Odysseus and the Sun

From a (hopefully!) forthcoming publication: ‘Homer’s Odyssey: Astronomical Epic’. This section explains that, according to the theory that the events of the Odyssey have celestial counterparts, Odysseus himself symbolises the Sun.


Odysseus and the Sun  

In my previous work on the subject I have not devoted much time to the argument that Odysseus is a solar hero, though I have long remained convinced that both descriptions and characteristics of Odysseus advocate a solar interpretation.

Alternative theories which have connected Odysseus with celestial bodies can be found in Homer’s Secret Odyssey and Shining in the Ancient Sea: The Astronomical Ancestry of Homer’s Odyssey.[i] The former, which is admittedly far more compelling, presents Odysseus as a lunar hero. This premise provides the fundamental basis for their theory that the numerical data found within the Odyssey forms a lunar-based calendar.[ii] It is their belief that the plot harmonises the 354 day lunar year with the 365 day solar year, and that the rhythm of the individual adventures are related to the phases of the moon. In their explanation they utilise the following description of Odysseus’ person found in Odyssey XIX.225-235;

‘A fleecy cloak of purple did goodly Odysseus wear, a cloak of double fold / but the brooch upon it was fashioned of gold with double clasps, and on the / front it was curiously wrought: a hound held in his fore paws a dappled / fawn, and pinned it in his jaws as it writhed. And at this all men marvelled, / how, though they were of gold, the hound was pinning the fawn and / strangling it, and the fawn was writhing with its feet and striving to flee. / And I noted the tunic about his body, all shining as is the sheen upon the / skin of a dried onion, so soft it was; and it glistened like the sun.’

From this passage Florence and Kenneth Wood argue the following:

i)   that the golden brooch and the hound seizing the dappled fawn are ‘metaphors for the new crescent moon’
ii)  that the imagery of the purple cloak and the golden brooch create an ‘image of the night sky against which the golden brooch shines as brightly as the crescent moon’
iii)   that the two prongs of the brooch are the ‘twin points or horns of the crescent moon’
iv)   that the design of dog and dappled fawn is reminiscent of the earthshine shadows on the moons craters, likening the crescent moon to the dog pinning and overcoming the dappled dark moon as the fawn
v)   that the description of Odysseus’ shining cloak is also a metaphor for earthshine, reflecting the sun just as the ‘reflected light of the sun […] illuminates the moon’

Additionally, throughout their book, Florence and Kenneth also compare passages in the text where Odysseus is impotent or in disguise to the waning phases of the moon. However, the explanation Florence and Kenneth provide seems to stretch the metaphors and imagery within this passage in order to force upon it a lunar reading. A more simple and direct interpretation of the passage from Book XIX would suggest that the repeated imagery of fawns and gold are both solar in origin.[iii] Furthermore, it seems more likely that the comparison to Odysseus’ tunic as the sun is meant to evoke his association with the sun, rather than any other celestial body. Indeed, the solar simile in this passage is the only celestial body Odysseus is ever directly likened or compared to, and as such, should be the only one we can accept that Homer associated his character with. Additionally, Florence and Kenneth use another celestial simile in Homer’s Secret Iliad to associate Achilles with Sirius, though this time, they accept the direct association, i.e. that because Achilles is likened to Sirius, he must be associated with Sirius.[iv] Therefore, it seems far-fetched for the same scholars to dismiss a direct parallel in the celestial simile found in Odyssey Book XIX, i.e. Odysseus is likened to the Sun but must be the Moon.

In another section of the Odyssey, our hero Odysseus seems to work in conjunction with the Sun in order to melt the wax which he uses to clog the ears of his companions, preventing them from hearing the deadly Siren song (XII.173-176):

‘Then I, taking a great wheel of wax, with the sharp bronze
cut a little piece off, and rubbed it together in my heavy
hands, and soon the wax grew softer, under the powerful stress
of the sun, and the heat and light of Hyperion’s lordling.’

