The Magazine

Watchers of the Skies

Joseph Bottum revisits Homer.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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This summer, in the unlikely pages of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two astronomers made a grand literary announcement. It was precisely April 16, 1178 B.C., they declared, when crafty Odysseus, peerless and bold, threw off his beggar's rags, slew the hungry suitors infesting his home, and joined the fair Penelope back in his great-rooted bed. A careful reading of the astronomical evidence in Homer's Odyssey proves it to be so.

To which one wants to reply with a firm Um. Or maybe Er. Some caveatical noise, anyway-the kind of sound we make when people are so far off in left field they're not playing baseball anymore. I remember this sensation of not knowing even how to begin an answer. Back when I was teaching philosophy, I once had a student turn in an essay that began: "As Karl Marx wrote in his famous book Selected Writings of Karl Marx. . . ." And I got the odd, sinking feeling-familiar to every teacher-that seems to demand you scribble the entire text of Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West in the margins of the student's paper. Either that, or circle the sentence, draw a question mark beside it, and let the whole thing go.

I get the same feeling, sometimes, while listening to people who suppose that success in one field guarantees their success in other fields: the scientists who wander into theology, the businessmen who opine about philosophy, the journalists who want to talk about Shakespeare. Even when they're brilliant, it's often a nutty kind of brilliance-the genius of autodidacts and opsimaths who imagine that, mugging up a topic, they'll find The Simple Answer That No One Ever Thought of Before!

Not that this summer's article on Homer is a particularly outrageous instance. Even back in antiquity there were readers who claimed that Book 20 of the Odyssey describes an actual eclipse. And in the 1920s, astronomers pointed out that the only available Bronze Age eclipse was in the spring of 1178 B.C.

What Marcelo Magnasco of Rockefeller University and Constantino Baikouzis of the Observatorio Astronómico de La Plata now add is a reading of Homer's other astronomical references. The Odyssey says the Pleiades and the Boötes are both visible while Odysseus is sailing. Venus is shining near dawn when he arrives in Ithaca. There's a new moon the night before he slaughters the suitors. And Homer tells us that the god Hermes (read as the planet Mercury) has gone on a journey to the far west.

You see what that means, of course:

Requiring that the sinking of Odysseus' raft be after the equinox (1 April) yet on or before the heliacal setting of the Pleiades (4 April) yields only one T(i) every 6 years; one-third of these have a high Venus, and Mercury's sterigmos happens once every 116 days, so the references can be matched exactly only one day every 2,000 years.

There's a long history of reading premodern texts as though their authors had modern obsessions with temporal and geographical exactness. In fact, what ancient works typically reveal is literary obsessions with consistent tropes and symbolism. Still, that didn't stop a 17th-century Anglican bishop named James Ussher from adding up the ages of the patriarchs in the Old Testament to arrive at October 23, 4004 B.C., as the precise date of Creation. And it didn't stop the brilliantly nutty Heinrich Schliemann from deciding the Iliad was exact history-and in 1870, following tips gleaned from Homer, announcing he had discovered the actual site of Troy.

Here's the funny thing, though: It's people like this who genuinely seem to love literature. Sure, they've completely missed the point, but at least they still believe that Homer was trying to say something valuable. Around 200 scholarly books on the Iliad and the Odyssey were published last year, and to browse them is to find scant love for their subject. The Greeks were exploiters, oppressors, and misogynists, we learn, and Homer wrote the founding texts of imperialism, capitalism, and fascism. The past is wicked, let us count the ways-according to modern scholars, that's about all the great epics have to teach.

Who wouldn't prefer to read Magnasco and Baikouzis's explanation that in the 31st eclipse in Saros Series 39 "all planets were visible simultaneously on a 90 arc on the ecliptic"? At least these astronomers have a sense that there might really be a truth lurking in the old, old story of Odysseus-that sneaky, bold, and victorious character: son of Laertes, wielder of stratagems, wise-hearted, glorious, and god-like.


JOSEPH BOTTUM