Marcelo Magnasco Professor and Head, Mathematical Physics Laboratory, Rockefeller University
Is an Eclipse Described in Homer’s Odyssey?
November 30, 2009. Cosponsored by Department of Molecular Biology and the Louis Clark Vanuxem Fund. (NOTE: McCosh Hall 10)
Plutarch and Heraclitus believed that a certain passage in the 20th book of The Odyssey (“Theoclymenus’s prophecy”) was a poetic description of a total solar eclipse. In the late 1920s Schoch and Neugebauer computed that the solar eclipse of 16 April 1178 B.C.E. was total over the Ionian Islands and was the only suitable eclipse in more than a century to agree with classical estimates of the decade-earlier sack of Troy around 1192–1184 B.C.E. However, much skepticism remains about whether the verses refer to this, or any, eclipse. Marcelo Magnasco and his colleague Constantino Baikouzis of the Observatorio Astronomico in La Plata, Argentina analyzed other astronomical references in the epic, without assuming the existence of an eclipse, and searched for dates matching the astronomical phenomena they probably describe. Using three astronomical references in the epic—Boötes and the Pleiades, Venus, and the New Moon—and supplementing them with a conjectural identification of Hermes’s trip to Ogygia with the motion of planet Mercury, they searched all possible dates in the span 1250–1115 B.C., trying to match these phenomena in the order and manner that the text describes. In that period, a single date closely matches the phenomena: 16 April 1178 B.C.E. They speculate that the astronomical references in the epic, plus the disputed eclipse reference, may refer to that specific eclipse.