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Homer and Astronomy

The big news this week is that a group of Greek archaeologists and astrometrologists compared meticulous astronomical observations with a careful reading of Homer to calculate Patroclus's death as occurring at noon on June 6, 1218 B.C.  You can read the full paper here.

Homer describes a solar eclipse taking place during the battle for Patroclus's corpse; this correlates nicely with another calculation: a second solar eclipse in the Ionian Islands eleven years later, on October 30, 1207 B.C.  As the events of the Iliad occur in the ninth year of the war, eleven years later in the autumn would correlate with Odysseus's homecoming to Ithaca and the slaughter of the suitors.

This isn't the first time archaeologists and astronomers have tried to match Homer's descriptions to actual solar events.  I find this sort of thing interesting food for thought, which raises some crucial questions:

These calculations only work if Homer got the other details right.

Was there a warrior called Patroclus who was killed during an eclipse, and for whose corpse there was a fierce battle afterward?

Did the Trojan War happen exactly as Homer described, or is the Iliad a collection of independent traditions/stories woven into a new narrative framework, as Caroline Lawrence's insightful work The War That Killed Achilles suggests?

Was there really a hero called Odysseus who took ten years to get home?

I have no doubt that a solar eclipse during a battle is the sort of thing that bards would remember and pass down through the generations, but the oral tradition is something like a game of Telephone: the end result differs significantly from the original message.  All of the above factors would have to fall into place for the astronomical data to have any overall significance; it's the nature of oral literature that has me pausing to shake my head.

What we're left with is the possibility that Homer is remembering real details from real events, but in order to for this theory to withstand scrutiny there has to be corroborating evidence.  So far, there's no Mycenaean Greek documentation of any of the heros who went to Troy; the Pylos archive never mentions a king Nestor.  There are no records of a king Agamemnon or king Odysseus.  Some Hittite records from this time survive, but the evidence for the troubles that struck Wilusa at the end of the thirteenth century B.C. raises more questions than it answers.

It's a fun theory, nevertheless.

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