"The sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world." With these words from Homer's Odyssey, the seer Theoclymenus foresaw the violent deaths of the suitors who, during the hero's spell away from home, had gathered to court his wife, Penelope.
But the line also set the stage for an argument that after hundreds of years may finally have been settled: did the bloody massacre at the hands of Odysseus and his son take place during a real eclipse?
Ancient writers from Plutarch to Heraclitus have interpreted the seer's words as a poetic description of a total solar eclipse, when the moon completely blots out the sun. That view gained support in the 1920s, when researchers calculated there had been a total solar eclipse over the Ionian Sea around noon on April 16 1178BC. But historians have treated the interpretation with caution.
Marcelo Magnasco, head of mathematical physics at Rockefeller University in New York and an Argentinian colleague, Constantino Baikouzis, scoured the classic text for other celestial clues to whether the eclipse was real or not. Around a month before the slaughter, there is a tentative reference to the planet Mercury being high in the sky at dawn. A few days later, the Pleiades and Boötes constellations are both visible at sunset. Six days before the massacre, when Odysseus arrives home, Venus is high in the sky, and on the day of the fight there is a new moon.
The researchers found only one period matched the movement of the stars and planets described in the book - setting the date of the massacre at April 16 1178BC. The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
I haven't read the article, but apparently the 'tenative reference' to Mercury must be some sort of 'key' to this ... the full AP version of the story (e.g. here) suggests MM takes a reference to Hermes delivering a message as referring to this. I wonder how many references to other divinities in this context have to be ignored to make the theory 'fit'. FWIW, it reminded me (rightly or wrongly ... I haven't read the following) of a tome that came out a long time ago called Homer's Secret Iliad; not sure if we ever discussed it on the Classics list.
... and just to be fair, as I'm wading through this stuff, only the AFP version (it seems) includes the following (referring to the astronomical stuff):
"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 said.
Nevertheless, he stressed the findings rely on a large assumption and the conclusions are very hypothetical.
UPDATE: if you want to read the full journal article, it's now available as a pdf ...