Skip to comments.Ancient Eclipse Found in "The Odyssey," Scientists Say
Posted on 06/23/2008 5:36:32 PM PDT by blam
Ancient Eclipse Found in "The Odyssey," Scientists Say
Richard A. Lovett for National Geographic News
June 23, 2008
"The sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world."
With those words in The Odyssey, Homer laid down not a prophecy of doom but a description of a real-world total solar eclipse, scientific sleuths announced today.
It has been known for decades that there was only one such eclipse during the time period Homer wrote about in the ancient Greek poemon April 16, 1178 B.C. The blackout even occurred at noon, as described in the epic poem.
But without additional evidence, the idea that Homer's passage describes an eclipse has been pooh-poohed by Homeric scholars.
Now scientists have looked into additional astronomical descriptions in The Odyssey and found them to be consistent with that date for the noontime darkness.
The references relate to moon phases and positions of constellations and planetsphenomena that rarely occur in the sequence described in Homer's workphysicist Marcelo Magnasco said by email. Magnasco co-authored the new study with fellow Rockefeller University scholar Constantino Baikouzis, an astronomer.
The scientists used astronomical software to simulate the Greek skies, night by night, over a 135-year period surrounding the eclipse.
Even without using the eclipse itself in their calculations, the researchers found only one date for the noontime darkness: April 16, 1178 B.C.
Study co-author Magnasco said his findings, to be published tomorrow in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will be controversial.
The study does more than reinterpret Homer's writing, though even the study authors admit Homer may not have been referring to an eclipse.
The new findings also assume a level of astronomical sophistication among Odyssey-era Greeks that many historians would find unrealistic, Magnasco said. Little or no evidence exists of Greeks during this time tracking the movements of stars and planets in detail.
"The use of astronomical clues to set the dates of works of art is a very intriguing field that has seen a recent increase in popularity," astronomer Geza Gyuk of Chicago's Adler Planetarium said by email.
Jerry Oltion, a telescope maker, amateur astronomer, and science fiction writer from Eugene, Oregon, finds the astronomical reasoning "fairly sound."
From an artistic standpoint, he doubts Homer ever saw an eclipse himselfthough that has no bearing on the new study, as Homer lived centuries after the events depicted in The Odyssey.
"Any writer who has seen an eclipseor even heard one describedwould never put his characters indoors during the climactic moment," he said.
The moment takes place at a luncheon as the oracle-like Theoclymenus speaks the passage in question to suitors courting the wife of the main character, Odysseus, who is thought dead.
Also, Oltion notes that the story leaves out many details about eclipses, such as the sun's corona.
"I don't believe Homer could have ignored all those effects," Oltion said.
However the controversy resolves, the Adler Planetarium's Gyuk lauds the study for making us think about Homer's story in new ways.
"This article celebrates Homer and pays homage to the Odyssey in the most sincere way," he said.
Very interesting. How does this date compare to those usually posited for Homer?
Interesting. Thanks for posting. I really enjoyed reading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in college. Fascinating.
Music to read this thread by...
Homer was blind... Unless he got that way by staring at the sun during an eclipse, its probably a fairly safe bet that he never saw one...
I am reading The Odyssey and Iliad right now with two students, both of whom HATE the usual fiction reading they do in Middle School. They are loving that book. We got a R. Sutcliff edition with beautiful illustrations — the Cyclops’ eye with a stake in it, the suitor Laertes shot in the neck, standing there with an arrow through his neck. Odysseus’s visit to the Land of the Dead is illustrated so beautifully.
I don’t remember an eclipse in it. But then I haven’t agreed much with the National Geographic since they posted that photo of two lesbians kissing in Paris.
Great job teacher! I had a great professor (one of many) in college in the early 70’s who taught Greek Mythology and really took you back in time with Homer’s classic.
That's just one invented biographical detail added over the years. Real details of his life, or even whether he existed at all, are unknown.
Homer himself wrote 400 or so years later after the events of the Trojan War. 800-750 or so BC.
It's quite obvious from the narrative that Theoclymenus is not describing an eclipse. He is viewing the suitors in the banquet hall and describes the vision he is having of their impending doom:
Shrouded in night are your heads and your faces and your knees beneath you; kindled is the sound of wailing, bathed in tears are your cheeks, and sprinkled with blood are the walls and the fair panels. And full of ghosts is the porch, full also the court, ghosts hastening down to Erebus beneath the darkness, and the sun has perished out of heaven and an evil mist covers all.
