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


About Florence and Kenneth Wood

Authors of Homer's Secret Iliad (John Murray, 1999) and Homer's Secret Odyssey (The History Press, 2011)
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