On this day in 1178 BC, a solar eclipse is said to have occurred over the Ionian Sea off the coast of present day Greece, not long after the fall of Troy as described in the works of Homer. In 2008, scientists set out to prove that this date coincided with Odysseus’s dramatic return to Ithaca in The Odyssey.
Following the sacking of Troy, Homer’s Odysseus is treated to such an incredible array of adventures that it takes him an entire decade to journey home to Ithaca. Believing Odysseus was dead, suitors shamelessly revel in his hall, taunting his son Telemachus and making life miserable for his wife Penelope.
In Butler’s translation of The Odyssey, the seer Theoclymenus, who has befriended Odysseus’s son Telemachus, tells the dreadful suitors, who have brazenly feasted and drank from the family’s land and cellars, that signs from above tell him their days are numbered. “The Sun is blotted out of heaven,” he warns them, “and a blighting gloom is over all the land.”
The suitors roar with laughter in response. But soon afterwards, of course, Odysseus returns. When the time is right, with Athena’s protection and Telemachus at his side, he turns his great bow and arrow on the suitors and blots out all 108 of them.
Although scientists have offered strong data in regards to the actual date of the ancient, perhaps foreboding, eclipse, many are still unconvinced that Homer is in fact referring to it in Theoclymenus’s words. Some consider it to be nothing more than poetic license. However, a pair of scientists from Rockefeller University cite a series of astronomical references found throughout Homer’s work that combined suggest the seer’s reference may indeed point to the 16 April eclipse.
Regardless of Homer’s meaning, the astronomical references do beg the question of where the line between fact and fiction actually lies in the great poem.
Credit: © Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy
Caption: An illustration of the reunion between Odysseus and Penelope.