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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.

Lo! Rosetta Stone

Has Agamemnon invited you to dine with him, and you don't know what to order?

Are you about to hang out with Herakles, and want to avoid any fatal misunderstandings?

Has Achilles murdered your entire family, sacked your town, and carried you off into bondage? Are you looking to curse him in a tongue his gods will understand?

Did Odysseus swindle you for everything you own?  Do you want to sue him in an Ithacan court but dread your lack of fluency?

Did Oedipus kill your father and marry your mother?  Do you want to consult Teiresias to know if/when Oedipus might be visited with divine retribution?

Did Medea just shriek gibberish at you? Do you want to know whether she cursed you or just said hello?

Rosetta Stone now has the answer to your prayers: Mycenaean Greek.

  • Interact with native speakers like King Nestor, who may or may not let you get a word in edgewise

  • Learn exciting new ways to curse your enemies from highly skilled experts like Medea, Clytemnestra and Elektra

  • Learn how to reverence the Mycenaean gods without boasting and/or inadvertently pissing them off

  • Learn your rights and obligations as a guest, and how not to kill your host and/or make off with his wife

  • Let Odysseus teach you how to lie, cheat, and commit subterfuge like a boss

  • Gain effective techniques in how to woo your Mycenaean bride once you've killed her first husband and abducted her

rosetta copy

Mycenaean Floors

raettawy shared with me this insightful article on the unusual floor patterns at the Palace of Nestor, Pylos, and on Mycenaean floors in general.

Mycenaean rulers often had the floors in their megarons (and perhaps elsewhere) painted to represent stone or carpet.  The megaron of Pylos incorporates patterns of both stone and carpet.  Ancient patchwork shows that repairs had been carried out sometime before the destruction and abandonment of the palace around 1200 B.C.  To create the colored, patterned squares, the artists used a grid system of pigment and snapped string like that used on tomb walls in Egypt.

While familiar with the Piet de Jong exaggerated reconstruction of the Pylos megaron (above, first image), I can't remember the last time I'd seen the eagle's-eye view of the floor--though I know I have seen it before.  I certainly hadn't considered how the squares affected how court officials and visitors to Nestor's palace in Mycenaean times would have negotiated the space.  People would have followed the white squares around the central hearth, a bit like moving around a game board.

As to the skewing of the grid's lines, I refer you to the original article.  The author does a far better job explaining the function of the skewing than I can.

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