1178 BC: A Space Odyssey

Tuesday 15th November, 2016


Our speaker was Jim Dean who is actually the Society's Events Secretary. He began by explaining that he had been putting together a talk entitled "1178 BC: A Space Odyssey" over a number of years and a gap in our talks schedule had spurred him on to finally finish the presentation. The talk concerned the question of whether a total solar eclipse was mentioned in Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey".

Jim began by saying that the poem describes a journey of ten years by the Greek hero Odysseus to reach Ithaca, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea. Odysseus was returning home after the end of the Trojan war, which had been fought over Queen Helen of Sparta who was a daughter of Zeus. The war began after Helen had been kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris and Helen's husband convinced his brother, who was king of Mycenae, to fight to retrieve her. The war ended when the Trojans were tricked into pulling a wooden horse, in which Greek warriors were hiding, inside their gates.

Jim then explained that towards the end of the poem a seer named Theoclymenus says "The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world". In the 1920s some research had suggested that a total solar eclipse would have been visible over the Ionian Islands (where Homer's poem is set) on April 16th 1178 BC.

This reference was then picked up more recently by two biophysicists, Constantino Baikouzis and Marcelo Magnasco from Rockefeller University, who examined "The Odyssey" in detail for further astronomical clues and produced a scientific paper on their findings. They were looking for events mentioned in the poem that would fix the date around the time of the calculated total solar eclipse in 1178 BC, which would have been at the time of New Moon.

The scientists noticed in the poem's text that as Odysseus sailed back to Ithaca on his raft he used the Pleiades and Bo├Âtes constellations to navigate and these constellations normally appear together in the night sky in March and September. Also, the morning that the hero arrives home in Ithaca he sees Venus rising in the dawn twilight. They also noted that there was a reference to the god Hermes flying westwards to the island of Ogygia.

The researchers suggest that, as Hermes is associated with the planet Mercury, this actually refers to the planet's movements across the sky, for Mercury never strays far from the horizon and some of its orbit takes it in apparently westerly direction as viewed from the Earth. Lastly, they used astronomical software to search for all the dates of New Moon between 1250 and 1125 BC that would also match the specific constellations mentioned as well as Venus and Mercury's motions.

Sadly, the scientists concluded that they could not conclude for certain that Homer was describing a total solar eclipse. They noted that without the interpretation of Hermes representing Mercury there were at least a dozen New Moon dates that would fit the pattern for the constellations and Venus. In fact, Jim agreed with their conclusions and concurs that Homer may have just chosen to set the seer's vision as the day of the eclipse.


This article was written for the club news column of the Stratford Herald. The actual lecture explained the subject at a deeper level.