The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jun 27, 2008

Astronomy and Legend

The intrepid historian faces an uphill task in dating a manuscript. Where was it found? If discovered in an archaeological hoard, dating the surrounds might suffice. If not, the medium may be subjected to tests of radioactive decay. But that only reveals the age of the vellum or papyrus. Inspect, next, the pigment and ink. Consider, further, linguistic analysis. Or look for textual references to dated events. Was the manuscript referenced by others? The dates of the referring scripts will set an upper bound on the manuscript's age.

A more difficult issue is the dating of the events described in the text. How to approach this problem?

The cross-disciplinary historian realises that astronomy may help in the matter. This is not a new discovery, by any means. Plutarch, for instance, points out that the Odyssey may be dated by back-calculation of a solar eclipse referenced in Homer's masterpiece. In the 1920s, in fact, astronomers reading a single line in the book, part of a prophesy by Theoclymenus that Odysseus' wife, Penelope's suitors would soon suffer a brutal fate
The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world.
computed that Odysseus slaughtered the hapless princes besieging his wife on 16 April 1178 BC.

Wondrously, this sets the date for the sack of Troy at 1188 BC because Odysseus had taken ten years to return to his native land after the war. Naturally, there is much opposition to this view. What if, say critics, Theoclymenus was speaking allegorically? Also, who is to say that Odysseus truly existed? Homer's book was written four centuries after the events it describes, and even this is uncertain. But archaeology suggests that Troy was sacked in the 12th century BC, so the concordance with the astronomical date is satisfying. Still, one data point hardly suffices to establish a true date.

Recently, though, two researchers (one in Argentina and the other in New York) have claimed that the dating is indeed accurate 1. They have found four other astronomical references in the Odyssey, which they employed as a sort of triangulation. Constantino Baikouzis and Marcelo Magnasco published a report 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with their findings.

The day of the suitors' massacre is, in Homer's own words, a new moon day. One cannot have a solar eclipse without a new moon, so this is good news. Six days prior to this, Homer reports, Venus was high in the sky. Twenty-nine days earlier, he elsewhere states, the constellations Boötes and Pleiades were visible at sunset. Thirty-three days before the slaughter, Mercury was high at dawn and nearing the western end of its path across the firmament. Armed with these 'facts', the researchers are able to confirm the 1178 BC date for Odysseus's revenge.

They do point out caveats. They assume that Homer linked divinities (Hermes and Aphrodite) with the planets Mercury and Venus. This correspondence of gods and planets, however, is a Babylonian tradition dating to centuries after the Trojan war. Secondly, there is no reason to assume that Odysseus or the suitors existed, or even that it took Odysseus ten years to return to Ithaca. All that can be said is that the four astronomical signals corroborate a date of 1178BC; the question of relevance to Trojan history, of course, is up in the air.

If one classic of literary importance can be subjected to astronomical inquiry, why not another? Indeed, much has been made of celestial references in the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and various researchers have claimed that it describes events that occurred five to seven thousand years before Christ. See, for example, P.V. Vartak's work 3 or Subhash Kak 4 on the Mahabharata, and Saurabh Kwatra's article on the Ramayana 5.

Despite the high-power software brought to bear on the problem of historical configurations of the stars and planets, the essential question remains: are today's interpretations of astrological details mentioned in the epics the same as those of the original authors? If this question is not appropriately settled, we arrive at the same impasse as that of Baikouzis and Magnasco, that is, we are able to demonstrate dates, but cannot assert authoritatively their relevance to the epics. But if B.G. Sidharth 6 is correct, then the forefathers were allegorically depicting in their stories true astronomical phenomena that they had observed. In which case, the techniques of archaeoastronomy are relevant to this study.

This is not to say that the chronology outlined by various researchers has been accepted unquestioningly. Consider the report 7 of Bhujle and Vahia, whose abstract reads
We analyse the astronomical events reported in Rāmāyana, which have been used to date Rāmāyana to earlier than fifth millennium BC. We show that none of the astronomical events and other descriptions stand up to scrutiny. Hence using these quotations in Rāmāyana to date it does not give acceptable answers.
The game continues.


1. Homer's epic is finally pinned down. Steve Connor, The Independent, 24 June 2008
2. C. Baikouzis, M. Magnasco, Is an eclipse described in the Odyssey?, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0803317105
3. P.V. Vartak, The Scientific Dating of the Mahabharat War,
4. Subhash Kak, The Mahabharata and the Sindhu-Sarasvati Tradition, (PDF!)
5. Saurabh Kwatra, Dating the Ramayana with Valmiki's Clues.
6. B.G. Sidharth, The Astronomy and Science Behind the Myth,, 19 Sep 2007.
7. S. Bhujle, M.N. Vahia, Dating the era of Ramayana by astronomical evidence, Submitted to Puratva, Sep 2006.


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