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...

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."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star