First of all, the great wheel of wax, which we imagine to be a golden yellow-orange colour, immediately evokes the disc of the sun. The wax could be a bar, or any other shape, but is clearly described as a ‘wheel’ (Gk: τροκος). After cutting it into pieces for the sailors’ ears, Odysseus rubs it to make it more malleable. However, in Lattimore’s translation (given above) the wax grows softer ‘under the powerful stress of the sun and the heat and light of Hyperion’s lordling [the Sun]’. Why write that the wax grows softer under the sun and the sun? Are we to connect the ‘powerful stress of the Sun’ with Odysseus’ own ‘heavy hands’? While the heat and light of the non-metaphorical sun also helps in softening the wax? If so, then this passage may well provide us with a second example where Odysseus is directly connected to the Sun. Admittedly, this peculiarity may just be an anomaly in the translation on Lattimore’s part. Other translations do not use the ‘and’, instead having; ‘the wax soon grew warm with my vigorous kneading and with the rays of the Sun-god, Hyperion’s son’, or; ‘soon the wax grew warm, forced by the strong pressure and the rays of the lord Helios Hyperion’. But even with these translations, Odysseus and the Sun act together in order to soften the wax, evoking an image where Odysseus almost could be seen to utilise or have the powers of the sun. Additionally, toward the end of the Odyssey when Odysseus returns to Ithaka, he bends back his bow, strings it, and fires an arrow through twelve axes. These twelve axes symbolise the twelve constellations of the ecliptic, while Odysseus as the powerful archer (evocative of Apollo) fires an arrow, symbolising the sun, through the twelve axe-heads. This imagery evokes the passage of the sun along the ecliptic.


John Flaxman: Odysseus and the Suitors

Furthermore it can be seen that Odysseus’ peculiar and much interpreted epithet could in actual fact be indicative of his solar nature, and the circular movement of the sun as it was understood in ancient tradition. While Odysseus’ epithet in Greek is rendered πολυτροπον (polu/ytropon) it has been variously translated as: ‘of many devices’; ‘resourceful’; ‘of many resources’; ‘of many turns’; ‘man of twists’; ‘of many ways’, and much more besides. However the direct translation can be broken down into πολύ-τροπος poly-tropos, giving ‘much (or many) turned (or turning)’. The linguists Liddell & Scott designate the word tropai primarily with the point on the horizon where the sun sets or rises, which is in the manner that both Homer and Hesiod use the term.[v] This is what gives us such words as ‘heliotrope’ (sun-turner) to designate a seasonal motion of plants and flowers in response to the direction of the sun. This connection with tropai and solar movement therefore leads us to an interpretation of πολυτροπον as ‘much-turning (sun)’ which would certainly be more faithful than ‘of many devices/arts’ as such a translation would derive from the Greek τεχνη technē rather than τροπαι. One of Odysseus’ alternate epithets is ‘δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς’, which translates as ‘divine’ or ‘heavenly Odysseus’ – an epithet which places him within the heavens – or the night sky.

That the sun should be associated with turning, and Odysseus the sun is logical. As the sun is one of the most turning or revolving features in the world, following as it does a daily, monthly, yearly and even bi-millennial course; whilst Odysseus is one of the most well-travelled heroes of Greek mythology. Furthermore, there is also significant evidence to suggest solar analogies between Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Greek art and literary culture during the Bronze Age – the period in which the Odyssey was produced.[vi] These solar analogies often share various features. One such feature is the concept of the sun riding in a boat or barque. The Mesopotamian Sun God Utu-Shamash travels in his Reed Boat, while the Egyptian Ra (or Atum) sails in a boat giving light to the world; pharaohs were also buried with large (43.6m) boats known as Khufu or Solar Barges. While the concept of the solar barge is older, the solar chariot (which was typically Indo-European) began to spread after the invention of the chariot in the 2nd millennium BCE, though it did not entirely replace the Eastern Solar Barge tradition – as the Odyssey seems to suggest. Like the Near Eastern and Egyptian solar gods, solar heroes are often recorded as travelling in boats, such as Gilgamesh and Jason in his Argo, so it is logical to place Odysseus amongst such solar figures.