... the suitors laugh at him and tell him to go outside, if it is so dark in the hall. The vision of the "evil mist" is fulfilled poetically when Odysseus shoots Eurymachus "upon the breast beside the nipple" and his death agonies are described in the usual Homeric detail, ending with "and over his eyes the mist (achlys) poured down."
...and Zeus thundered loud, showing forth his signs. Then glad at heart was the much-enduring, noble Odysseus that the son of crooked-counseling Cronos sent him an omen,...
Unfortunately, I doubt this will be much help in dating the event :-)
The sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world.Thanks blam!
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Posted on 05/04/2004 8:33:07 PM PDT by quidnunc
The Trojan War as laid out in “The Iliad” either is a conflation of a large number of older stories, referring to a number of different eras, and doesn’t have a single author, orrrrrr, it is in sync with the 25th Dynasty of Egypt (there’s a clear reference, more than one, in “The Iliad” to one of the Ethiopian pharaohs), or 8th century BC through mid-7th c, and a similar range is usually given for Homer. :’)
[self-quote] David Rohl attempted to use a solar eclipse of 1012 BC to date one of the el-Amarna letters to support his chronology. Ugarit was burned by Shalmaneser III in 855 BC, so using the fire to push back the date of the tablet by a century and a half is ill supported at best. [end]
|B.C. 709||JULY 17||CHINA||TOTAL: NO OTHER DETAILS|
|601||SEPT. 12||CHINA||TOTAL: NO OTHER DETAILS|
|549||JUNE 12||CHINA||TOTAL: NO OTHER DETAILS|
|198||AUG. 7||CHINA||ANNULAR: NO OTHER DETAILS|
|181||MAR. 4||CHINA||TOTAL: NO OTHER DETAILS|
|136||APR.15||MESOPOTAMIA||TOTAL: MANY STARS AND FOUR PLANETS SEEN|
|A.D. 2||NOV. 23||CHINA||TOTAL: NO OTHER DETAILS|
|65||DEC.16||CHINA||TOTAL: NO OTHER DETAILS|
|516||APR. 18||CHINA||ANNULAR: NO OTHER DETAILS|
|522||JUNE 10||CHINA||TOTAL: NO OTHER DETAILS|
|840||MAY 5||ITALY||TOTAL: "SUN HIDDEN FROM WORLD"|
|873||JULY 28||PERSIA||ANNULAR: "MOON WITHIN BODY OF SUN"|
|912||JUNE 17||SPAIN||TOTAL: "DARKNESS JUST BEFORE SUNSET"|
|968||DEC.22||TURKEY (2)||TOTAL: CORONA OBSERVED|
|975||AUG.10||JAPAN||TOTAL: "INK-COLORED SUN"|
|1124||AUG.11||RUSSIA||TOTAL: "SUN PERISHED COMPLETELY"|
|1133||AUG. 2||EUROPE (5)||TOTAL: "SUN BLACK AS PITCH"|
|1176||APR.11||TURKEY||TOTAL: "NIGHT FELL, STARS APPEARED"|
|1185||MAY 1||RUSSIA||TOTAL: CHROMOSPHERE OBSERVED|
|1221||MAY 23||MONGOLIA||TOTAL: "STARS VISIBLE"|
|1239||JUNE 3||EUROPE (8)||TOTAL: "MANY STARS SEEN"|
|1241||OCT. 6||EUROPE (2) EGYPT||TOTAL: "WONDERFUL BLACKNESS"|
|1267||MAY 25||TURKEY||TOTAL: "MANY STARS APPEARED"|
|1275||JUNE 25||CHINA||TOTAL: "STARS SEEN"|
|1292||JAN.21||CHINA||ANNULAR: "SUN A GOLDEN RING"|
|1406||JUNE 16||GERMANY||TOTAL: "GREAT DARKNESS"|
|1415||JUNE 7||EUROPE (2)||TOTAL: "ENTIRE SUN ECLIPSED"|
|1485||MAR. 16||AUSTRIA||TOTAL: NO OTHER DETAILS|
EARLIEST SOLAR ECLIPSE for which the date is certain is recorded on this Assyrian tablet, a summary of past historical events. A large partial eclipse, it took place on June 15, 763 b.c.