The Star of the Magi

Courtney Roberts, M.A.

     Archaeoastronomy in Homer's Odyssey

To this day, the tales of brave Ulysses retain an almost magical power to move us.  Now two researchers claim that, before our hero slipped through the back gates of his own kingdom disguised as a beggar, strung his bow and sent Penelope’s suitors packing, his triumphant return to Ithaca was heralded by a blood-red, total eclipse of the sun at high noon.

   Back in the 1920’s, Carl Schoch and Paul Neugebauer did the calculations revealing that a total solar eclipse had been visible over the Ionian island ofIthaca around noon on April 16, 1178 B.C.  Using this earlier work as a starting point, Marcelo Magnasco and Constantino Baikouzis of Rockefeller University in New York surmised that this eclipse would have taken place approximately one decade after the sack of Troy — which many date to the 1180’s B.C. 

   If we factor in the legendary ten years of wandering which make up the Odyssey, there is a possible coincidence.

     Magnasco and Baikouzis, who detailed their findings online on in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are not the first to believe that a solar eclipse accompanied Odysseus on his return.  The same possibility was raised by the 1st century Greek historian, Plutarch. 

     After all, in the 20th book of the "Odyssey," the seer Theoclymenus foresees the death of the suitors, prophesying "The sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world."   This passage gave Plutarch the idea that the seer may have been referring to a solar eclipse.

     The existence of Homer himself is as much of a mystery as that of his epic characters, but whoever the legendary blind poet was, he did leave a trail of astronomical clues in his tales which Magnasco and Baikouzis have dutifully followed, allowing them to further refine their hypothesis.  

     For instance, as Odysseus breaks away from the clutches of the nymph Calypso, he “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.'

     The researchers also believe that poet made a mythological reference to a Mercury retrograde period, when '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.'

     Apparently, there is only one date which satisfies all these conditions: April 16th, 1178 BCE.


    Now whether this work proves to be yet another exercise in futility, or a real innovation, it does raise some important questions about how an eclipse, or other unusual planetary motion like retrograde periods, would have been interpreted by the Greeks of Homer’s time.

    Presumably, Homer’s Odyssey was compiled before the revolutionary discoveries of the cyclical nature of planetary motion in Mesopotamia, and the dawn of mathematical astronomy (approx. the 6th century BCE).  If we should interpret Hermes’s round-trip errand as an astronomical reference, then this recent work encourages rigorous astronomical re-readings of the entire corpus of classical mythology.  

That alone is the key to a wealth of buried treasure…  

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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