for National Geographic News
"The sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world."
With those words in The Odyssey, Homer laid down not a prophecy of doom but a description of a real-world total solar eclipse, scientific sleuths announced today.
It has been known for decades that there was only one such eclipse during the time period Homer wrote about in the ancient Greek poem—on April 16, 1178 B.C. The blackout even occurred at noon, as described in the epic poem.
But without additional evidence, the idea that Homer's passage describes an eclipse has been pooh-poohed by Homeric scholars.
Now scientists have looked into additional astronomical descriptions in The Odyssey and found them to be consistent with that date for the noontime darkness.
The references relate to moon phases and positions of constellations and planets—phenomena that rarely occur in the sequence described in Homer's work—physicist Marcelo Magnasco said by email. Magnasco co-authored the new study with fellow Rockefeller University scholar Constantino Baikouzis, an astronomer.
The scientists used astronomical software to simulate the Greek skies, night by night, over a 135-year period surrounding the eclipse.
Even without using the eclipse itself in their calculations, the researchers found only one date for the noontime darkness: April 16, 1178 B.C.
Study co-author Magnasco said his findings, to be published tomorrow in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will be controversial.
The report does more than reinterpret Homer's writing, though even the study authors admit Homer may not have been referring to an eclipse.
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