Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A scientific "Odyssey"?

Even if it doesn't always turn out to be true, its still fun to read about the possibility of actual astronomical information in ancient texts. And of course, its great when the text in question is Homer's Odyssey:

That Odysseus took his time, 19 years, getting home to Ithaca from the Trojan War is the story Homer engraved in the “Odyssey.” But exactly when did he rejoin his Penelope, who had been patient beyond belief?

Plutarch thought a crucial passage in the 20th book of the “Odyssey” to be a poetic description of a total solar eclipse at the time of Odysseus’ return. A century ago, astronomers calculated that such an eclipse occurred over the Greek islands on April 16, 1178 B.C., the only one in the region around the estimated date of the sack of Troy. But nearly all classics scholars are highly skeptical of any connection.

An analysis of astronomical references in the epic has led two scientists to conclude that the homecoming of Odysseus, usually considered a fictional character set in the context of a real historical event, possibly coincided with the 1178 solar eclipse. If, that is, Homer indeed had in mind an eclipse when he wrote of a seer prophesying the death of Penelope’s waiting suitors and their entrance into Hades.

The new interpretation of the eclipse hypothesis is reported in this week’s issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Constantino Baikouzis and Marcelo O. Magnasco, scientists at the Laboratory of Mathematical Physics at Rockefeller University in New York and at the Astronomical Observatory of La Plata, in Argentina.

And here is the slightly problematic bit:

Although an eclipse is not mentioned anywhere in the story, there are omens and what Plutarch inferred was a poetic description of a total solar eclipse. Odysseus has arrived home, disguised in beggar’s rags and in hiding before revealing himself. It happens that, when Penelope’s persistent suitors sit down for a noontime meal, they start laughing uncontrollably and see their food spattered with blood.

At this strange moment, the seer Theoclymenus foretells their death, ending with the sentence, “The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world.”

There are reasons to think that the darkness of a total eclipse had just fallen on Ithaca. It was close to noon when the 1178 eclipse occurred over the Ionian Sea. It was, as mentioned several times in the story, at the time of a new moon, which the scientists point out is “a necessary condition for a solar eclipse.” And what better atmospherics to accompany a prophecy of doom than a total eclipse, which was considered an ill omen?

Experts on Homer have previously discounted such conjecture. For one thing, the earliest verified eclipse records are in the eighth century B.C., about the time Homer was writing but long after the action in what is known as the Trojan War, around the early 12th century B.C. Scholars say there is no evidence supporting a view at the time, widely quoted, that “a solar eclipse may mark the return of Odysseus.”

Hmm...okay. Thats a lot of cold water. But how did they figure out the specific eclipse in the first place?

The two scientists derived a possible chronology from astronomical references in the story, including the stars by which Odysseus navigated, the sighting of Venus just before dawn as he arrives at Ithaca, and the new moon on the night before the massacre of the suitors and the presumed eclipse.

On the basis of their analysis, the scientists said, these three “references ‘cohere,’ in the sense that the astronomical phenomena pinpoint the date of 16 April 1178 B.C.,” adding, “The odds that purely fictional references to these phenomena (so hard to satisfy simultaneously) would coincide by accident with the only eclipse of the century are minute.”

Well? Solar eclipses are indeed quite spectacular. So there is a possibility that this eclipse may have made enough of an impression (or to have scared the heck out of them) to have been made part of the story that carried this scientific information for five centuries - before it got to Homer (or the collection of bards known as Homer). True or not, its a fun investigative story.

Read the full article here.