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The end of an odyssey - Homer's epic is finally pinned down

For years, debate has raged over Homer's epic. Now research on astronomical detail in the story of Odysseus dates its dramatic climax to one particular day...

By Steve Connor
Tuesday, 24 June 2008

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ALAMY

Odysseus killing his wife's suitors after returning home

The Odyssey is one of the great works of ancient Western literature, written eight centuries before the birth of Christ and four centuries after the fall of Troy. Generations of classicists have pored over the many lines of Homer's epic description of the long journey taken by the hero Odysseus to his home island of Ithaca. Now two scholars have found evidence to support the idea that one line, in the poem's 20th book, refers to a total solar eclipse that occurred on 16 April 1178 BC – the day when Odysseus returned home to kill his wife's suitors. If true, this would date the fall of Troy itself to precisely 1188 BC.

It takes Odysseus 10 years to reach Ithaca after the 10-year Trojan war. During his time away, his young son, Telemachus, has grown into a man and his faithful wife, Penelope, is besieged by unruly suitors desperate to gain her hand in marriage.

The Odyssey is the story of a long and great journey involving the beautiful nymph Calypso – who enslaves Odysseus for seven years as her lover – helpful divinities such as Athena and vengeful gods such as Poseidon.

Odysseus eventually escapes from Calypso, survives a shipwreck where all his compatriots are drowned and is befriended by the Phaeacians, a race of skilled mariners who finally deliver the hero safely to Ithaca, where he takes on the guise of a beggar to learn how things stand at home.

It is during this later phase of The Odyssey that Homer is said to make reference to a total solar eclipse. The key phrase comes in a speech by the seer Theoclymenus, who foresees the deaths of the unruly young men who sought the hand of Penelope while Odysseus was away. It ends with the words: "The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world."

The idea that The Odyssey refers to a total solar eclipse, when the Moon blocks out the Sun completely, is not new. It was first suggested by ancient scholars, but it was only in the 1920s that astronomers were able to calculate that such an eclipse over Greece around that time could only have taken place on 16 April 1178 BC.

However, few people were convinced that the passage in The Odyssey was actually a reference to a mythical total solar eclipse, never mind a real one. It might just have been poetic licence, for instance, especially as Homer is said to have written it several centuries after the events that were said to have unfolded. But two modern astronomers believe they have convincing evidence to support the 16 April eclipse by analysing other passages in the poem that refer to four other astronomical events that are known to occur quite independently of one another.

Instead of looking at when a solar eclipse occurred in history, as other astronomers had done, they investigated the timing of a new moon, the simultaneous appearance of two stellar constellations in the evening sky, and appearances of the planets Mercury and Venus. All four phenomena are mentioned in The Odyssey which gave Constantino Baikouzis of the Observatorio Astronomico de La Plata in Argentina, and Professor Marcelo Magnasco, of the Rockefeller University in New York, another way of checking the date when Odysseus is supposed to have returned to his home on Ithaca to kill his wife's suitors.

For example, six days before the slaughter of the suitors, Homer writes that Odysseus returns with the Star of Dawn, a reference to the planet Venus, which is visible at sunrise. Odysseus also sets sail to Ithaca 29-and-a-half days earlier, when the constellations Bootes and Pleiades can both be seen in the twilight sky – stars which were used for navigation by the ancient Greeks.

Magnasco and Baikouzis also point out that the day before the slaughter of the suitors, there is a new moon – a prerequisite for a total eclipse – and 33 days prior to this day Homer may be suggesting that Mercury, described as the god Hermes, is high at dawn and near the western end of its trajectory.

They calculated the pattern in which these four events occurred, from the references mentioned in The Odyssey, and compared them against patterns gleaned from 135 years of astronomical data – nearly 5,000 days. The result was they found just one date that could have been the fateful day. It was the same 16 April 1178BC that was known to have been a total solar eclipse. "What are the chances of having two different ways of dating the text and both agreeing on the same date? We calculated the chances of these two dates agreeing by chance alone is something like one in 50,000," Professor 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 in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described."

In the time of the ancient scholars, notably Plutarch and Heraclitus, there were suggestions that The Odyssey did refer to a total solar eclipse, a rare and dramatic event that was often taken as an omen. "Temperatures drop suddenly a few degrees, winds change, animals become restless and human faces may have a striking, exsanguinated appearance in the bluish light," the two academics write in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We cannot say for sure that the events described in The Odyssey really happened, of course, because some of the events are really quite fanciful. But what we want to do is to get people to go back to the text and have another look," Professor Magnasco said.

