Homer, Telemachus, Ulysses and the Summer Solstice
by Alberto Majrani
Apparent movements of the sun over the course of the year
In the previous interventions we have seen how the Homeric poems suddenly assume an extraordinary "coherence", once they are read with the right criterion and how many mysterious phrases become very clear for those who have a solid scientific background. Let's now see in this key one of the most dramatic moments of the Odyssey: the description of the massacre of suitors, by Ulysses (or whoever for him), his son Telemachus and faithful servants. But is it possible to understand on which day the crime takes place? The chief of suitors Antinous will give us a suggestion:
Today there is a solemn feast among the people (XXI, 258)
So this is not an ordinary day, but it is a day of celebration for all the people: in an age when few are able to use a calendar, if the conspirators have to make an appointment, they can only do it on a particular day, well known to all. A few verses later it turns out that the festival is dedicated to the archer god Apollo. Since Apollo was also the god of light, we can even venture the hypothesis that it could be a solar festival, such as the summer solstice, which was a particularly important day for the ancients. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, while the winter solstice is the shortest. Often the people unfamiliar with astronomy believe that the sun always rises exactly in the east and sets in the west: in reality this only happens on the day of the spring or autumn equinox. During the other days of the year the rise and sunset point gradually moves to the right or left. On the solstices the sun rises and sets at the farthest point from the east and west: it is said that the "sun stay" because for a few days it seems to stop at a fixed point and then go back.
Summer solstice festival in Finland
Astronomical knowledge was already present in prehistoric times: many archaeologists think that even the animals painted in the famous Lascaux caves are a representation of the constellations. In 14000 BC, a period that agrees with the dating of the paintings obtained with other methods, the sun set on the summer solstice, lighting up the painted wall, located about forty meters from the entrance. It is definitely unlikely that this is due to chance, because there are many caves in the area and that is the only one painted, and the phenomenon only occurred on the days immediately close to the summer solstice.
If the observation is extended to southern France, we find about a hundred decorated caves from the Paleolithic era, and almost all of them are astronomically oriented. If we then consider the aesthetic quality of the paintings, we can realize how those distant ancestors of ours were anything but rough cavemen, and the intellectual abilities of the men of that era were practically identical to those of contemporary men. A similar phenomenon occurred in many other prehistoric temples, from the mound of Newgrange in Ireland, of 3200 BC, oriented towards the winter solstice, to that of Abu Simbel in Egypt, of 1200 BC, with the sun going to illuminate a room placed at the end of a long corridor only on two days a year, probably on the birthday and coronation anniversary of Pharaoh Ramses II.
Mound of Newgrange
Archaeological studies are now almost in agreement in believing that megalithic temples had functions of astral worship: their main orientations are almost always directed towards points of astronomical importance, such as the place of rising or setting of the sun at the solstices (or, more rarely, at the equinoxes), as well as the moon or the main stars and constellations on particular days of the year. The megaliths therefore also had a calendar function, essential for populations who had to know the right times for sowing or transhumance.
Abu Simbel at dawn; Abu Simbel the illuminated room
Archeoastronomy is a relatively "young" discipline, but by now its calculation and survey techniques have all the trappings of scientificity, even if it often risks being discredited by the work of many imaginative amateurs in search of complicated and improbable stellar connections.
This is the case, for example, of the most famous megalithic monument, the circle of Stonehenge, about which everything has been said, and even too much: many astronomical lucubration are however not very credible also because in the last two centuries the site has been subjected to several restorations, as several stones had collapsed or been torn down. Although the restoration may have been accurate, we cannot be sure of the original orientation of the megaliths: surely, however, there was an alignment towards the sun at the summer solstice, since the ancient road that reached the complex had this direction. The historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC), citing the writings of other ancient Greek historians, mentions a large spherical temple of Apollo located on a Hyperborean island that could be identified with Great Britain: if the correlation with Stonehenge is correct, we can deduce that in Northern Europe Apollo was worshiped, as in Greece, and that his cult was linked to the summer solstice (others believe that Diodorus refers to the analogous circle of Callanish megaliths , located in the Hebrides, but the discourse does not change). Some burials of individuals from the Mediterranean basin, unearthed in the area of Stonehenge, indicate that the megalithic complex was a pilgrimage destination since prehistoric times.
Spectacular rainbow at Stonehenge
Almost all the religious buildings of antiquity continued to have a significant astronomical orientation: to give a fairly well-known example, in Milan the Duomo is oriented along the east-west axis, that is towards the position of the sun at dawn and sunset on the day of the equinox, while the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio is oriented towards the position of the sun at the solstice. Even in many medieval churches the windows are arranged so that the sun hits the frescoes of the saints in correspondence with the days in which they are celebrated. This type of knowledge has largely been lost in recent centuries, but those who knew how to interpret these celestial signs inevitably enjoyed great respect and authority. We find something very similar in the nineteenth book of the Odyssey: we are at sunset, all the suitors have gone to sleep in their homes, and the doors of the palace have been closed. Ulysses and Telemachus are preparing to hide the weapons hanging on the walls, taking torches to shed light, when suddenly the whole house lights up:
while in their path Pallas Athena
held up a golden lamp of purest light.
Telemachus at last burst out:“Oh, Father,
here is a marvel! All around I see
the walls and roof beams, pedestals and pillars,
lighted as though by white fire blazing near.
One of the gods of heaven is in this place!”
Then said Odysseus, the great tactician,
“Be still: keep still about it: just remember it.
The gods who rule Olympos make this light.
You may go off to bed now. Here I stay
to test your mother and her maids again.
Out of her long grief she will question me.”(XIX, 33-43)
therefore we have a further element to hypothesize that it was the day of the summer solstice: in the light of what we know about the importance of astronomy for the powerful of antiquity, we can think that in the king's house there was a kind of window or slit oriented on the position of the sun at the summer solstice, which was used by the sovereign to calculate the years, and perhaps to create amazement among his subjects with a "prodigious" event. The winter solstice, on the other hand, should be excluded, because in ancient times navigation was limited to the summer period, and both Ulysses and Telemachus, as well as the herdsman Philoetius had just arrived by ship. And of course experienced sailors must have been familiar with astronomy. Moreover, when Telemachus had secretly left for his tour, Penelope was desperate that her son would undertake such a perilous journey, so the season of sailing must have just begun, and the risk of running into a storm was still well strong. It should be noted that the same goddess Athena stops the chariot of the sun before dawn to prolong the night of love between Ulysses and Penelope (XXIII, 241-246): a further indication that the night was particularly short, so much so as to make it indispensable precisely a miracle to delay the dawn. Finally, I add that in many parts of the world the summer solstice is still celebrated with the lighting of large bonfires, and therefore also the fact that Antinous has a fire lit to heat the bow could be another clue. In a continuous game of references, there is a further link between fire and the bow, as anyone who has seen any documentary on primitive populations knows: to light the fire, you rub a stick in your hands, or rather you rotate with the help of the string of a bow that makes a spiral movement, like a snake climbing a tree; the movement is very similar to that of the drill, and Ulysses himself will claim to have worked his nuptial bed with the drill (XXIII, 197); and it is not for nothing that the attributes of Apollo are the bow and the serpents, as well as the lyre, to be related to the singer who is saved from the massacre. So, within a few pages, the same concept is repeated several times, albeit cryptically enough to make it incomprehensible until today.
This text is an excerpt from the long Capitolo 18 – Il sole e l’altre stelle (Chapter 18 - The sun and other stars) dedicated to astronomy in Homer