The Sun Boat (sun barque or barge of Ra).

The Sun Boat (sun barque or barge of Ra).

A second common analogy is the circular imagery associated with the sun. A familiar example would be the ouroboros, or snake which surrounds the solar disc of Egypt. Evidence also suggests that the Mesopotamian cosmology also featured a circular path of the sun, as represented by a cosmic map drawn on a clay tablet dated to the seventh century BCE.[vii] The image of a circle represents both the suns shape and its course. The Babylonian cosmos is also surrounded by a primeval river, as it is in the Greek tradition.[viii] This circle is often divided horizontally in half, the lower half representing the dark path which the sun travels under the earth, and the upper half representing the daylight path which the sun travels in the sky. Such imagery is evoked by the Egyptian deities Nut and Geb, as well as the voyages of Gilgamesh who travels twelve leagues in darkness (the lower or dark path of the circle), and then follows the path of the sun until the end of the earth (the upper or light path).[ix] This celestial journey is something which Odysseus also undergoes, as this book aims to prove. Therefore the description of Odysseus as one who travels (part of) a circular celestial voyage, in his boat, wearing a tunic that shines like the sun, while being named ‘much-turning [sun]’ seems to fit in with a solar alter-ego, especially when such an alter-ego compares so well with what we know of other solar heroes and gods of Egypt and the Near East.

An alternative celestial suggestion for the character of Odysseus is proposed by Laurin Johnson: ‘Neither the sun nor the moon fit the narrative pattern of the Odyssey, since neither could be said to return after an absence of twenty years. Of the five visible planets only Saturn is a likely candidate […] if the heliacal rising of Saturn at some time coincided with the vernal equinox, the encounter with Polyphemus, in the twentieth year another heliacal rising of Saturn would coincide with the winter solstice, the marital bed.’[x] He also suggests that ‘Odysseus once played the role of Saturn’ because of Saturn’s close connection to the twenty-eight Hindu lunar mansions (naksatras).[xi] Laurin, however, makes no attempt to connect this Saturnian Odysseus with any direct references to the text of the Odyssey, nor does he adequately connect Saturn’s motions with any mathematical or calendrical data found in the Odyssey. There is also no reason to suggest that Eastern influences on Early Greece stretched as far as India – though the composition of the Atharvaveda does corroborate with that of the Odyssey. Of all the celestial bodies known to the ancients, Saturn was the dimmest (and therefore harder to recognise) as well as the slowest moving, and therefore the most uninteresting to observe. This is supported by the relative lack of ephemerical calendars for Saturn produced in ancient astronomy (such as the catalogues of Mesopotamia). In truth, Johnson’s belief that neither the sun nor moon could ‘be said to return after an absence of twenty years’ is entirely misinformed. Indeed, the Greeks themselves developed a calendar known as the ‘Metonic Cycle’ which calculated the joining of the Solar and Lunar calendars at a period of 19 years (which is the real time-frame of the Odyssey, not the 20 which Johnson calculates). For a further discussion on this see the quotes from Murray given below.

In truth, Odysseus’ characteristics could be paralleled with all of those which the ancients attributed to the (male) celestial bodies: he is a quick-minded, an able speaker, trickster, liar and deceiver – which are attributes of Mercury; he is a capable, brave, and hot-tempered military tactician and fighter – the attributes of Mars; he is a generous, magnanimous and gregarious king of Ithaca – the attributes of Jupiter; and he is a wise, cranky father figure – as per the attributes of Saturn. However, nowhere in the Odyssey or the lliad is Odysseus likened to any other celestial body but the Sun, nor is his voyage in a boat indicative of any other celestial body (including the Moon) in contemporary traditions. Furthermore, while all the planets of course ‘turn’ in the sky, the term tropai, which forms Odysseus’ epithet, is primarily associated in Greek with the movements of the sun. Finally, to my knowledge, there is no known Greek hero who has been clearly connected with any other celestial body but the Sun, so a lunar (or otherwise) Odysseus would be a most uncomfortable precedent. For the purposes of this book, at least, it seems most logical to associate the hero Odysseus with the celestial body of the Sun.

