Myth-Making: From Medusa to Madonna
N.B. This is a transcript for a spoken paper
University of Warwick: 18th June
Astronomical Knowledge in Homer’s Odyssey
Over the past two centuries scholastic interpretations of early archaic and classical myths have ranged from poetic descriptions of natural science (what Max Muller called the ‘mythopoeic’), to the psychological explanations presented by Carl Jung. Anthropologists such as Joseph Campbell and James Frazer similarly described ancient beliefs in myth in terms of religious or scientific evolution. Still others, from the Roman historian Strabo, to Tim Severin barely thirty years ago, maintain that the ancient myths were literal, inasmuch as they believe there to be physical, geographic counterparts to mythic characters and events. Many of these interpretations, the allegorical, the psychological, the anthropological and the literal have been dismissed or otherwise become anathema to most modern Classicists, many of which choose to interpret the earliest of Western myths – the epics of Homer – on a purely literary level.
While stories of solar heroes and cosmic journeys may no longer be considered vogue amongst academics, this does not mean that a more scientific allegorical interpretation of Homer’s Epics should not be sought. After all, one of our closest sources to Homer, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, has left us a fragment in which he describes Homer as ‘an astronomer, and wisest among the Greeks’ (see handout). The tradition that Homer may have been an astronomer continued throughout antiquity to the Roman author Lucian, who presented Homer as a Babylonian by the name of Tigranes (see handout). For those unfamiliar with the history of astronomy, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, or Chaldea was credited in antiquity as its birthplace – in other words, calling Homer a Babylonian was akin to calling him an astronomer. Furthermore the historian Strabo believed that Homer only ‘indulged in myth’ or ‘allegory’ for the purposes of ‘instruction’ (see handout).
That this instruction may have been astronomical knowledge presented allegorically in Homer’s myths was a theory considered by one of the greatest classical scholars and a leading expert in ancient Greek Epic – Gilbert Murray. In his 1907 work ‘The Rise of the Greek Epic’ Murray mused that Homer deliberately incorporated calendrical – that is astronomical – data in the Odyssey by using references to precise numbers that are so mathematically connected to the calendar so as to have been deliberately chosen. For instance Murray wrote: ‘Can we be surprised to learn that Odysseus had just 360 boars, and that one of them died every day?’ Not enough has been made of Murray’s observations. Furthermore I propose that Homer’s mathematical details were perhaps more sophisticated than even Murray imagined. For instance, in Book 9 of the Odyssey (see handout) Homer recounts the famous story of Odysseus and his men trapped in the Cave of the Cyclops by a great round door stone which would take ‘twenty-two four-wheeled wagons’ to move. If Murray is correct – and the reference to four times twenty two is calendrical, then the likely numerical fit is the 88 lunar months of the solar eclipse cycle. In other words, if Odysseus is the sun, and the door-stone is the moon then it would take twenty-two times four lunar months for such an eclipse to occur again. This is one among many examples where Homer graphically and memorably illustrates a recognisable cosmic event, and its associated mathematical details, through the medium of myth.
The problem with locating, or indeed proving the significance, of such data within the text is that most, if not all, Classicists are not astronomers, and most astronomers are certainly not Classicists. So while the significance of such digits as 360, or 88 may jump out to an astronomer as calendrically significant – they are overlooked by the Classicist as mere ‘additional descriptive detail’. But I ask, as did Murray, why did Homer include numbers with such ‘a precision most unusual in epic poetry?’ Why? Because he was conveying important scientific knowledge in the guise of mythic fiction. I hasten to add, that this theory is not some Dan Brown-esque coded secret previously undiscovered within one of the greatest works of fiction ever written, nor do I propose that I have suddenly discovered the key to unlock Homer’s greatest mysteries. Far from it. As I have previously pointed out, the idea that Homer may have been an astronomer, and that he included such important information within his epics is a theory as old as the epics themselves. Furthermore, the theory becomes significantly less conjectural when we also note that in neighbouring Mesopotamia, astronomical and cosmological knowledge was being preserved in oral stories and written texts immediately preceding, and possibly during, the composition of the Odyssey.
Any brief look into Mesopotamian history from the 16th to 8th century BCE will show that by the time of the composition of the Odyssey, at least thirty-six, possibly seventy-one, constellations had been identified by the Chaldeans. They also recognised the celestial ecliptic, northern and southern tropics, the zodiacal constellations, the independent movement of the planets, and the equinoxes and solstices. In other words, their astronomical knowledge was sophisticated, recorded, and of most interest to us, this data was also included within their mythological epic – the Enuma Elis. So, the idea that a bard in neighbouring Greece could be doing the same in their literature is not beyond comprehension, indeed it even seems likely. But the next question is why, why should calendrical or astronomical information be included, symbolically or allegorically within the epic myths of these nations?
The answer to this question becomes apparent when we consider the oral nature of these cultures, especially Greece, which up to this point had only a rudimentary syllabic script – known as Linear B – which was used in the administration of the Mycenaean palaces, mostly along the south of the Peloponnese. Meanwhile, the rest of society relied on the oral transmission of their history, their culture, and most importantly the astronomical knowledge essential to the successful administration of the social, civic, and religious calendars. Like many other early cultures the Mesopotamian calendar began at the spring equinox, which still marks the ecclesiastical New Year of the Jewish faith today, as well as the fiscal year in the UK. Calendrical knowledge would have been fundamental to the successful administration of society and within such an oral culture, we would therefore expect to find it within the wisdom literature of the time. To this end the myths of Homer did not contain coded secrets hidden within wondrous tales, instead, it seems more likely that the myths were used as sophisticated memory aids, constantly repeated in fixed formulaic patterns, in order to transmit knowledge essential to the administration of civic calendars.
