Homer and the Winter Solstice, 2017

The winter solstice inspires many column inches of popular coverage ranging from the scientific to the magical and the mysterious. The solstice on December 21, 2017, was no exception.

There was also on that day, however, an astronomical event that occurs only every 19 years but is so significant in calendrical terms that it was known to astronomers in Ancient Greece more than 2500 years ago.

Indeed, so familiar was the poet-astronomer Homer with such a cyclical occurrence that he made it the 19-year time-span of his epic works, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

While there is no certainty about when Homer lived, scholars have suggested it may have been during the period 800 BC to 650 BC.

The event

 At the winter solstice on December 21, 2017, a new crescent moon appeared in the skies of the northern hemisphere shortly before sunset.

The previous sighting of a new crescent moon at a winter solstice had occurred 19 years earlier on December 21, 1998.

And the next appearance of a new crescent moon at a winter solstice will be in 19-years time on December 21, 2036.

Meton and the 19-year luni-solar cycle

Such a cycle is commonly attributed to Meton of the Fifth Century BC who is remembered ‘for calculations involving the eponymous 19-year Metonic cycle which he introduced in 432 BC into the lunisolar Attic calendar. Scholars, however, have indicated that the 19-year luni-solar cycle was used for calendrical purposes in other cultures long before Meton or even Homer.

During a cycle of 19 solar years there are 235 lunations, or synodic months, after which the Moon’s phases recur on the same days of the solar year.

In visible terms, this meant for Homer that the appearance of a new crescent moon at a winter solstice marked the end of one 19-year luni-solar cycle and the beginning of the next.

Homer’s knowledge and use of the cycle may suggest that Meton provided a scientific and mathematical exposition of a cycle that had been known in terms of accurate practical use in much earlier centuries when the Greeks did not have a writing system.

Homer’s Odyssey

Although a 19-year luni-solar cycle is the time frame of both the Iliad and the Odyssey it is in the Odyssey[1] alone that Homer expounds upon luni-solar cycles of four (an Olympiad), eight and nineteen years, an eight-year cycle of planet Venus, and constructs a detailed annual luni-solar calendar system.

So precise is Homer’s narrative and embedded mathematical data, that he was able to record in allegorical prose that the Iliad-Odyssey 19-year cycle began at a new crescent moon in the late afternoon at a winter solstice and ended 19 years later .

In terms of Homer’s discourse on luni-solar cycles and calendar-making, the Odyssey is very complex and the parameters of the 19-year luni-solar cycle are only first disclosed in Book 19 when disguised Odysseus meets his wife after almost 19 years away.

Penelope, conveniently, does not recognize her husband but recalls how Odysseus was dressed on leaving home to fight at Troy in terms that project allegorical imagery of a new crescent moon at midwinter. Her farewell gift to Odysseus, she remembers, was a brooch that creates an image of a new crescent moon.

This curious reunion takes place at dark of moon and on the following afternoon and the rise of a new crescent moon, Odysseus is revealed as a vengeful warrior who destroys the suitors besieging his lonely wife.

An earlier intimation of Odysseus’s lunar role is expressed in Homer’s account of his hero’s return to Ithaca in early morning when the last sighting of an old crescent moon can be seen. In the following dark period Odysseus is disguised as a beggar and generally not recognized … except when he reveals himself to friends.  These brief periods not only have literary value but may also affirm the variable length of the lunar dark period.

Homer also sets the time of year in Ithaca as midwinter when he notes ‘the weather is foul and raining’ and Eumaeus declares ‘the nights are very long…’ (Od.15.392).

Homer’s gory descriptions, with numerical enhancements (see Endnote below), of the slaughter of the suitors and maidservants, brings Homer’s treatise on a sophisticated calendar system and luni-solar cycles to an unforgettable climax.

The ending of the Odyssey is relatively low key:  Following the slaying of the suitors, Odysseus spends only one night with Penelope before going to visit his aged father, an icon of an earlier 19-year cycle. He then embarks on a quest to discover a land where the natives believe that the oar he is carrying is a winnowing shovel. To Homer’s audiences of sea-faring Greeks that quest, like time and the 19-year luni-solar cycle itself, would be never ending.

