June 24, 2008

The eclipse of 1178BC and the return of Odysseus to Ithaca

Odysseus' return from Trojan War dated:
In the epic "Odyssey," one of the cornerstones of Western literature, the legendary Greek hero Odysseus returns to his queen Penelope after enduring 10 years of sailing the wine dark sea.

Now scientists have pinned down his return to April 16, 1178 B.C., close to noon local time, according to astronomical references in the epic poem that seem to pinpoint the total eclipse of the sun on the day that Odysseus supposedly returned on.


The possible solar eclipse comes up in the 20th book of the "Odyssey," as the suitors begin their final lunch. At this point, the goddess of war Athena "confounds their minds," making the suitors laugh uncontrollably and see their food spattered with blood. The seer Theoclymenus then foresees the death of the suitors, ending by saying, "The sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world."

The Greek historian Plutarch suggested the prophecy of Theoclymenus referred to a solar eclipse.

More recently, astronomers Carl Schoch and Paul Neugebauer computed in the 1920s that a total solar eclipse occurred over the Ionian islands — of which Ithaca is one — about noon on April 16, 1178 B.C., and would have coincided roughly a decade before the most often cited estimate for the sack of Troy — about 1190 B.C.


Still, a great deal of skepticism remains over whether Theoclymenus refers to this or any eclipse. To shed light on the issue, researchers Marcelo Magnasco and Constantino Baikouzis at Rockefeller University in New York decided to analyze other passages in the "Odyssey" for astronomical references without assuming an eclipse.


The scientists first created a rough chronology of events depicted in the "Odyssey." First, 29 days before the supposed eclipse and the massacre of the suitors, three constellations are mentioned as Odysseus sets out from the island of Ogygia, where he has spent seven years as a captive of the beautiful nymph Calypso. Odysseus is told to watch the Pleiades and late-setting Boötes and keep the Great Bear to his left. Next, five days before the supposed eclipse, Odysseus arrives in Ithaca as the Star of Dawn — that is, Venus — rises ahead of the sun.

Finally, the night before the eclipse, there is a new moon.

Also, the messenger of the gods, Hermes, is sent west to Ogygia by the king of the gods Zeus to release Odysseus and then immediately returns back east roughly 34 days before the eclipse. The researchers conjecture this trip refers to an apparent turning point of the motion of the planet Mercury. (Mercury was the Roman name for Hermes.)


The scientists then searched for potential dates that satisfied all these astronomical references close to the fall of Troy, which has over the centuries been estimated to have occurred between roughly 1250 to 1115 B.C. From these 135 years, they found just one date satisfied all the references — April 16, 1178 B.C., the same date as the proposed eclipse.


"That's just one day out of about 50,000 days," Magnasco told LiveScience. "If our findings are correct, it would be pretty spectacularly strange. How could Homer have known about this eclipse, about planetary positions that happened some 100 years before him? If this is all true, it would change the timetable of what we think they knew about astronomy then." Homer, if he really existed, is said to have composed the "Odyssey" sometime near the end of the ninth century B.C.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0803317105

Is an eclipse described in the Odyssey?

Constantino Baikouzis, and Marcelo O. Magnasco


Plutarch and Heraclitus believed a certain passage in the 20th book of the Odyssey ("Theoclymenus's prophecy") to be a poetic description of a total solar eclipse. In the late 1920s, Schoch and Neugebauer computed that the solar eclipse of 16 April 1178 B.C.E. was total over the Ionian Islands and was the only suitable eclipse in more than a century to agree with classical estimates of the decade-earlier sack of Troy around 1192–1184 B.C.E. However, much skepticism remains about whether the verses refer to this, or any, eclipse. To contribute to the issue independently of the disputed eclipse reference, we analyze other astronomical references in the Epic, without assuming the existence of an eclipse, and search for dates matching the astronomical phenomena we believe they describe. We use three overt astronomical references in the epic: to Boötes and the Pleiades, Venus, and the New Moon; we supplement them with a conjectural identification of Hermes's trip to Ogygia as relating to the motion of planet Mercury. Performing an exhaustive search of all possible dates in the span 1250–1115 B.C., we looked to match these phenomena in the order and manner that the text describes. In that period, a single date closely matches our references: 16 April 1178 B.C.E. We speculate that these references, plus the disputed eclipse reference, may refer to that specific eclipse.



Maju said...

about noon on April 16, 1178 B.C., and would have coincided roughly a decade before the most often cited estimate for the sack of Troy — about 1190 B.C.

After! 1178 BCE is 12 years after 1190 BCE. I think this detail is important for the credibility of the hypothesis (Odyseus went on his travels after the Trojan war, not before, right?)

Still, I have a doubt:

Next, five days before the supposed eclipse, Odysseus arrives in Ithaca as the Star of Dawn — that is, Venus — rises ahead of the sun.

I checked the sky for that date (using a reputed astrological resource) and I get Venus rising after the Sun for that date. I'd like if someone could confirm this because this element does seem to contradict the narration: Venus can be the morning or the evening star: it varies, and in this case it seems it was in "evening" phase. Mercury instead was in "morning" phase, so maybe the narration refers to Mercury.

Crimson Guard said...

The Trojan War(s) supposedly lasted 12 years, and he was lost along with his crew for another decade.

Homer's first book was written long after the Trojan War. And the characters, they all had superpowers, rather like comic-book heroes so how much we can rely on his tales I don't know.

Achaeans buried their dead, so they should find his body by now.

dave in boca said...

Oral tradition in Homer's Age was a highly-formulaic ritualized and disciplined exercise. Homer may have exaggerated the prowess of Achilles & Ajax & Hector, but the late Bronze/early Iron transition was an era of great warriors who were widely sung in other oral epics,

Homer was simply the greatest compilation of these hero songs. Also, Ithaca might have had cremation traditions---the island was at that time on the very edge of the Mycenean world.