For example, in order to remember and predict the eclipse or occultation of one of the brightest stars in the sky, Aldebaran the ‘eye’ of the constellation Taurus, one might invent a tale of how a one-eyed demon was blinded by a solar or lunar hero – Odysseus (see handout). Baring in mind, of course, that such infrequent astral phenomena were usually considered ominous or powerful, and as such predicting them was vital tool for priests or politicians. Such information also carried medical importance (see the extract from Ptolemy on the handout). Homer even points out that this stellar eclipse is astronomically predictable by stating that the blinding of the Cyclops was prophesied. Another example might be the need to remember which star indicates the heliacal rising of the current constellation in order to establish the month of the year. The heliacal rising is marked by the star which is last visible on the eastern horizon as the sun rises. So if the last star you see is in the constellation Aries then the sun is rising in the constellation Taurus and it must be the second month of the year. The brightest star in Aries was known as Hamal, the ram, this is why Homer makes a point of stating that the ram Odysseus escapes under during the Taurus or Cyclops episode is usually ‘eager to lead the way’, because it is the star which indicates the dawn while the sun (that is Odysseus) is in Taurus (the land of the Cyclops).
Admittedly, you may say that it is easy enough to read astronomical data into the text of the Odyssey, or indeed, any text. And even if we did accept it, what does this say about Homer’s other great work the Iliad? I completely agree that with the wealth of astronomical material and the descriptive expanse of the Homeric myths, one is bound to come across some parallels. But it is not the odd star name, or numerical data, which resonates with the odd passage somewhere in the Odyssey. The entire story, from the Lotus-Eaters to Odysseus’ return and adventures in Ithaca, all of it has a sequential, recordable, astronomical counterpart from the first constellation Aries, to the last constellation Pisces. And as the sun moves from one constellation to the next, so does Odysseus wander from one land to the next, gradually losing his twelve ships (that is, the months) as he nears the end of the year. The astronomical knowledge contained in the text had been known to the Mesopotamians for over 500 years, and it would be peculiar that such knowledge should not be known in archaic Greece considering their successful civic and religious calendars. As for the Iliad, I believe it to be an impressive and comprehensive list of constellations (representing the various city-state nationalities), and individual stars (represented by the individual heroes within those regiments). So for instance, Achilles is Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major which represents his company of Myrmidons. Indeed this is how he is so described in book 22 of the Iliad. But a further discussion is for another time. In short while the Iliad lists the constellations, the individual stars, and their relative brightness (or prowess), the Odyssey as a companion text provides the structure of the cosmos and the calendrical information which can be gathered from it.
This is not to suggest that any other reading of Homer’s myths is incorrect. Far from it. The intricate literary devices, the imagery, the epithets and the psychological rendering of character are all part of what makes the Odyssey and the Iliad so remarkable. But that is not to say that alongside the cultural, religious, and historical information contained therein, that there is no room for some more scientific knowledge.
While there is not time to go into details, I would like to quickly present some of the other features that I have come across which seem to be suggested by the broader theory. Earlier I described Odysseus as the sun, I base this on a purely literal translation of his epithet polutropon as ‘much-turning sun’, as well as the only celestial description of him provided in the text (see handout). I also propose that the Olympian gods represent the planets, which after all are the only beings able to move independently to the fixed (that is pre-determined or fated) celestial sphere. So while Achilles (Canis Major) for instance may be fated to pursue Hector (or Orion) across the sky, as they are fixed stars, the gods may still appear or influence the characters as the planets move near or in front of these stars. For example, in the Odyssey Athena (as the Moon) appears in a dream to Nausicaa in Book VI (see handout). In short, the Moon has passed near the star in the constellation Aquarius which represents the character of Nausicaa, so that Athena may appear to her. On the handout I have included the additional information of the two hand-maids who sleep nearby and on either side of Nausicaa, a peculiar detail until one looks at the constellation Aquarius, represented by Nausicaa’s family. It is also interesting to note that epsilon Aquarii, the character of the virginal maiden Nausicaa, was known in the East as NU SU, the young girl.
So in summary the theory that astronomical data is contained in the Odyssey is supported by a) the fact that astronomical data was being recorded at the time of its composition, and b) that in an oral society such important data needed a means of transmission. While evidence of the astronomical data within the Odyssey itself is manifested in:
1) a sequential chronological account of the suns passage through the twelve ecliptic constellations contained in the narrative
2) specific details concerning eclipses and occultations explained in memorable mythic adventures
3) precise mathematical details given to calculate calendars or other celestial phenomena
4) the movements of the planets and the stars they may come into contact with
5) possible knowledge of star names from the Orient
It is of course impossible to explain the fullest extent of this radical theory, complete with the comprehensive list of examples, in such a short paper. But if it is accepted, then the implications are vast. They would suggest that early Greek astronomy was quite sophisticated, which is a conclusion some contemporary scholarship is currently reaching. It would also suggest greater links between the West and the East, another theory currently explored by classical scholars. And finally, it even suggests that there may be another, more practical aspect to other early Greek literature which has yet to be appreciated, and this alone is an exciting prospect.
I would like to leave the more sceptical of you with a passage from the great Neoplatonist and Homeric scholar Porphyry, who said in regards to the Homeric myths that:
‘It must not be thought that interpretations of this kind are forced, and nothing more than the conjectures of ingenious men [or women], but when we consider the great wisdom of antiquity and how much Homer excelled in intellectual prudence, and in an accurate knowledge of every virtue, it must not be denied that he has obscurely indicated the images of things of a more divine [that is celestial] nature in the fiction of a fable. For it would not have been possible to devise the whole of this hypothesis unless the figment had been transferred from certain established truths.’