Endnote:  In the Odyssey, Homer lists 118 suitors and their servants; 118  is also the number of days in four lunar months or one lunar ‘season’ (the Greek year had three seasons: spring, summer and winter). Overall, Homer  invokes the number 118 on three occasions: 3 x 118 = 354 days in a lunar year.

Homer did not use fractions and to accommodate the 29.53 days of the lunar month, he alternated 29-day ‘hollow’ months with 30-day ‘full’ months, giving an average of 29.5 days. These calculations are based on numerical data embedded in the Odyssey. See ‘Homer’s Wizardry with Numbers’ (HSO p 62 ff), and elsewhere in HSO

 2018  K and FS Wood

[1] See Homer’s Secret Odyssey (The History Press, 2011); Homer’s Secret Iliad (John Murray, 1999).

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Greece and Australia: Astronomy in pre-literate societies

THE pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s times may be thought to have had little in common with the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Research, however,  has revealed that the Greeks of Homer’s times, c. 750-650 BC,   were not alone among ancient peoples in preserving important knowledge of astronomy in their storytelling traditions.

An academic submission at https://arvix.org/abs/1607.02215  explores a culture that had ‘a significant astronomical component through oral traditions, ceremony and art.

The astronomical knowledge of that pre-literate society could not be more distant from the lands and islands of Ancient Greece and is found in ‘the traditional culture of Aboriginal Australians…’

‘This astronomical knowledge includes a deep understanding of the motion of objects in the sky which was used for practical purposes such as constructing calendars and for navigation,’ says Ray P Norris.

‘Putative explanations of celestial phenomena appear throughout the oral record, suggesting traditional Aboriginal Australians sought to understand the natural world around them, in the same was as modern scientists,’ writes Norris.

A broadcast on BBC television in March, 2017, also indicates that  the two pre-literate societies living at opposite ends of the earth came up with similar solutions to resolve a common problem concerning long-distance travel – Star Maps.

Research by Robert S. Fuller, of the University of New South Wales, says the Aboriginal peoples  may be the world’s oldest astronomers, as their culture has retained much astronomical knowledge, passed down through stories, song and art.*

‘In some places, there is evidence that Aboriginal people used patterns of stars in the night sky to teach other persons how to travel outside their own country … These patterns are called star maps, and were used to memorise waypoints along a route of travel’, says Fuller.

The Greeks also used a similar cultural tool to preserve wide-ranging knowledge of astronomy, calendar-making … and long distance travel.

A major theme in Edna Leigh’s study of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as sources of extensive astronomical knowledge, was her assertion that the pre-literate Greeks also used ‘maps’ based on patterns of stars in constellations to guide them on long-distance journeys. See Homer the Map-Maker (Homer’s Secret Iliad, pp 239-262).

An extensive account and expansion of  Edna’s research has been published in  Homer’s Secret Iliad (1999), and Homer’s Secret Odyssey (2011)


See  posts below for an introduction to Homer the Astronomer and for summaries of Homer’s Secret Iliad and Homer’s Secret Odyssey which explore Homer’s epics as sources of extensive knowledge of astronomy, a large catalogue of stars and constellations,luni-solar cycles and a detailed luni-solar calendar system.

© 2017 Kenneth and Florence Wood

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The following postings give summaries of the astronomical content

of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

 Please scroll down to each section

1. Astronomy & Calendars        2. The Odyssey &  the  Iliad       3. Through the Ages

4. Odysseus and the Moon       5.  Homer the Mathematician   6. A deadly message

7. Astronomy and post-Homeric drama

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New book cover                    homeroval                                   a-hsi-cover

Homer, Astronomy & a luni-solar calendar

by Florence and Kenneth Wood

IN THE centuries after the death of Homer, the ancient world’s renowned poet and storyteller, there are intriguing references to him also being skilled in the field of astronomy.  Indeed, the philosopher Heraclitus  (c. 535 – c.475 BC) described him as ‘Homer the astronomer, considered wisest of all Greeks’.

Explorations of the Iliad and the Odyssey now propose that in addition to preserving the cultural heritage of the Greeks of antiquity, Homer (c.745-700 BC) and earlier generations of  Bronze Age bards had a crucial practical role.

