Research puts a date on Homer’s ‘Odyssey’

TUESDAY, JUNE 24, 2008

Delving into a 3,000-year-old mystery using astronomical clues in Homer’s “The Odyssey,” researchers said Monday they have dated one of the most heralded events of Western literature: Odysseus’ slaughter of his wife’s suitors upon his return from the Trojan War.

According to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the wily hero who devised the Trojan Horse hefted his mighty bow on April 16, 1178 B.C., and executed the unruly crowd that had taken over his home and were trying to force his wife into marriage.

The finding leaves many perennial questions unanswered, such as whether the events portrayed actually occurred or whether the blind poet Homer was the author of the tale.

But the results cast a new sheen of veracity on a story that has existed in a hazy realm of fantasy and history since it was composed 400 years after the Trojan War.

“They make a wonderfully persuasive case,” said Scott Huler, author of a book about his efforts to follow Odysseus’ journey.

The “Odyssey” tells the story of the king’s 10-year journey home after the capture of Troy.

When he finally arrived at Ithaca, he found 109 men urging his wife, Penelope, to accept that her husband was dead and marry one of them. Spurred by Athena, Penelope declared an archery contest with Odysseus’ bow, saying she would marry the winner.

Odysseus, in disguise, won the contest, then killed all the suitors as well as a dozen maids that had slept with them.

The key passage in dating the tale is highly ambiguous.

As the suitors are sitting down for their noontime meal, the goddess Athena “confounds their minds,” so that they start laughing uncontrollably and see their food spattered with blood.

Then the seer Theoclymenus prophesies their death and passage to Hades, ending with the phrase, “The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world.”

The Greek historian Plutarch interpreted this as signifying a total solar eclipse, and many others have agreed. But modern scholars tend to discount this interpretation, arguing that the passage is simply metaphorical.

Previous researchers have determined that a total solar eclipse occurred in the region over the Ionian Sea on April 16, 1178 B.C., which would be in agreement with recent data placing the fall of Troy around 1192 B.C. to 1184 B.C.

To investigate, astronomer Marcelo O. Magnasco of Rockefeller University and Constantino Baikouzis of the Observatorio Astronomico de La Plata in Argentina read the text of “The Odyssey” carefully looking for other astronomical clues.

They found three definitive events:

“The day of the slaughter was a new moon, a prerequisite for a solar eclipse.

“Six days before the slaughter, Venus was visible and high in the sky.

“Twenty-nine days before, the constellations Pleiades and Bootes were simultaneously visible at sunset.

Each of these astronomical events recurs at a different interval, so the precise sequence identified in their reading should be unique.

Using computer analysis, they searched for the sequence between 1250 B.C. and 1115 B.C., roughly 75 years on either side of the putative data for the fall of Troy.

They found only one sequence, and it coincided with the eclipse of April 16, 1178 B.C.


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