Astronomers Solve Mystery Of When Ancient Greek Poem Was Written

Sappho's view of the Pleiades was much more limited than with modern telescopes, but she would have been far more familiar with their setting times than modern city dwellers. NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory

Modern astronomical knowledge has been used to calculate the season when one of the oldest known lyric poems was written, providing a rare clue about the life of the author.

The ancient Greek poet Sappho was one of the most significant poets of antiquity, described by Plato as the “Tenth Muse,” but we know very little about her life. Estimates of her date of birth range from 630-612 BCE, and even the estimation of her death at 570 BCE is vague.

Sappho's huge influence, both on subsequent poets and as one of the few women whose writing survives from ancient times, motivates a quest to learn more about her life. Unfortunately, with only a small portion of her writing surviving, and no contemporary accounts of her life, this has proven frustrating.

Now, however, a small piece has come from a most unlikely source – astronomers at the University of Texas, Arlington (UTA).

A 19th century translation of a fragment of one of Sappho's more famous poems, "Midnight Poem," runs:

“The moon has set 
And the Pleiades; 
It is midnight, 
The time is going by, 
And I sleep alone.”

This doesn't seem a lot to go on, but Professor Manfred Cuntz used software called Starry Night to examine the positions of the Moon and the Pleiades star cluster around the time Sappho was writing. Having narrowed down the possible dates, Cuntz collaborated with UTA planetarium director Levent Gurdemir to use the planetarium’s Digistar 5 to see what the stars looked like at the appropriate times.

In 570 BCE, the Pleiades disappeared from view from Lesbos (where Sappho reportedly spent most of her time and so the likely location of where the poem was written) at midnight on what modern calendars call January 25, the first time the poem could be accurate. Each subsequent night the Pleiades set 4 minutes earlier. Thus, this seems to be the most likely year that the poem was penned, or thereabouts.

"The timing question is complex as at that time they did not have accurate mechanical clocks as we do, only perhaps water clocks," said Cuntz in a statement. Consequently, the reference to midnight is probably somewhat vague. "For that reason, we also identified the latest date on which the Pleiades would have been visible to Sappho from that location on different dates some time during the evening."


This vase by "the Brygos painter" was made a century after Sappho's death. Public Domain via Wikipedia commons.

By April 6, Sappho would have been unable to see the Pleiades at all – they would have set before it became dark enough to make out even the brightest member.

Cuntz and Gurdemir have published their findings in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, acknowledging that “no statement can be made about the year in which it was composed,” since the situation would have been similar a year or two earlier. However, in any chosen year only a few dates would have the Moon set shortly before midnight.

"This is an example of where the scientific community can make a contribution to knowledge described in important ancient texts," said Cuntz "Estimations had been made for the timing of this poem in the past, but we were able to scientifically confirm the season that corresponds to her specific descriptions of the night sky in the year 570 BC."

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