Research indicates they should also be regarded as the guardians of wide-ranging knowledge of astronomy and calendar-making woven into traditional stories which they memorised and passed down by word of mouth during the centuries the Greeks did not have a writing system.

The pre-literate Greeks, however, were accomplished in diverse fields and would have had the same essential need for knowledge of astronomy, calendar-making and geography as that known to their literate contemporaries in Babylon and Egypt.

Without such learning the organisation of family, community, trading, and farming matters, travel on land and sea, military campaigns and religious beliefs would not have been possible. It was, too, in the Homeric era that enterprising emigrants from Euboea established the first Greek colony at Naxos in Sicily in 735 BC.

In Homer’s two epic poems, warriors have bronze armour and weapons and iron is also mentioned – evidence of knowledge of metallurgy. Fleets of multi-oared sailing ships would have been built by skilled craftsmen with considerable technical knowledge of design and measurement. Homer also credits a Greek alliance of 29 city-states with the organising ability to assemble an army of thousands of men and a combined fleet of 1186 ships to sail across the seas to besiege Troy for many years. Battlefield medical care was also on hand and Homer tells of a wounded warrior being treated with a pain-killing salve.

On more domestic fronts, Homer’s Greeks raised crops, domesticated animals, harvested the seas, organized communal life and sporting events and were entertained – and educated – by generations of poet-singers.

Astute observations of the night skies and mathematical skills concerning sophisticated cycles of the sun, moon and planet Venus, were essential for ancient astronomers and calendar makers – and Homer was remarkably gifted in these fields.

The adoption of a writing system by the Greeks in times not too far distant from Homer, would be one reason for epic mythology becoming redundant as the vehicle for the preservation of astronomical knowledge.  Even so, Homer’s literary genius as poet and storyteller has remained unchallenged for more than 2,500 years.

Also after Homer the nature of astronomy changed.  The polymath Thales of Miletus, c.624–547 BC, has been acclaimed as the father of science and philosophy and ‘the most senior in wisdom of all the astronomers of his age’.

None of Thales’ works have survived, but later sources affirm that he sought to explain the natural world and the heavens in terms of reason and natural processes rather than as the realm of gods and heroes of mythology. This fundamental shift in Greek ideas paved the way for the natural philosophers who followed Thales and whose works have come down through the ages to our own times.

Indications of the very long heritage of Greek astronomy is found by comparing astronomical knowledge embedded in Homer’s Odyssey with that published many centuries in Ptolemy’s Almagest


Edna F LeighEFL- blog

It was only after years of intense and often frustrating study that Edna F Leigh, MSc, (1916-1991), concluded that considerable knowledge of astronomy and calendar-making was embedded in the Iliad and the Odyssey as extended metaphor.

Ill health in later life prevented Edna from completing her research and on her death she left her papers to her daughter Florence Wood, who, with husband Kenneth and support from academic and astronomical sources, eventually expanded her pioneering study.  Homer’s Secret Iliad  (John Murray) was published in 1999, and followed in 2011 by Homer’s Secret Odyssey (the History Press). Homer’s Iliad is largely, in astronomical terms, concerned with the construction of a large catalogue of stars and constellations together with geographical matters.

Edna had spent some years studying the Homeric epics before concluding that ‘In my study of The Iliad and The Odyssey I assume that these epics represent an ancient people’s thoughts related to the science of astronomy and expressed in the form of elaborate narrative poetry.’

‘The epics [had] perplexed me’, she wrote, ‘for they seemed unaccountably to reflect some indefinable meaning that was comparable, in a sense, with the faint and tantalising whispers of melody played upon an unknown instrument during the mighty crescendos of a full orchestra.

‘Although I believed this impression could be hardly more than a ridiculous notion, I found my new concept of shadowy form behind gossamer-like substance even more puzzling and provoking than my former idea of an elusive epical meaning.

‘Nevertheless, by the time I could actually define the imagery that my reading engendered, I almost questioned my reason: the Homeric picture seemed to consist of points and lines, of angles and arcs, of cycles and circles, of order and time, of stillness and motion and of darkness and light.

‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,’ declared John Keats in his poem, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, after reading The Iliad for the first time … these words of his helped me clarify the mixed impressions engendered by my own readings of Homer.’