"Under the very large assumption that there was an Odysseus, there were suitors that got massacred, that it indeed took 10 years for Odysseus to get back ... yes, in that case the fall of Troy would have happened 10 years before the death of the suitors, thus in 1188BC. The current dating of the destruction layer of Troy VIIa is around 1190 plus/minus a few years."

One weak spot in the analysis, Professor Magnasco admits, is the idea of linking the appearance of planets with gods, which was a Babylonian invention that dates back to about 1000BC. There is no evidence those ideas had reached Greece by the time of Homer, hundreds of years later.

"This is a risky step in our analysis. One may say that our interpretation of the phenomena is stretching it but, when you go back to the text, you have to wonder," he said. "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 in it, we will be happy."

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Somewhere I have read, while teaching history in HS, that Assyrian signet rolls were found in the wreckage of Mycenae.The Assyrians were masters of siege warfare. The Trojan Horse was a siege tower. The Assyrians would name the planets by the gods.

Posted by Chuck Moody | 25.06.08, 08:39 GMT

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Both the early tales of King Arthur and those Homer recited of Troy look back on an age of heroes after which there was a complete collapse of the known culture. These Dark Ages lasted until roughly 700 B.C. in the Aegean and 850 A.D. in Britain. The heroic tales were kept alive by careful retelling, often using mnemonic devices and unique details which preserved the culture of the era being sung about. Thus although Homer's tales were not written down until well into the Iron Age, it is clear the battles he records happened during the Bronze Age.

By the same token, it is quite possible that the people of Greece and Troy in approximately 1190 linked specific gods with individual planets and that Homer was faithfully repeating the association that was handed down to him. One might even lightly question whether or not the Babylonians picked up the habit from the Greeks, bards having such peripatetic natures.

Posted by Persia | 25.06.08, 07:30 GMT

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There is a significant difference surely between the time when the text was composed (usually taken to be a somewhat evolutionary process involving recitals by bards) and the events in the story, if one supposed them to be historical. There are a good many reasons for thinking this was four or five hundred years after 1178 BC.

How could "Homer" have had records of planetary movements and eclipses several hundred years earlier?

Dating the fall of Troy around 1178 would place the event very close to the invasions of the sea peoples and the collapse of the Hittite Empire. That sounds neat. But then how do you explain the fact that the Iliad and Odyssey both seem to be productions of a Dark Age when literacy has been forgotten and Mycenean-style chieftaincies prevail?

That said, the coincidence of the eclipse dating is odd...

Posted by DavidB | 25.06.08, 06:53 GMT

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The eclipse is mentioned for another reason. Unlike the Illyad, the Odyssey does not even touch history. Odysseus plays an old character, the sun and Penelope, the moon (weaving and unweaving the tapestry). When you watch the sun set, one day the sun and moon will set or rise (I forget) together. Then the sun and moon separate, re-uniting 10 years later. In its 12 sections, the Odyssey follows the sun's journey (following constellations along the same path as the milky way and characters (such as the maids strung up between a round and square building) are mnemonic devices for known constellations. As with many ancient and odd stories, it is generally a pragmatic mnemonic aid to the stars and therefor navigation. At the very least, a poet could follow the stars at a night recital as an aid in telling the story. These are far from original ideas. I'm not surprised people look for history in the Illyad but the Odyssey? I feel we moderns miss the point with this and, say, Gilgamesh.

Posted by Allen | 24.06.08, 18:20 GMT

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"One weak spot in the analysis, Professor Magnasco admits, is the idea of linking the appearance of planets with gods, which was a Babylonian invention that dates back to about 1000BC. There is no evidence those ideas had reached Greece by the time of Homer, hundreds of years later."

The ancients naturally associated the planets with the gods. Just look at Egypt. All of the gods are linked to the planets, an astro-logical mindset is nearly universal in the placement of many ancient monuments that are far older than the so called "Babylonian invention" this person refers to. This statement is rubbish.

If anything, the astronomical occurrences could be the whole reason this story became so ingrained in the psyche of those who lived through the events it was preserved and passed down to us through Homer.

The debate about this work is broad indeed. Read "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" by Julian Jaynes

Posted by Donnie | 24.06.08, 16:06 GMT

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