sun being blacked out might have been added in 753 B.C. while the Venus rising before dawn during the new moon might very well be a detail added in 1200 B.C. and the Bootes constelation being lower than the Pleiades could have been added in 932 B.C. In fact it is extremely unlikely that the ‘astological signs’ used date the eclipse are from anywhere close to the same time period.
    Sorry to take up so much room. I find these things fascinating; but unfortunately in this particular case there is no merit to the argument.

  8. Sili says

    Casey S,

    Please don’t apologise. It’s comments like yours that we need!

    I knew the rough outline of what you said, but far from all the details.

    This is yet another example of how “intelligent doesn’t equal smart”. Just look at all the physicists who signed off on Uri Geller and other ‘psychics’ – it took a magician to demonstrate their faults. In this case it sounds like we have a physicist with an interest in the classics, but little knowledge of them since school.

    So thank you.

  9. Jozef K says

    Wow… good argument.

  10. Trippy says

    I think some of the comments in this thread so far are a little narrow minded personally.

    Why /shouldn’t/ a tale regarding a historical event contain references to other historical events that happened at the same time (or in the time frame of ) the tale being told.

    It makes the story more real.

    Do we not now in our movies and entertainment put in references to real events? Even when these movies are total fantasy?

    Nowhere in the article is it claimed that these events somehow validate The Odyssey.

    At most (it seems to me anyway) the article says “Well, we’ve been looking for Troy, and evidence for the battle of Troy around 1200 BC, however, if the timing of these particular events in this story over here, which talks about the battle for Troy is accurate, then we’re looking in the right ball park, but it might pay to look in the 1100-1200 range.”

    Essentially, the article references a sequence of 4 things that, in the story happened 10 years after the fall of Troy, and in reality happened on a particular day in April 1168 BC, which is roughly in agreement with the accepted date of 1200 BC.

  11. Aodhhan says

    Casey,

    You’re missing the point of the article. It isn’t about debating the “Homeric Question”, it’s about deriving the time frame this book was put together, and the likelyhood there was interest in astronomy. Don’t just focus on the fact there was an eclipse mentioned, but the other items as well.

    The article then poiints out a period in time where the novel may have been written, and during this same time… all these events happened in close proximity. Coincidently breaking the your point of a collection of folklore spoken through generations.

    The best observations are always made away from the library.

  12. Sili says

    Nowhere in the article is it claimed that these events somehow validate The Odyssey.Trippy June 24th, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    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.”

    Aodhhan,

    You’re missing Casey’s point.

    all these events happened in close proximity.

    And how, pray tell, do you know that those four events were put into the story at the same time?

  13. Member

    These are some great comments! I knew this would be a controversial one when I wrote it…

    As for your argument, Casey S., it is a good one. The authors of the paper were quick to point out that they make some rather large assumptions about their finding, but are most interested in opening up the debate again as to whether events in the Odyssey can be matched to actual dates. When one of the authors is quoted as saying, “…everything else described in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described,” I understand that to mean not that the sirens and lotus eaters actually existed, but that the story itself is an embellished tale of an actual person, and maybe corresponds to tangible events in history.
    I studied my fair share of classics as an English Literature major, and I know that the tale is based in oral tradition, and that it is quite possible that Homer is merely a moniker for a collective of bards that passed this story down from generation to generation.
    Given all that, though, it is an interesting debate as to whether we can use literature as a way of dating events – celestial or otherwise – in history.

    I am skeptical myself , and I was careful to say, “…there is enough evidence – if their interpretation of the events is correct – to place the eclipse on April 16th of 1178 B.C.”
    The nature of this story is highly speculative, but so is a lot of physics and astronomy. If it’s false, other researchers will prove as such using the scientific method. If true, well, then, it’s just really darn cool 🙂

  14. Casey S. says

    Thanks Sili, you’re exactly right. Others such as Aodhhan and Trippy raise interesting questions but have a miscoception about what exactly the Odyssey is. People who don’t work in the field of Classical Studies generally don’t realize that the Odyssey is not a novel and Homer did not write it in the traditional sense of an author writes a novel. Perhaps a better way to think of what the Odyssey represents is a collection of mythological short stories woven together by a common theme. Maybe a good parallel is as follows: Homer is like a cover band. He doesn’t write his own music, instead he takes a variety of songs from a number of different bands and when he plays the cover he gives each song his own particular twist and character. Homer also complies a group of the cover songs into an album (thus the Iliad or the Odyssey), all with a common theme drawn from many other bands. I think that that analogy hold together.
    The point is that just like with a coverband, if there are three songs on the covered album that mention the name Sarah, there is no reason to think that they are the same person, rather they are three different Sarah’s mentioned by three different songs by three different bands in entirely different contexts.
    We are pretty certain that Homer wrote down the Odyssey between 900 and 700 B.C. If we acknowledge that the various eclipse and astronomical details are proported to come from about 1200 B.C., then it means that they cannot be details that Homer added in himself and thus are part of the handed down oral tradition. As I discussed above with the coverband analogy and as Sili mentioned, you cannot reliably take specific details from widely dispersed parts of the Odyssey and match them up like that. There is no way of telling who added those details in or at what point. In fact it is extremely unlikely that they were added in by the same person or at the same time.
    There are many other things that are problematic with the claim as well that I won’t get into and that could have a huge impact on why the astronomical details appear when they do in the context of the story such as: composition patterns of oral formulatic theory and larger metrical considerations, the whole question of historiocity and its accuracy in myth, was there a Trojan War and if so when did it happen, etc.
    Once again sorry for taking up so much room. I think that this is a fascinating topic and I very much enjoy everyone’s thoughts on it.

