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  



About Florence and Kenneth Wood

Authors of Homer's Secret Iliad (John Murray, 1999) and Homer's Secret Odyssey (The History Press, 2011)
This entry was posted in Ancient Astronomy, Ancient calendars, Ancient Greek calendars, astronomical metaphor, astronomical myth, History of Astronomy, Homer, Homer the Astronomer, Homer's Secret Iliad, Homer's Secret Odyssey, Iliad, Odyssey, The Iliad and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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