Monday, 21 August 2017

Star-Gayzing : Totally Troy

It’s a very special day in North America today. A total eclipse will hit the continent in Oregon and travel diagonally across the USA to the Carolinas. Most of the continent will marvel in this spectacle.

In an article I wrote several years ago I mentioned solar eclipses and their links to the Greek god Apollo. Today I’m going to give a couple more lgbt connection – one ancient, one modern – and how one specific total eclipse helps to date the Trojan War.

Using mathematics astronomers have been able to determine where and when previous eclipses have taken place over thousands of years. Very often there is written evidence in ancient writings to prove it. The further back you go the less likely it is for written evidence to survive, and very often it is written in mystical and symbolic language.

So, which particular ancient eclipse are we going to examine today? Using the modern common calendar to date the eclipse NASA has identified one that took place on 24th June 1312 BC. Below is a map showing its path across Turkey and the ancient Hittite Empire. Is this an eclipse that is mentioned in Homer’s re-telling of the Trojan War?
Let’s begin with some ancient writing. Mursili II was king of the Hittite Empire over 3000 years ago. We are fortunate in having a ten-year chronicle of the first part of his reign, probably written by himself as it is written in the first person. In his chronicle Mursili recounts an omen he saw in the morning sky in the tenth year of his reign when he and his army were preparing to leave their winter camp for battle. Ancient armies tended not to fight during winter. Mursili then remembers another omen in the sky from four years previously in year 6 of his reign. Historians believe that both omens were eclipses, the most common kind of omen seen in the sky during daytime.

Astronomers have identified two eclipses which passed over Hittite territory within four years of each other. The first was in 1312 BC and the second in 1308 BC. Do these fit Mursili’s report? Historians have generally accepted that they do but disagree on which one Mursili saw when leaving winter camp. A few historians don’t even think that Mursili was writing about two eclipses but the same one.

The significance of this eclipse in particular is that it helps in the dating of ancient chronology in Asia and Egypt. So significant in fact that “Mursili’s Eclipse” even has its own Wikipedia page.

One solution has been proposed by teacher, astronomer, genealogist and multi-Gay Games athletics champion Russell Jacquet-Acea. He suggested that Mursili wrote about both eclipses.

The first of the eclipses in 1312 BC passed over the Hittite capital city during the month of June. It was a total eclipse. The 1308 BC eclipse passed further south, still within Hittite territory, but it was only visible in the morning and was an annular eclipse (when the Moon is slightly further away and the Sun can still be visible behind the Moon as a ring). This second eclipse occurred in April and was only visible in the morning. If Mursili was just leaving winter camp then the morning omen he saw must have been this second 1308 BC eclipse. This provides the obvious conclusion that the one Mursili remembers from four years earlier was in 1312.

Now that we have linked the 1308 BC eclipse to Year 10 of Mursili’s reign, and the 1312 BC eclipse to Year 6, we can date other events of that era and the vicinity such as the Trojan War.

Here we tread on less firm ground. What we know about the Trojan War comes mainly from Homer’s “The Iliad”. It was written several centuries after the event took place and is based on traditional oral accounts, mythology and many possible elaborations. It is, after all, a work of fiction not journalism. Many historians have tried to date the war based on what appears to be an account of an eclipse in “The Iliad”. This is significant, because it is linked to the death of one of the main characters in the war and one of the most famous same-sex couples in Ancient Greece, Patroklus.
The most famous depiction of Achilles (right)
tending to the wounds of his lover Patroklus
(left) as shown on Ancient Greek pottery dating
from c.500 BC.
Several eclipses have been determined as being visible over the area around Troy and proposed as the one in “The Iliad”, including those of 1218 BC and 1186 BC. Other evidence suggests it was Mursili’s eclipse of 1312 BC. There is a direct link between Troy and the Hittite Empire.

King Mursili’s father, King Suppiluliama I, had conquered an area on the coast of what is now Turkey. This included the city of Wilusa. Historians, archaeologists and linguists have proved that Wilusa was called Ilios by the Greeks, the name Homer often used in addition to Troy. Digging through the ancient remains of Troy archaeologists have narrowed down the period of the Trojan War to around 1300 BC. The last stages of the war included the dramatic events described by Homer about the death of Patroklus. Even though he was writing over 400 years later Homer links his death to an eclipse, and he gives a good description of it in “The Iliad”.

On the morning of the battle Patroklus persuaded his lover Achilles to let him wear Achilles’ armour. As the battle progressed towards the afternoon the sky began to darken. Homer specifically mentions the sky being cloudless so it wasn’t storm clouds brewing. The battle continued and the Trojan Prince Hektor spotted whom he thought was Achilles and kills him. Only afterwards does he realise he has killed Patroklus. The area around Patroklus’s body got as dark as night, and the stars of the night could be seen in the sky.

The battlefield is located by Homer, so is there an eclipse which passes over it in around 1300 BC? Yes, there is. Mursili’s eclipse of 1312 BC would have been almost total over it and occurred in the early afternoon (the 1308 eclipse was too far south for it to be over the battlefield).

One other piece of evidence comes from “The Iliad” when Achilles learns of the murder of his partner. Homer describes that the gods made a new shield for him to replace the one Patroklus was carrying when he was killed, which was taken by Hektor as a trophy. The new shield showed a depiction of the night sky. From his description of the lay-out and position of the stars on the shield Homer describes the exact constellations that would have been visible during the 1312 BC total eclipse at the battlefield, even down to the centre of the shield being where the Sun was eclipsed between Leo and Cancer. It is very unlikely that Homer would have chosen this particular configuration arbitrarily and could well have been repeating a centuries-old tradition.

Now, thanks to the contribution of Russell Jacquet-Acea, NASA’s calculation of ancient eclipses and the writings of a Hittite king we have one possible date of the death of Patroklus which led to the fall of Troy shortly afterwards. The evidence is persuasive for me to accept, but there are many other theories and possible dates put forward. If only we had a time machine and go back to find out which one is true.

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