When I studied the Iliad and the Odyssey, back in ancient times, we were told that these epic poems were technically legends: while nineteenth-century archaeologists had indeed uncovered artifacts at the site of what may have been ancient Troy, finding the city, or something that looked like the city, obviously didn't prove that all, even any, of the events described by Homer actually took place.

Still, some of us wanted to believe, because the story was so rich, so wonderfully convoluted, so undeniably human — interventions by the gods notwithstanding — that everything really happened, more or less the way Homer set it down, and while in public we honored the Official Explanation, we continued to believe, somewhere in the back of our minds, that they'd find the grave of Telemachus, or that some latter-day Hermes had happened upon a couple of moly plants. (I can't speak for everyone, but the very idea of Circe still scares the crap out of me.) Neither of these events would prove anything, of course, but it didn't hurt to hope.

Then scientists compared the chronology of the legends to the positions of the stars, and found a date that would have been appropriate for Odysseus' return to Troy after a decade at sea. What's more, it's a date that supported an earlier thesis: Theoclymenus had said, "The sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world," which sounds an awful lot like a solar eclipse — even Heraclitus and Plutarch had so suggested — and indeed there was a solar eclipse visible from the Ionian islands in the spring of 1178 BC, about ten years after the Trojan War was supposed to have ended.

Still, eclipses are not exactly rare. To nail it down took some additional work:

[B]iophysicists Constantino Baikouzis and Marcelo Magnasco, both at Rockefeller University, pored over the Odyssey for additional clues. Sailing back to Ithaca on a raft, Odysseus navigates by monitoring the constellations Pleiades and Boötes, which share the sky twice a year in March and September. The morning he arrives in Ithaca, Venus rises in the sky before dawn, which happens on about one third of new moons. But the crucial clue came from a reference to the god Hermes flying west to the island of Ogygia. The researchers propose the god's voyage actually refers to the planet Mercury, which hangs low in the sky and reverses course from west to east every 116 days.

Baikouzis and Magnasco used commercial astronomical software to scan all 1,684 new moons between the years 1250 and 1125 B.C. for dates that matched those conditions. "Even though each event happens individually often, the pattern doesn't repeat that often," Magnasco says — only once every 2,000 years, he and Baikouzis report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). And one of those matches is April 16, 1178 BC. Magnasco says that he had a hunch about Hermes, known as Mercury to the Romans, after coming across the idea that the Greeks used the stories of the gods as mnemonic devices to remember astronomical events.

A small thing, supporting another small thing, but hardly the stuff of proof. And wanting it to be true obviously won't make it so. Still, I refuse to give up on the possibility, if only because every once in a while something like this happens:

Traces of small Mycenaean settlements have been located on Ithaki [Ithaca], but nothing big that could be associated with the palatial structure one would expect as the seat of a Mycenaean king such as Odysseus. However, a cave on Ithaki yielded a votive offering with the inscription "My vow to Odysseus." This indicates the Homeric king was the object of a local hero-cult.

At the very least.

It occurs to me that it's very unlikely indeed that the stories told by Homer will prove to be true, at least during my lifetime. I am not concerned. Even if every last detail doesn't match up precisely, the fact that these stories have persisted for so many centuries persuades me that there's something to them; and should I believe, and should the stories turn out not to be true, what, pray tell, have I lost?

The Vent

#587
  1 July 2008

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