  15. Casey S. says

    Sorry about that last one, Nicholos, I posted it before I saw your reply appear. I completely agree and appreciate that you realize the factors involved. The issues that you, others, and this article raise are what makes it so fascinating in the first place. I think that it is great that the classics still generate enough interest to attempt to apply modern math and science in an attempt to unravel their meaning.

  16. Trippy says

    Sill:

    So of /course/ they meant that Sirens and cyclopses and what have you are real, they couldn’t possibly have ben referring to the major events in the story like the fall of troy, the death of the suitors, perhaps even being lost at sea.

    Casey:

    Some credit would be nice thankyou, rather then being lambasted, don’t make assumptions about what I do and don’t understand. I understood (and agreed with, to a large extent) your argument the first time around.

    I might not be a classics major, but i’m all too familiar with the ideas your presenting, and the points you hilighted, with Erik Von Daniken, and Immanuel Velikovsky being two extreme examples.

    I just don’t happen to be of the opinion that this work is neccessarily making the same mistakes as Von Daniken or Velikovsky, I’d be more inclined to believe that the authors of the original paper might have been a little over enthusiastic and excited about their work in the interview.

  17. Trippy says

    That should have been /not/ neccessarily making the same mistakes as…

  18. Trippy says

    For the record. Many of the points raised in Nicholos’s post were what I was trying to convey, and it was my attempt to point out that the article as a whole was written very conservatively (In other words, I was trying to suggest what Nicholos stated, Nicholos however did a far more elloquent job of stating it).

  19. Aodhhan says

    I never debated what the Odyssey is or its origin or even if there was a “homer”. Quite frankly, I could care less. Stevie Wonder can see it is a mess of fiction. It isn’t a stretch to theorize the Odyssey is a collection of other stories. Most fictional novels are. I never gave my thoughts on the Odyssey itself. This website isn’t exactly a place to debate such things.

    Re-read the article in the context of “astronomy”. There is a reason there was research into the EVENTS in the story, and the point being, it is possible those involved in writing the story were interested in astronomy to a point where they documented an elcipse, a planets retrograde movement etc.

    I don’t think the researchers were thinking, “Lets go back and check out if its possible these events are astronomically correct to the period, publish results and see if someone will talk about the history of the novel instead of our research.” LOL

    If the article was about “WHAT” the Odyssey is about, its history, folklore etc. it wouldn’t belong here. It would belong on a different site all together.

  20. Casey S. says

    Trippy: Sorry about no credit, I was agreeing with your earlier comment and should have acknowledged it.

    Aodhhan: I have to disagree with you. I think that there is a direct correlation between the events in the story, the way in which the story was created, and the possible interests, such as astronomy, of the authors. If you don’t understand what the Odyssey is about and how it was created then you have no context for understanding its details. The point of gathering things like astronomical details in this case is to better understand the Odyssey, but the methods that you are using to do that have to be sound.
    I also think that this is directly relevant to an astronomy post. After all it illustrates that astronomy is useful and applicable to as remote a field as ancient Greek literature! LOL

  21. Aodhhan says

    Again, I don’t debate what you are saying about its history. Im saying keep it in the context of this web site. The knowledge required to understand the research was given in the report.

    Reread your original post.. There is nothing…NOTHING related to astronomy, the cosmos or science. It was strictly a post to display your knowledge of Homer’s Odyssey. No way does it segway or corrilate to the research. A post better suited for a web site about literature.

    I don’t need a lesson on research methodolgies. I assure you… I’ve had plenty of practice.

    Thats all I’m going to say. Whether you want to admit it or not; if you’re truly a candidate then you understand.

  22. Sili says

    Reread your original post.. There is nothing…NOTHING related to astronomy, the cosmos or science. It was strictly a post to display your knowledge of Homer’s Odyssey. No way does it segway or corrilate to the research. A post better suited for a web site about literature.

    Doesn’t matter. Casey kindly shared his knowledge of his field of expertise with us and I think it has every bearing on research methodology. Garbage in, garbage out. Without knowing the provenance and history of the ‘clues’ it makes little sense to try to piece them together and pin them down.

    It’s the same problem with trying to pin the star of Bethlehem to a conjunction or supernova without acknowledging that Quirinius never were govenor of Syria untill long after the deaths of Herod and Augustus. Nor that there never were a ‘worldwide’ census done.

    Yes, there was an interest in astronomy – duh. Yes, reference to the sky was put into the Iliad over and over and over – duh. That still does not have any bearing on where, when, if and how Troy was destroyed. Yes, there may well be a grain of truth in all the ancient myths and stories, but random collation of ‘facts’ is not gonna answer any of those questions for us anymore than folk and crank etymologies are gonna tell us that the Basques are descended from Atlanteans and their language taught to them to them by space alians from Pisces.

    they couldn’t possibly have ben referring to the major events in the story like the fall of troy, the death of the suitors, perhaps even being lost at sea.

    Of course not! </sarcasm> – it’s still a non sequitur to say that “everything else […] happens exactly as is described.” even given the prior. And that is in itself not very well corroborated by this research.

    Yes, it’s fun, fantastic and fanciful, but that does not make it true.

  23. Megan K. says

    I have a question about all of this. It isn’t entirerly related to what all of you are discussing but I need to know it for my AP world history class. When was the Odyssey written? If someone would reply to my question I would greatly appreciate it.

  24. Megan K. says

    Never mind what I just asked. I found the answer in what Casey S. wrote previously.

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