Ancient Eclipse Found in "The Odyssey," Scientists Say

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
June 23, 2008
"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.

(Watch a partial solar eclipse.)

Controversy Expected

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.

The new findings also assume a level of astronomical sophistication among Odyssey-era Greeks that many historians would find unrealistic, Magnasco said. Little or no evidence exists of Greeks during this time tracking the movements of stars and planets in detail.

"The use of astronomical clues to set the dates of works of art is a very intriguing field that has seen a recent increase in popularity," astronomer Geza Gyuk of Chicago's Adler Planetarium said by email.

"The ability to do this relatively accurately for ancient solar eclipses is fairly new."

"Fairly Sound"

Jerry Oltion, a telescope maker, amateur astronomer, and science fiction writer from Eugene, Oregon, finds the astronomical reasoning "fairly sound."

From an artistic standpoint, he doubts Homer ever saw an eclipse himself—though that has no bearing on whether an eclipse , as Homer is thought to have lived in the ninth and eighth centuries B.C., hundreds of years after the events depicted in The Odyssey.

"Any writer who has seen an eclipse—or even heard one described—would never put his characters indoors during the climactic moment," he said.

The moment takes place at a luncheon as the oracle-like Theoclymenus speaks the passage in question to suitors courting the wife of the main character, Odysseus, who is thought dead.

Also, Oltion notes that the story leaves out many details about eclipses, such as the sun's corona.

"I don't believe Homer could have ignored all those effects," Oltion said.

However the controversy resolves, the Adler Planetarium's Gyuk lauds the study for making us think about Homer's story in new ways.

"This article celebrates Homer and pays homage to the Odyssey in the most sincere way," he said.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.