Friday, June 27, 2008

A Hero’s (Precisely Timed) Return Across The Wine Dark Sea

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I feel about the Greeks of The Iliad the way I feel about the Yankees: I know I’m supposed to love them*, but instead I hate them with the fiery burning of a thousand suns.

There is room in my heart for only one ancient warrior race, and that place is forever occupied by the Trojans. In particular, Hector, breaker of horses. However, if pressed to choose one Greek for whom I would willingly make Nanna’s meatball gravy, it would be Odysseus. Simply because, when I was reading The Iliad, I always sensed that he really wanted to kick that knucklehead Achilles in the shin for being such a stupid, whiny baby. Of course, it would have meant instant death if he’d done it, so he resisted the urge. But I know he was thinking, “Just SHUT UP already about Briseis. We are at WAR, dude.”

I liked him in The Odyssey. Since the gods made it ridiculously hard for him to get home to his one true love, I found it in my heart to forgive him for the horse idea and I sort of started rooting for him. He’s so clever!

Also, I always secretly liked the scene where he finally shows up at his palace in Ithaca, 10 years after setting out for it, and just starts killing all of Penelope’s suitors. It's awfully violent of him, but they had been warned by Theoclymenus, and I understood where Odysseus was coming from. I think that’s just how barbarians dealt with bad moods and stress.

Anyhow, all this to say that very scene may have helped scientists pinpoint the exact day and time of Odysseus’ return. (I KNEW it was awesome for a reason!)

…The seer Theoclymenus then foresees the death of the suitors, ending by saying, "The sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world."

The Greek historian Plutarch suggested the prophecy of Theoclymenus referred to a solar eclipse.

Two astronomers think they have learned to which eclipse Homer was referring, and can extrapolate from that precisely the day and time when Odysseus reached home.

Read the whole thing here. It’s amazing.

I know the astronomers are excited because they realize this may mean the ancients knew more about the stars than we’ve commonly given them credit for, but I like it because it makes Odysseus more real, and if he’s more real, somehow so are the stories; Homer, their author and everything about that world. Gives you the literary willies, doesn't it?

*Yes, I know scholars have argued that Homer wanted us to hate the Greeks, and that The Iliad is really a secret anti-imperialist tract, but blah, blah, whatever.

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