Scientists Use Astronomical Software to Accurately Date an Ancient Greek Poem

Fresco Sappho from Pompeii c.50 CE(Arlington, Texas, United States) –  Physicists and astronomers based out of the University of Texas in Arlington have found a way to accurately date the Ancient Greek lyric poem called, “Midnight Poem” by Sappho, who came from the island of Lesvos in Greece. The poem talks about the night sky that the Sappho herself was able to witness around 2500 years ago. However, the exact date of the poem has never been known. There were only estimates.

The findings of the scientist’s experiment were published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. The article, which was titled, “Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited,” highlights the exact process that they went through in order to get a date for the poem that was accurate as possible. Martin George, the former president of the International Planetarium Society also played a part in this project.

Manfred Cunts, a physics professor at the University of Texas, was the lead author of the study. He says, “This is an example of where the scientific community can make a contribution to knowledge described in important ancient texts. 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 B.C.”

The most notable part of Sappho’s “Midnight Poem” talks about a star cluster referred to as Pleiades. She explained that the cluster set around midnight and the assumption is that she observed it from her home on Lesvos. Translated to English, the poem reads:

The moon has set

And the Pleiades;

It is midnight,

The time is going by,

And I sleep alone. 

(Version by Henry Thornton Wharton, 1887:68)

This is the snippet of the poem that was used to set the calculations in the software program. Cuntz and Levent Gurdemir, director of the Planetarium at the University of Texas, used a software program called Starry Night Version 7.3 to determine that the earliest date that Pleiades would have set at midnight was 570 B.C. After that, the system at the Planetarium called Digistar 5 created a replica of what the night sky would have looked in Sappho’s time at the precise moment that the poem was written. Specifically, Starry Night showed that in 570 B.C., the Pleiades set at midnight on Jan. 25. As the year went on, Pleiades would have begin to set much earlier.

Scholars estimate that Sappho was born sometime between 630 and 612 B.C and that she died somewhere in 570 B.C. Little is known about her life and works, but what has remained has given us enough of a picture to estimate when she was alive. If the estimatesare accurate, her “Midnight Poem” was written in the year of her death.


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