Planetarium shows ancient Greek poem likely written in early spring


Poetry has the ability to transport us to other places and times without our body ever leaving the room. But where exactly is this taking us?

In the case of a poem, written over 2,500 years ago by the Greek poet Sappho, scientists believe they can determine the time of the onset of spring somewhere in ancient Greece.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of astronomical history and heritage, researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington used a planetarium to narrow the window in which Sappho’s “midnight poem” could have been written.

“The Planetarium software allows us to simulate the night sky more accurately on any date, past or future, at any location. ” noted Levent Gurdemir, one of the authors of the study. “This is an example of how we are opening the Planetarium to research in disciplines beyond astronomy, including geosciences, biology, chemistry, art, literature, architecture, l history and even medicine. “

In this case, Sappho mentions the Pleiades, a star cluster also known as the Seven Sisters. Using the planetarium software to show when the Pleiades were visible in Greece during Sappho’s lifetime, they could determine roughly when the poem could have been placed.

The poem in question is below:

If this is all in Greek for you, here are three translations from the 1800s provided by the authors:

The study found that during Sappho’s lifetime (circa 570 BC) could have been written in the spring.

However others, including Rogue Classicism blogger, pointed out that the study does not say that Sappho wrote the poem at 11:59 p.m. on January 25, 570 BC.

In fact, according to some accounts, Sappho could have deceased circa 570 BC, but even that is not certain. Much of his life (and death) remains a mystery, with clues long lost. The authors of the study chose 570 BC. Somewhat arbitrarily, having determined that the Pleiades followed roughly the same course in the sky during the decades around 570 BC. In other words, if she had written it in 571 BC or 569 BC (or 581 BC, or 559 BC… you get the idea), the dates would be pretty much the same.

Nowadays, people in the northern hemisphere can see the Pleiades mainly between november to april– changes in the tilt of the Earth have shifted the time period over millennia.

It’s interesting to think of what Sappho was able to see while writing the poem, but it’s also important to note that it’s entirely possible that she was taking a poetic license, simply describing a lonely evening where even the moon and the familiar stars have left her to her thoughts, lying in the dark.

Authors and poets have always been inspired by the stars, including Shakespeare, who generously sprinkled astronomy into his works, but his works were not scientific observations recorded in the iambic pentameter. It was just wonderful dialogue, just as Sappho’s simple, elegant lines weren’t necessarily a faithful recording of the evening sky. And it’s good. That doesn’t make his words any less beautiful.

But it still adds a note of complexity and context to the poem to know that if her words were true to heaven, that she was writing of an evening that did not take place in the heat of summer or the freezing chill of the sky. winter, but rather in the cool hope of a spring night.


Arline J. Mercier

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