I’ll leave you with these visionary words of Gilbert Murray [in full], without whom my quest for a solar Odysseus might have ended before it had barely begun:

On the Metonic Cycle and the Odyssey
“But myth has been at work also, and myth of a pronounced and curious kind. The point has not yet been noticed and needs a fairly full statement. It is a matter of the solar and lunar calendar.

Time has been generally measured by the eniautoi or repeated circuits, of the moon and the sun, i.e. by the month and the year. The object of a scientific calendar has always been to find a period in which the two circuits should correspond; the New Moon should coincide with the winter solstice, and Sun and Moon begin their life together. (As a matter of fact the two circuits are incommensurable, but that is a recent discovery.) The lunar month is twenty-nine days plus a fraction; twelve months make 354 days plus some hours; the solar year equals 364 days and a little over. Various cycles were tried with poor results. The simplest was a Trieteris, or double year; next a Penteteris or period of four years, such as regulated the Olympian or Pythian festivals. This period had fifty and forty-nine months alternately, and came fairly right every second time, in what was called the Ennaeteris. This ought to have come out at eight lunar years of 354 days each plus intercalary months of thirty days, that is 2,922 days; the same figure as is given by eight solar years of 365 days; unfortunately the fractions were wrong, and there was an error of about a day and a half in eight years.

Hence came the greatest effort of ancient calendar-making, Meton’s Eikosieteris, as it was called, or Grand Eniautos of Nineteen Years. On the last day of the nineteenth year, which was also by Greek reckoning the first of the twentieth, the New Moon would coincide with the New Sun of the Winter Solstice; this was called the ‘Meeting of Sun and Moon’ – a thing which had not happened for nineteen full years before and would not happen again for another nineteen.

Now when did Odysseus return to Penelope? The date is given with a precision most unusual in epic poetry. He returned to Ithaca ‘just as the rising of that brightest star which heralds the light of the Daughter of Dawn’ [XIII.93]. He rejoined his wife ‘on the twentieth year’; i.e. he came as soon as the twentieth year came, as soon as the nineteenth was complete. He came at the New Moon, on the day which the Athenians called ‘Old-and-New’, ‘when one month is waning and the next rising-up’. This New Moon was also the day of the Apollo Feast, or Solstice festival of the Sun, and the time was winter. [The journey of Odysseus to Penelope] exactly coincides with the Sun and Moon.”

That Odysseus is a Solar Hero
“Can we be surprised to learn that Odysseus had just 360 boars, and that one of them died every day? Or can we any longer neglect the solar characteristics that seem to cling about Odysseus: that the Sun is his rival and enemy; that he goes under the world in the West, visits the realm of the dead and comes up in the extreme East, ‘where the Daughter of the Dawn has her dwellings and her dancing floors and the Sun his uprising’ [XII.3-4]; that he is brought back home asleep, in a magic boat, like the Sun in Mimnermus, by Phaiakes ( ‘Dark Ones’ ) who do even the furthest journeys in twenty-four hours; that he lives in an island in the sea, ‘low-lying and apart from the others, furthest of all towards the sunset’ [IX.21-27], a description that cannot be twisted so as to suit Ithaca; that he is a far-darter of arrows; that his death comes to him out of the sea; and that, like most Year-Kings, he is doomed to be slain by his son?”

Gilbert Murray 1924 The Rise of the Greek Epic [3rd edition] Oxford: Clarendon Press: 211-212


[i] Florence and Kenneth Wood (2011) Homer’s Secret Odyssey Stroud: The History Press; Laurin Johnson (1999) Shining in the Ancient Sea: The Astronomical Ancestry of Homer’s Odyssey Oregon: Multnomah House Press.

