Washington, June 24 : A Rockefeller University scientist says that an ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer, called The Odyssey, seems to be containing astronomical references that provide corroborating evidence of a total solar eclipse.
Marcelo O. Magnasco, head of the Laboratory of Mathematical Physics at Rockefeller, believes that there are some passages in the poem that, taken together, may shed new light on the timing of the poem's hero Odysseus' epic journey.
Working with an Argentine colleage named Constantino Baikouzis, Magnasco combed through the Odyssey to find specific astronomical references that could be precisely identified as occurring on specific days throughout Odysseus's journey.
The researchers later aligned each of the dates with the date of Odysseus's return, the same day he murders the suitors who had taken advantage of his long absence to court his wife.
In all, Magnasco and Baikouzis identified four celestial events.
They say that the day of slaughter in the poem is a new moon, something that's also a prerequisite for a total eclipse.
According to them, six days before the slaughter, Venus is visible and high in the sky.
The researchers also highlight the paragraphs that suggest that two constellations - the Pleiades and Bootes - were simultaneously visible at sunset 21 days before.
The say that Homer may be suggesting that Mercury is high at dawn and near the western end of its trajectory 33 days before.
Magnasco and Baikouzis say that they interpret Homer's writing that Hermes - known to the Romans as Mercury - travelled far west only to deliver a message, and fly all the way back east again as a reference to the planet.
They say that, astronomically, the four phenomena recur at different intervals of time, and so together they never recur in exactly the same pattern.
When the researchers tried to see whether there was any date within 100 years of the fall of Troy that would fit the pattern of the astronomical timeline, their calculations took them to April 16, 1178 BCE.
It was the same day that astronomers had calculated the occurrence of a total solar eclipse.
"Not only is this corroborative evidence that this date might be something important, but if we take it as a given that the death of the suitors happened on this particular eclipse date, then everything else described in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described," Magnasco says.
Magnasco acknowledges that their findings rely on a large assumption: Although the association of planets with gods was a Babylonian invention that dates back to around 1000 BCE, there is no evidence that those ideas had reached Greece by the time Homer was writing, several hundred years later.
"This is a risky step in our analysis. One may say that our interpretation of the phenomena is stretching it, but when you go back to the text you have to wonder," he says.
"Even though there are historical arguments that say this is a ridiculous thing to think about, if we can get a few people to read The Odyssey differently, to look at it and ponder whether there was an actual date inscribed in it, we will be happy," he adds.