Only after Edna had concluded that considerable astronomical learning was preserved in Homer’s epics was she able to embark upon yet more years of study to support her hypothesis.

These studies enhance Homer’s reputation not only as the creator of two epic masterpieces but also as a learned and practical man of science, and offer a sublime dimension to the intellectual achievements of the pre-literate Greeks.

A considerable advantage in our contribution to Homeric Astronomy was the advent of astronomical computer programmes which, at the touch of a keyboard, could project images of the night sky at the latitude of Greece at the time of Homer and long before. These computer images confirmed the accuracy of Edna Leigh’s careful drawings which linked events in the Iliad and the Odyssey with scenes of the ancient night sky.

© 2014 – 2017 K&FSWood




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2. The Odyssey and the Iliad

JUST as the literary content of the Odyssey and the Iliad is very different, so is the astronomical learning preserved in each epic.

In the Iliad Homer embeded an extensive catalogue of stars and constellations based on the 49 contingents and hundreds of warriors who fought at Troy, together with geographical mapping system.

In contrast, the Odyssey provides the structure of a surpisingly sophisticated luni-solar calendar system based on the adventures of Odysseus on his prolonged journey home after the fall of Troy.

Powerful support arises from mathematical analysis of  numerical data embedded in the Odyssey which Homer manipulated to preserve precise knowledge of astronomy, calendar making, and cycles of the sun, moon and planet Venus.

Mathematics and the application of data were as important in astronomical studies in ancient times as they are today and in Homer’s Secret Odyssey they were fields in which Homer excelled. Throughout the Odyssey is a surprising amount of numerical data which in the past has attracted little attention and certainly not in terms of astronomy and calendar-making.

Such is the volume and accuracy of this numerical content directly related to astronomy and calendar-making, that mathematical probability overwhelmingly indicates Homer could not have chosen it purely by chance.

In Mesopotamia and post-Homeric Greece the lunar calendar based on a lunar month reckoned at 29.5 days was in common daily use. The lunar month with its easily recognisable progression from new crescent to first quarter, full moon, last quarter and dark period, was immensely convenient for calculating time in terms of months and days. A major problem, however, was reconciling the lunar year of 354 days with the solar year of 365 days.

A solution was discovered with the development of luni-solar cycles based on careful observation of the three brightest objects in the heavens – the  sun, moon and planet Venus. It is not suggested that Homer was the first to recognise these cycles but he was so familiar with certain of them that the Iliad and the Odyssey are connected by the thread of a 19-year cycle of the sun and moon which eventually became known as the Metonic after the Athenian astronomer Meton who lived some 300 years after the poet-astronomer.

Within the time-frame of his 19-year cycle, Homer also embedded accurate detail of other significant cycles: the four-year Olympiad, the octaёteris (8-year) luni-solar cycles, and an 8-year cycle of the planet Venus. He also defined the number of lunations in the Saros series which makes it possible to forecast eclipses of the sun and moon.

There was even more evidence of Homer’s genius to come.  By transposing Odysseus’s journey home from Troy from the ‘wine dark’ seas to the metaphorical ‘wine-dark’ skies, it enabled the poet-astronomer to construct an annual luni-solar calendar system in which days and months were reckoned by the moon and the passing of the solar year from winter solstice to winter solstice.

So detailed is Homer’s annual calendar in marking the equinoxes and solstices, adjusting the lunar year with the solar year, and tracing the annual path of the sun through the stars on or about the ecliptic, that it might well have been used as a template for generations of calendar makers.

To preserve such extensive calendrical learning, Homer created for Odysseus an alter ego as a personification of the moon. So closely is Odysseus’s astronomical role linked to the calendar that the tempo of his adventures is governed by the rhythm of the monthly lunar cycle from new crescent moon to full moon and on to waning moon and the dark period. Meanwhile the sun traces its yearly journey through constellations of the ecliptic.

These challenging concepts are examined in detail in Homer’s Secret Odyssey and in particular in Chapters 7 to 13, as well as in a day-by-day  ‘log’ of Odysseus’s adventures (HSO pp200–221).

Homer makes a mathematical diversion in the story of Polyphemus when he projects an ancient concept of pi – the ratio of a diameter of a circle to its circumference and a topic so old  that its origins are unknown (see HSO Chapter 8).

