Astronomical dating of Odyssey and Mahābhārata (Part 1/2)

Almost ten year after the ten year Trojan war the Greek hero Odysseus, who was the leader of the group inside the Trojan horse, reached home to find that his wife Penelope was being harassed by 108 unruly suitors. Disguised as a beggar, he experienced the suitors’ intentions, tested Penelope and decided to act. In Book 20, the seer Theoclymenus warned the suitors.Text not available

Plutarch and Heraclitus thought this was a reference a solar eclipse and some scholars dated it to the eclipse on April 16, 1178 B.C.E.

Many scholars think that the lines refers to an allegorical eclipse, not a historical one. Since the above passage was suspect, Marcelo O. Magnasco of Rockefeller University in New York and Constantino Baikouzis of the Astronomical Observatory in La Plata, Argentina decided to ignore it. Instead they picked on non-allegorical astronomical references in Odyssey such as

  1. Reference to Pleiades, Boötes and Ursa Major given by Calypso, a nymph.

  2. Seeing Venus before arriving in Phorcy’s Bay.

  3. New Moon on the night before the massacre of the suitors.

Using these three references, they searched for a date between 1250 – 1115 B.C.E. where the astronomical references cohered. With off-the-shelf astronomical software like Starry Night Pro, they applied the constraints and only one date matched perfectly – April 16, 1178 B.C.E.

Now, wouldn’t it be nice if someone analysed the astronomical references in Mahābhārata and used software to find the date?In fact it has already been done by B. N. Narahari Achar of the University of Memphis. Like the Odyssey analysis it was done solely on the basis of astronomical references listed in the epic. Unlike the Odyssey which has just three astronomical references, the MB has about 150 references with the major ones being mentioned in Udyogaparvan and Bhishmaparvan.

Mr. Achar took one important reference – the appearance of Saturn and Aldebaran near one another – and found 137 possible dates between 3500 B.C.E and 500 C.E. The next constraint that Mars executed a retrograde motion before reaching Antares was added and choices reduced to 17 dates. He applied two more astronomical references – a lunar eclipse near Pleiades and a solar eclipse near Antares – and intersecting the constraints, the unique year for the war was found to be 3067 B.C.E. and this was found to cohere with other references given in the epic.

Since astronomy has offered dates for Odyssey and Mahābhārata, the question to ponder is on how the authors of the two epics knew about the celestial events. This become interesting in the case of Homer[1] because Vyasa[2] was the author and a character in Mahabharata but Homer lived five centuries after the Trojan war. How did Homer know about it.?

(To be continued)

Notes:

[1] Modern scholars believe that Homer was not a historical poet and his poems were the collective work of generations of poets. They believe that Homer was the name given to anonymous poets the way the Gospel writers were named Mark, Matthew etc.

[2] Mahābhārata, by tradition, acknowledges that it evolved over a period of time and had contributions from various authors.

References:

  1. Constantino Baikouzis and Marcelo O. Magnasco, “Is an eclipse described in the Odyssey?,” June 24, 2008.

  2. B. N. Narahari Achar, Reclaiming the Chronology of Bharatam

2 thoughts on “Astronomical dating of Odyssey and Mahābhārata (Part 1/2)

  1. Hi: interesting writeup. When the news came out first a few days ago, I posted a similar piece myself, for which I’d welcome your comments. There has been some debunking by a TIFR scientist of the astronomically-derived chronology of the Ramayana, it appears. What do you think?

  2. Fëanor,
    Thanks for the link. I did not know that astronomical dating for Ramayana too was done. All these dates are wonderful indeed, but unless they synchronize with archaeological data, it is meaningless. A 7000 B.C.E date for Rama does not cohere with the fact that the agricultural society of Mehrgarh was just taking shape and the earliest known civilization in India – the Indus – would be many millennia later.
    Please wait for part 2 of my post. It addresses some of these issues.

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