[ii] Florence and Kenneth Wood (2011) Homer’s Secret Odyssey Stroud: The History Press: 28-39.

[iii] This refers to a discussion found in the Circe-Leo passage of my book. References are: Miranda Green (1991) The Sun Gods of Ancient Europe, B. T. Batsford Ltd: 125; Ronald Hutton (1991) The Pagan religions of the Ancient British Isles Blackwell: 164-5; Ari Beck (2003) ‘Where the White Stag Runs: Boundary and Transformation in Deer Myth, Legend and Song’, in, Realms of Fantasy, No.53; Esther Jacobson (1993) The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia, Leiden: E.J.Brill: 194-5; and, Gavin White (2007) Babylonian Star-Lore: An Illustrated Guide to the Star-lore and Constellations of Ancient Babylonia, London: Solaria Publications: 192.

[iv] Florence and Kenneth Wood (1999) Homer’s Secret Iliad London: John Murray: 72-73; Iliad XXII.25.

[v] Liddell, H. G., and Scott, R. (1940) A Greek-English Lexicon (revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Robert McKenzie) Oxford: Clarendon Press (authors italics).

τροπ-ή , ἡ, (τρέπω)

A. turn, turning:

I. τροπαὶ ἠελίοιο:

a. ὅθι τροπαὶ ἠελίοιο apparently denotes a point on the horizon, prob. the West or place where the sun sets (so Eust.1787.20), Od.15.404.

b. each of two fixed points in the solar year, the solstices, first in Hes., “ἠελίοιο τροπῇς” at the time of the (winter) solstice, Op. 479; μετὰ τροπὰς ἠελ. ib.564,663 (with Dor. acc. pl. in -α^ς) “; πεδὰ τὰς τροπάς” Alcm.33.5:—later the two solstices were distinguished as τροπαὶ θεριναί and χειμεριναί, Hdt.2.19, Th.7.16, Pl.Lg.767c, Arist. HA542b4 sqq., Gal.6.405, etc. (rarely in sg., “τροπὴ θερινή” Arist.Mete. 364b2, Gem.1.13; τ. χειμερινή ib.15); “τροπαὶ νότιοι” Arist.HA542b11; τ. βόρειοι, νότιοι, Plu.2.601a:—when τροπαί is used alone, it mostly refers to the winter solstice, but the sense is always determined by the context, v. Hes. ll. cc.; περὶ ἡλίου τροπάς (sc. χειμερινάς) Th.8.39; “εὐθὺς ἐκ τροπῶν” Arist.HA542b20:—sts. also of other heavenly bodies, Pl.Ti.39d; “περὶ Πλειάδος δύσιν καὶ τροπάς” Arist.HA542b23, etc.; “ἄστρων ἐπιτολάς, δύσεις, τροπάς” Alex.30.5; “τροπὰς τῶν ἐνδεδεμένων ἄστρων” Arist.Cael.296b4; “τροπαὶ ἡλίου καὶ σελήνης” Epicur.Ep.2p.40U.:—sts. four in number (the two equinoxes and two solstices), S.E.M.5.11, Gal.17(1).22; so (on a sun-dial) “θερινὴ τ., ἰσημερινὴ τ., χειμερινὴ τ., Ἀρχ.Δελτ.” 12.236 (Samos).

[vi] Nanno Maritanos (2001) ‘The Cosmic Journey of Odysseus’, in, Numen 48.4: 381-416.

[vii] Maritanos, N. (2001): 387-389.

[viii] Maritanos, N. (2001): 389.

[ix] Maritanos, N. (2001): 408.

[x] Johnson, L. (1999) Shining in the Ancient Sea: The Astronomical Ancestry of Homer’s Odyssey Oregon: Multnomah House Press: 129.

[xi] Johnson, L. (1999): 130.

Additional translations: E. V. Rieu (trans.) (1941) Homer The Odyssey London: Penguin [reprint 2001]; A. T. Murray (1919) Homer The Odyssey Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

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