In book 20 of the “Odyssey,” we see a herdsman named Philoitios bringing cattle to Ithaca from the herds of Odysseus in Kephalonia, the large island next to Ithaca. The new cattle were for feasting several young men courting Penelope, wife of Odysseus who had not yet returned from the Trojan War.
Philoitios served Odysseus since he was a small boy. He was angry with the suitors plundering his master’s property. The seer Theoklymenos was also angry. He warned the suitors they were doomed: shrouded in night and death from head to toes. He says: “The Sun disappeared completely from the sky and a terrible darkness attacked the world.”
When Theoklymenos spoke about the obliteration of the Sun from the sky he had witnessed a solar eclipse, a dramatic phenomenon then and now.
Modern scientists have confirmed the accuracy of Theoklymenos’ conjecture, suggesting that there was, in fact, a solar eclipse over the Ionian Sea on October 30, 1207 or April 16, 1178 BCE. This brings us near the date Herodotos assigns to the Trojan War. Herodotos was born about 485 BCE and he says the Trojan War took place sometime 800 years before his time, that is, about 1207 and 1178 BCE.
The scientists who lined up astronomical clues with the narrative of the “Odyssey,” are from America, Argentina and Greece. They said that when Odysseus killed the suitors was a new Moon, a requirement for a solar eclipse; that day was also a festival day of Apollo, a solar god; six days before the killing, Aphrodite (Venus) was high in the sky; twenty-nine days before the slaughter of the suitors, Kalypso sent Odysseus off at Sunset, telling him to watch the constellations Pleiades and Bootes and keep the Bear on his left. This meant Odysseus sailed east. By that time Hermes (Mercury) had delivered Zeus’ message to Kalypso in the island of Ogygia, all the way to the far west. This meant that Hermes was in the western end of his travels standing high at dawn.
The astronomical phenomena in the “Odyssey” give historical bone to the epic. Odysseus took 19 years to return home. The stars dictated the story of Odysseus: when he built his raft, when Poseidon sunk it and when he would reveal himself in his house in Ithaca. From the moment Odysseus left Kalypso to the time he met his wife was exactly one month.
The Greek scientists say Odysseus and his story fit with the Sun’s partial eclipse on October 30, 1207 rather than April 16, 1178 BCE reported by an American and Argentinian scientist. Fall won over spring because Odysseus’ arrival to Ithaca coincided with figs, pears, apples, grapes and longer nights – characteristic of fall.
Next to Homer, Archilochos, a lyric poet of the seventh century BCE from the Aegean island of Paros, gives us a taste of the terror accompanying the eclipse of the Sun in 648 BCE. In a fragment of his poetry, he says Zeus, father of the Olympian gods, “made night out of mid-day, keeping back the light of the beaming Sun. Fear gripped mankind.”
Another great Greek lyric poet, Pindar, saw the end of the world in the temporary disappearance of the Sun-god Helios. He witnessed a solar eclipse in February 17, 478 BCE and another on April 30, 463 BCE. He thought the eclipses might be signs of coming war, pestilence, or flood for the end of the world and the creation of a new race of men.
Fifty years after Pindar immortalized a universal fear of solar eclipses, an eclipse of the Moon had catastrophic consequences for an Athenian army in Sicily.
In 415 BCE, Athens sent an armada against Syracuse. According to Thucydides, the Athenian general and historian who fought and lived through the Peloponnesian War, all started going haywire when the Athenian army started getting ready to abandon Syracuse. Why? The Moon disappeared.
The lunar eclipse of August 27, 413 BCE unsettled Nikias, chief commander of the Athenian forces. Nikias and his troops had witnessed a solar eclipse before the Moon eclipse. They understood the Moon was between themselves and the Sun so the Sun went dark. But in the case of the Moon becoming invisible late in the evening of August 27, 413 BCE, something strange happened. The Athenians saw a full Moon suddenly becoming dark, the sky filling with different colors coming out of the dying Moon. They found the night spectacle incomprehensive. They acted with dread. Instead of departing Syracuse immediately, they listened to the priests and spent time in appeasing the heavens.
The result was annihilation. About 40,000 Athenian soldiers died or were sold into slavery.
This war tragedy was unusual. But what was not unusual was the respect (and sometimes fear) Greeks had for natural phenomena like the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. They had to be able to predict them.
They studied the cosmos and learned how the world works.
They invented the atomic and heliocentric theories. Aristotle invented science. The Greeks also invented the gears, which propelled them into scientific technology and, in the second century BCE, the construction of the modern-like astronomical computer known as the Antikythera Mechanism. This marvel of technology brought the heavens down to Earth. It enabled the Greeks to forecast the will of the gods: predicting exactly when the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon would take place.
The forthcoming Sun eclipse (August 21, 2017) over America promises to be an unforgettable experience. Americans, like the Greeks, will be overwhelmed by the beauty and power of nature.
Seconds before the Moon hides the Sun, the Sun illuminates the Earth in great brightness. Then, suddenly, the Sun is gone and the horizon turns ink blue and the stars become visible. Temperature drops a few degrees; winds pick up and animals and humans are caught in an unprecedented and frightful condition as if the world is being swallowed by the darkness of Erebus.