Photo: still shot from video essay
By Millie Huang
This video essay by Millie Huang was created for CLST 143, “Great Books of Ancient Greece and Rome.” It is a response to a class project asking for a presentation-style analysis of any work of classical scholarship. The central topic of the essay is a passage titled “Theoclymenus’s Prophecy” in book 20 of the Odyssey, which has been purported to describe a total solar eclipse since antiquity. This essay links together imagery, music, and textual evidence to discuss what the modern astronomical paper written by Constantino Baikouzis and Marcelo Magnasco has to contribute to the conversation—and more broadly, the traditional techniques of dating Homeric epic.
What you are looking at now is a partial solar eclipse captured by Nikolaus Doukas, on the Greek Island of Ithaca. The series of videos are dated to March 20, 2015.
I will pose the question: what did the sky look like on this small Greek island in the Ionian Sea more than 3000 years ago? What did the characters in Homeric epic see as they gazed up towards the vast expanse of space?
We don’t merely have to imagine the answer to these questions – modern astronomical tools can use patterns in the movement of the planets and stars to turn back time, giving us a window into the night sky of millennia ago.
This was the work of scholars Constantino Baikouzis and Marcelo Magnasco in an article about the night sky of Homer’s Odyssey. So, in this video, I will take you through a journey of the sky as Odysseus might have observed it, linking textual evidence in the Odyssey to modern astronomical clues. Just a side-bar here – I’m sure you can tell that the Odyssey is my favourite classical text.
The path we take will ultimately answer the central thesis question – does the Odyssey describe a real-life total solar eclipse? And if so, can we pinpoint a date when it occurred? Baikouzis and Magnasco answer this with a resounding yes, arriving at a specific date and two beautiful images of what Odysseus might have seen the year he returned home.
Background on the Source and Authors
Before we begin, let me give you some background on the article.
It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Journal’s mission is simple: to publish high-quality original research that advances our understanding of science – biological, physical, and social. It’s targeted to both scholars and the general public, receiving over 15 million-page views per month.
The specific article I will review was published in volume 105, issue 26 on July 1, 2008. It was a collaboration between Constantino Baikouzis and Marcelo Magnasco.
Magnasco is a physicist and professor at the Laboratory of Mathematical Physics in the Rockefeller University of New York. He is best known for his work in mathematical modeling of biological systems. Baikouzis is from the National University of La Plata – a principal educational institution in Argentina with an Astronomical Observatory located in Baseo del Bosque. While Baikouzis was a visiting scholar at Rockefeller, he and Magnasco would embark on a partnership to chart the night sky of the Odyssey.
Let us begin with the first premise of the article – a passage titled “Theoklymenos’s Prophecy” in book 20. As the suitors are enjoying their afternoon meal, Theoklymenos makes a chilling prediction about their deaths and entrance into the underworld:
“And full of ghosts is the porch and full the court, of ghosts that hasten down to Erebus beneath the darkness, and the sun has perished out of heaven and an evil mist hovers over all.”
As we know, Theoklymenos’s prediction comes true that day. After the bow contest which only Odysseus wins in book 21, the victorious Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors, inflicting them with eternal night.
So, what are the other premises of this article?
The first comes from the history and historiography of Homeric Epics. There are many classical estimates of the fall of Troy, which are shown here.
Classical: The classical estimates for the date of the fall of Troy are (in years B.C.E.): 1135 (Ephorus), 1172 (Solsibus), 1184 (Eratosthenes), 1193 (Plato), 1208 (Parian chronicles) 1212 (Dicaearchus), 1250 (Herodotus) and 1333 (Douris);
The authors used these dates to set a time period of 1250–1115 B.C.E. for locating the eclipse.
Moreover, the authors used the chronology of the Odyssey itself, from literary analysis that has taken every one of its events to build a timeline of about 20 days and 20 nights – beginning with the Council of the Gods in book 1 all the way to the end of the epic after the suitors are slain.
Homer’s Chronology and Literary Evidence
So, let us get into the astronomical events described by Homer during these days. In conjunction to Theoclymenus’s prophecy, Baikouzis and Magnasco use 3 other major astronomical references scattered throughout the text. These are arranged in chronological order – with Day 0 being the day of the bow contest. Events preceding this are assigned negative numbers.
These events are as follows:
1. Day -34: Homer describes the trip of Hermes westward to Calypso’s island and return to Olympus. From this, the authors presumed that the planet Mercury, connected to the messenger god since classical times, was high at dawn and near the western end of its trajectory.
Straightway he bound beneath his feet his beautiful sandals,  immortal, golden, which were wont to bear him over the waters of the sea and over the boundless land swift as the blasts of the wind.
2. Day -29: Odysseus departs from Calypso’s island on a raft. As he lies down and looks up at the sky, constellations Pleiades (Pleh-eh-deez) and Bootes are both present
Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze;  and he sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion,  and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean.
3. Day -5: The Phaenecians are sending Odysseus back home to Ithaca in a ship. On this day, Homer describes the planet Venus, the brightest planet, rising around 90 minutes before sunrise.
Now when that brightest of stars rose which ever comes to herald the light of early Dawn,  even then the seafaring ship drew near to the island.
