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Researchers Examine Historical Accuracy Of Homer’s “˜Odyssey’

June 23, 2008

Researchers say they have pinpointed the exact date of King Odysseus returned from the Trojan War and killed a group of suitors who wanted to replace them by marrying his wife.

Marcelo O. Magnasco of Rockefeller University in New York and Constantino Baikouzis of the Astronomical Observatory in La Plata, Argentina, said they used clues from star and sun positions mentioned in Homer’s works to conclude that it was April 16, 1178 B.C. when the great warrior returned.

Although the researchers acknowledge in Monday’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that they had to make some assumptions to determine the date Odysseus returned to his kingdom of Ithaca, their study adds support to the claim of accuracy of Homer’s writing.

Experts have long debated whether the books of Homer reflect the actual history of the Trojan War and its aftermath.

To test the accuracy of Homer’s writings in the “Odyssey,” researchers focused on the story of King Odysseus’ return home during a total solar eclipse. Other references to the positions of stars gave them enough data to determine when a particular set of conditions would have occurred.

“What we’d like to achieve is to get the reader to pick up the “Odyssey,” and read it again, and ponder,” said Magnasco. “And to realize that our understanding of these texts is quite imperfect, and even when entire libraries have been written about Homeric studies, there is still room for further investigation.”

Homer writes about a terrifying night in which the sun is blotted from the sky, which researchers concluded would have been an eclipse of the sun. In addition, he makes references to the time of a new moon, which is necessary for a total eclipse, the researchers say.

“Under the assumption that our work turns out to be correct, it adds to the evidence that he knew what he was talking about,” Magnasco added.

“It still does not prove the historicity of the return of Odysseus,” he said. “It only proves that Homer knew about certain astronomical phenomena that happened much before his time.”

Other clues examined by Magnasco and Baikouzis include:

_Six days before the slaughter, Venus is visible and high in the sky.

_Twenty-nine days before, two constellations – the Pleiades and Bootes – are simultaneously visible at sunset.

_And 33 days before, Mercury is high at dawn and near the western end of its trajectory. This is the researchers’ interpretation, anyway. Homer wrote that Hermes, the Greek name for Mercury, traveled far west to deliver a message.

“Of course we believe it’s amply justified, otherwise we would not commit it to print. However we do recognize there’s less ammunition to defend this interpretation than the others,” Magnasco said.

“Even though the other astronomical references are much clearer, our interpretation of them as allusions to astronomical phenomena is an assumption,” he added.

Their final conclusion was made after the scientists determined when all of the conditions occurred in the order mentioned in the “Odyssey.”

Image Courtesy Fred Espenak/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

Rockefeller University




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