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
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