4. And finally, on Day 0 of the bow contest: Homer foretells a new moon in Book 14 — New Moon Days are the only possible days where the moon’s trajectory may fully block the sun.
In the course of this self-same day, Odysseus shall come hither, as the old moon wanes, and the new appears. He shall return, and take vengeance on all those who here dishonor his wife and his glorious son.
As these four celestial events very rarely occur within the same timeframe, the researchers used them to search for a period around the fall of Troy that would fit the pattern.
All the calculations were done with the commercial software, Starry Night Pro. It implements many of the standard calculations required to estimate the position of celestial bodies in historical periods, namely:
(1) the precession of Earth’s axis
(2) the motion of the stars
(3) accurate orbital parameters for planets and moons, and lastly,
(4) the tides on Earth.
The authors listed all 1684 New Moons in the range 1250–1115 B.C.E; and then assigned a variable to each as Ti. Afterwards, they applied constraints using the 3 other factors as described above – they required on Ti -34 Mercury be far to the west, on Ti -29 the constellations be seen as described, that on Ti -5 Venus be high before Dawn.
This table shows their results – the rows represent potential dates, and the columns represent the 4 distinct events. The cells are color coded according to the extent of which they satisfy the criteria — with orange meaning fully satisfied.
Now, we arrive at the central conclusion – only a single date in the 135-year span is orange across every column. The 16th of April 1178 (11 hundred 78) B.C.E. Baikouzis and Magnasco used this conclusion to construct two extraordinary images:
The first is a map of the solar eclipse as seen from the Ionian Islands at 12:02 p.m. local time. Note the trajectory of the sun and moon intersecting at the middle, with Pleiades “crowning” the concealed sun above.
The second is a model of the sky on the 18 of March that year which would have been the day that Odysseus set sail from Calypso’s island. It depicts the sky at nautical twilight (7:38 p.m.), showing Pleiades, Bootes, and Ursa Major as described by Homer.
Ultimately, their conclusion could potentially help historians date the fall of Troy and the events of the Iliad and Odyssey.
Relationship to Class Discussion: The Historical Basis of Oral Tradition
In what ways does this article relate to the study of classical texts?
For this, we can draw on a concept we discussed earlier this semester – the history, historiography, and verifiability of ancient oral tradition. Namely, whether Homer’s epics can be connected to specific characters and events in history.
These poems were shaped and reshaped over a period of 500 years through the oral tradition of diverse communities around the Aegean before they were written down. We have spent a lot of time in class discussing how these poems were told during public events like banquets, by bards that may have adapted the stories to their own sensibilities and that of the audience. Moreover, traditional dating of the Odyssey builds on an extensive body of work, that dates back to historians like Herodotus and mathematician Eratosthenes – all of whom retrospectively describe the events of the Trojan War and prescribe dates using their own methodologies for studying history. However, it is hard to come up with a specific date due to the variety in these sources.
So, where does the work of Baikouzis and Magnasco fit into this? Both authors are notably not from traditional classical backgrounds. However, they build on centuries of literary tradition and fuse it with a mathematical approach, giving us a truly unique and empirical perspective on the Homeric sky. However, they stress that their results are purely hypothetical for two reasons:
The first is scientific – the Homeric period predates the first verified eclipse records by 4 centuries. Thus, we must extrapolate very far back in the past with mathematical models, which are not always accurate.
The second is – how do we know that Homer’s passages actually describe real astronomical references, and are not just artistic metaphors from a bard hundreds of years afterwards? We may not know the answer to this question for a long time.
Nevertheless, as the authors state: if you are willing to accept these passages as describing reality. then the four events – The New Moon, Venus’s rise, the appearance of constellations Pleiades and Bootes, and Mercury’s Westward Journey all coalesce into one central date for the eclipse of the Odyssey – the 16th of April 1178 (11 hundred 78) B.C.E.
Final Remarks: The Value of Stargazing
To conclude our starry journey for today, I have described a 2008 astronomy article from Baikouzis and Magnasco in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Within it, they describe their research linking key passages in the Odyssey to real astronomical events, using their chronology in the text to pinpoint a specific date for the climax – Odysseus’s triumphant victory and the demise of the suitors.
It is a wonderful example of how two seemingly unconnected domains, classical studies and modem astronomical physics, can come together to study Homer’s epics, stories that are foundational in the western world.
Thus, I urge you: when you’re in a place from which you see the stars, to gaze up at the night sky. Perhaps you might see Venus, visible with the naked eye as the brightest planet in the sweeping darkness. Perhaps, you might spot Pleiades, a group of 800 stars located in the constellation of Taurus, almost 400 light years away from the earth. Or, you might spot Mercury, the smallest planet visible to us without a telescope – appearing in the western sky about an hour after the setting of the Sun.
No matter where you are and what you see – I hope this presentation convinces you that the sky you look upon is largely the same as the one humanity observed in the Bronze Age around 1200 B.C.E. As you look upwards at the countless flaming balls of gas millions of light-years away, imagine yourself to be Odysseus, floating on a lonely raft in the middle of the Aegean sea.
Baikouzis, Constantino, and Marcelo O. Magnasco. “Is an Eclipse Described in the Odyssey?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105, no. 26, July 2008, pp. 8823–28. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1073/pnas.0803317105 .
Millie Huang (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Neuroscience and Classical Studies.