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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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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