Ancient Poet Astronomically Accurate

29 June 2008
Posted by Chris Smith.

A few weeks ago on the Naked Scientists we followed the story of the Odyssey, and how although the land has changed in the 3000 years since it was written, the poet knew his geography.  Parts of the poem allowed modern scientists to locate the Island of Ithaca, even though the island has now been swallowed by it's neighbour!

Solar EclipseIt seems that the poet was also astronomically accurate, as researchers from Rockefeller University report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Homer accurately describes a total solar eclipse, even though it happened nearly 3 centuries before the poem was written.

The passage reads "the Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world" - a pretty good description of an eclipse, but was it just artistic licence, or describing real events which occurred during Odysseus' long journey back to Ithaca?

To find out, Constantino Baikouzi and Marcelo Magnasco searched the text for additional astronomical clues, such as which planets were visible at the time and which stars the hero used to navigate by.  The big clue was a reference to the westward flight of the god Hermes, who represents the planet Mercury. Mercury appears low in the sky, and reverses it's course, East-West, every 116 days.

Baikouzi and Magnasco could use this data to scan all the possible dates that would fit all of these conditions, knowing that in order for a total eclipse to occur, you must have a new moon.  All of these conditions only occur together once every 2000 years  One of those matches is April 16th 1178 BC - fitting exactly with Odysseus's 10 year journey home from Troy.

We will never know if the events described to have taken place really happened during the eclipse - but it seems the description of the eclipse itself was more accurate astronomy than artistic artifice!

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