Astronomers Recreate Ancient Skies to Date a Nearly 2,600-Year-Old Greek Poem

Researchers narrow down the dates for when the lonely poet Sappho wrote “Midnight Poem”

Sappho Portrait
Public Domain

The poet Sappho from the Greek island of Lesbos was revered almost as much as Homer in classical antiquity. Plato called her the Tenth Muse and she appeared on coins and statues for centuries. She reportedly created at least 9 books worth of verse containing 500 poems, but sadly all that remains are about 200 fragments recovered in the late 1800s from a garbage dump in Oxyrynchus, Egypt.

Those fragments, however, have been influential, giving us Sapphic meter and inspiring generations of poets. Sappho’s keen poetic eye also made her a great skywatcher. And her sharp astronomical details have helped researchers narrow in on the dates of one of her poems.

The study, published recently in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, is based on a description from Sappho's “Midnight Poem” of the Pleides star cluster, the “Seven Sisters,” in the Taurus constellation.

The moon has set,

and the Pleiades;

it is midnight,

the time is going by,

and I sleep alone.

According to Michelle Starr at CNET, the researchers used software called Starry Night (version 7.3) and Digistar 5 from the International Planetarium Society to recreate the night sky as seen from the Greek island of Lesbos.

Since no one knows when "Midnight Poem" was written, the researchers chose to look at the stars from the year 570 B.C., which is believed to be the approximate date of her death. However, the authors caution that "altering this selected date by 20 years, or even as much as 40 years (depending on her actual date of birth), makes no appreciable difference to the outcome of our analysis."

Because the poem mentions the Pleides setting before midnight, the researchers were able to narrow down the date range to between January 25 and March 31 of that year, the times when the Pleides set at midnight or before and were visible from Lesbos.

Late winter and early spring is “a time frame that is not unusual for lyrics of an amorous nature,” the researchers say in their paper.

“Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large,” physics professor Manfred Cuntz from the University of Texas at Arlington and author of the study says in a statement. “Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does.”

Though the results of the study are interesting, they are part of a developing science of forensic astronomy. Co-author Levent Gurdemir, director of the UT-Arlington Planetarium, points out in the press release that advanced tech is opening up new avenues of research.

“Use of Planetarium software permits us to simulate the night sky more accurately on any date, past or future, at any location,” he says. “This is an example of how we are opening up the Planetarium to research into disciplines beyond astronomy, including geosciences, biology, chemistry, art, literature, architecture, history and even medicine.”

Jennifer Oullette at Gizmodo writes that the research is in line with the work of Texas State University astronomer Donald Olson, who has used the descriptions of the stars to help find the location of Julius Caesar’s landing site in Britain and to analyze a meteor shower that inspired a poem by Walt Whitman. Last month, a researcher used a description in a medieval Arabic text to glean information about one of the biggest supernova’s ever seen from Earth.

Editor's Note May 17, 2016: This article has been updated to reflect the uncertainty in the dates for the poem's origins.

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