The Iliad

In the Iliad, Homer constructs dramatic metaphorical images of the night sky with brutal and unforgettable accounts of combat and ingeniously links warriors and their regiments with stars and constellations.

Other astronomical matters in Homer’s Secret Iliad (1999) include Homer’s concept of an earth-centered universe, an exploration of precession in terms of the Fall of Troy, gods and their links with planets and the moon, and ‘Homer the Map-Maker’.

© Florence and Kenneth Wood, 1999 – 2017

 See also:    Homer the Astronomer – 1   and

Homer the Astronomer – 2   …  on YouTube

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3. Homer the Astronomer through the ages


Heraclius by Johannes Moreelse

In the centuries after Homer there were intriguing references to his being not only a literary genius but also an astronomer. Nevertheless there is little if anything in the historical record to say how much or how little astronomy Homer knew and it is only with careful examination of his narrative and its embedded data that such a wealth of learning has become apparent.

Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BC) described the creator of the Iliad and the Odyssey as ‘Homer the astronomer, considered wisest of all Greeks’.

Eratosthenes (c. 276 BC – c. 195 BC), a polymath and keeper of the famous library at Alexandria, was said by Strabo to have declared that the astronomer-geographer Anaximander (d. 545 BC), a fellow citizen of Thales, and Hecateus of Miletus (c.550-c.490) were two successors of Homer.

Crates of Mallus, of the second century BC, was a noted supporter of a theory that Homer’s epics were the source of allegories that expressed scientific and philosophical learning.

Strabo (64BC – AD20) declared  that both he and his predecessors, including Hipparchus, regarded Homer as the founder of the science of geography  and that it was ‘impossible for any man to attain the requisite knowledge of geography without the determination of heavenly bodies and of the eclipses which have been observed. …. Geography … unites terrestrial and celestial phenomena as being very closely related and in no sense separated from each other as Heaven is high above the Earth.’

Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), author of a work on natural history that influenced western scientific thought until the Middle Ages, regarded Homer as the ‘father and prince of all learning’.

In an introduction to the Iliad in  1715, Alexander Pope wrote about ‘…those Secrets of Nature and Physical Philosophy which Homer is generally suppos’d to have wrapt up in his Allegories.’

In  Rise of the Greek Epic, 1907, the distinguished classicist Gilbert Murray briefly commented on [Homeric] ‘myth of a pronounced and curious kind.  …. it is a matter of the solar and lunar calendar.’ Although Murray lived for almost another 50 years we have not discovered  that he ever further expanded his remarks or  proposed that Homer’s epics were  the vehicles for preserving all of the astronomical and calendrical learning known to the pre-literate Greeks.

Despite these lingering memories of Homer, the idea that  the Iliad and the  Odyssey preserved substantial knowledge of astronomy and calendar-making  did not attract attention in modern times until  Edna Leigh began pioneering research into her hypothesis.

© 2016 K&FSWood

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4. Odysseus and the moon

800px-Mountain_Moonset J Eastland

THERE  is a compelling and consistent case to be made from narrative in the Odyssey that the rhythms of Odysseus’s adventures after the sacking of Troy reflect the progression of lunar months in Homer’s construction of an annual luni-solar calendar system.

‘Odysseus, a battle-weary hero struggling to return home after a prolonged and bloody war,  is the key figure for the preservation in story of this learning. To achieve his aims Homer created for Odysseus an alter ego as a personification of the moon. So closely is Odysseus’ iconic role linked to the calendar that the tempo of his adventures is governed by the rhythm of the monthly lunar cycle, from one new crescent moon to the next.’     Homer’s Secret Odyssey p10.

‘As will be seen, [Odysseus’s] experiences both before and after the fall of Troy are generally driven by the rhythm of the lunar month, the counting of lunations and cycles of the sun and moon; from this proposition all of the astronomical and calendrical matters discovered in the epic fall into place. The initial source of Odysseus’ lunar role was discovered in [the late] Edna Leigh’s papers on a single foolscap sheet of now yellowing paper with notes written in pencil … The layout appeared to be a lunar calendar of sorts and it became clear that this sheet, on which were plotted phases of the moon during the last 40 days of the Odyssey, was of fundamental significance.’           HSO pp 28-29

From that prime source began a prolonged line-by-line study of Odysseus in terms of a lunar-solar calendar system which is recorded in detail in Chapters 7 to 13, pp 101 to 180; the Ship’s Log, pp 200 to 221; and referenced elsewhere in HSO.

Rhythm of the moon and changing fortunes

Beliefs have persisted throughout history that phases of the moon have benign or malign influences on the affairs of mankind … strong support for Edna Leigh’s linking of the rhythm of Odysseus’ adventures to phases of the moon is found in the contemporary works of Hesiod. Both poets [Homer and Hesiod] project a view that some days of the lunar month were more auspicious than others. In Works and Days, Hesiod’s concern is for the moon’s daily influence on farming and family matters. The synopsis of the 40-day real-time calendar reveals Homer’s vision of the fortunes of Odysseus and other characters. There are similarities in both works and each considers the arrival of the new crescent as a ‘lucky’ or holy day. Hesiod says the fourth day of the month is a good day to construct a narrow boat from timbers already gathered, and Odysseus in his turn completes building a raft on the fourth day. As the moon waxes to mid-month, times are good but as it wanes to the dark of the moon times can be ‘fickle, bland and bring no luck’. Hesiod* states:

Again few know, the twenty-first is best,

At dawn, and worsens toward the evening time.

During Homer’s 40 ‘real-time’ days, the twenty-first day of the lunation begins well, but Poseidon later brings calamity to Odysseus and capsizes his raft. There are differences between Homer and Hesiod; for instance, Hesiod says the first night of the moon’s dark period is ‘lucky’, whereas for Odysseus it is generally a time of misfortune.’                    HSO pp 36-37.

* Reference: Wender, Dorothea (trans), Hesiod and Theogenis (Hammondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1973).

A calendar, the sun and the moon

Although the sun is the most prominent of the heavenly bodies it was the lunar calendar with its easily recognisable phases from new crescent to dark moon marking the passing of days and  months that was the most commonly used calendar in ancient times.

The daily path of the sun from sunrise to sunset is eminently suitable for marking the passing of time during daylight and in the Odyssey there are many references to  sunrise, midday and sunset.

However, with only four clear annual markers, the winter solstice, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer solstice, there would have been immense difficulties in using the sun to record the passing of individual days over the course of a year. This problem was resolved some 700 years after Homer when Julius Caesar (46 BC) reformed the Roman  calendar  which, with later improvements by Pope Gregory (1582),  is today’s internationally recognised calendar.

It is no surprise that the iconic figure of Odysseus is of prime importance in Homer’s preservation of a  calendar system that keeps the lunar year in harmony with the solar year. Homer’s Secret Odyssey reflects his knowledge of  sophisticated cycles of the sun and moon and indeed, the climax of the Odyssey occurs when Odysseus is reunited with Penelope at the end of a 19-year luni-solar cycle and ‘the coming together of the sun and moon’.

The daily hours of darkness were  divided into three ‘watches’ and shortly before Troy falls at dark of moon, Homer sets a scene with a waning moon in the third watch of the night.

‘Odysseus spins a yarn that one night before the Greeks entered the city he
led a party of Greek soldiers who hid in reeds and brushwood beneath the walls
when the night was ‘two-thirds done and the stars were past their zenith’ (14.483).
A bitter north wind driving the falling snow was so cold that their shields were
coated with ice and to keep warm Odysseus used a trick to acquire a cloak
from one of his companions. His tale reveals not only the time of year as midwinter
but also that it takes place during the last third of the hours of darkness,
with the diminishing crescent of the waning moon heralding the impending dark
period and the destruction of the city [of Troy]. It is easy for the eye to slip over the brief
quotation about the passing of the night hours without realising the depth of
astronomical learning required to divide night into three watches and to plot stars
across the sky over the course of a year.’ HSO, p 104

After this escapade and when the moon is no longer visible, Odysseus in his role as a personification of the moon, also cannot be seen as he hides inside the Wooden Horse until Troy is put to the sword.

© K&FS Wood, 2011 – 2016

See webpage at:  www.epicstars.org.uk  


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