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Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Total Eclipse of the Art

I am a big fan of literature. I have a great many books, and have been known to go to the reading room in the British Museum to just bask in the glow of so many great works. It's an awesome sight.

I also love mythology, which is of course inseparable from my love of literature. A substantial part of my upbringing involved education in the Greek myths such as Theseus and the Minotaur, Icarus, and - of course - Homer's Odyssey. I also studied the latter in some great detail during my A-level in Classical Civilisation, so while I don't consider myself an expert on these matters, I'm far from uninformed.

No wonder, then, that this headline caught my eye: Celestial Clues Hint At Eclipse In Homer's Odyssey. It seems that a couple of scientists have been piecing together "evidence" from the text to work out a date for the fall of Troy, using the apparent solar eclipse near the end of the Odyssey as a reference - such eclipses being terribly rare, of course.

I don't really have a problem with the endeavour itself (though it's a little like someone in a thousand years' time trying to work out the exact dates of the events described in Arthurian legend). Presumably however, they would be familiar with another Greek myth: Procrustes. Procrustes was a bandit who would invite guests to lie on his iron bed, and then remove limbs if they were too tall for it, or stretch them on the rack if they were too short. The details of the myth are largely irrelevant here, and all we need take away from it is the derived word "procrustean", for it is a good word and a useful one. It refers to any endeavour which strives to fit the evidence to a pre-existing theory. The well-known logical fallacy of "cherry-picking" is a similar concept.

I can't help but think that there's some procrustean chicanery going on here - 1178BCE is the year they've identified as that of the nearest solar eclipse, which is fair enough. It's the sort of event you'd expect to be remembered, and if the story is true then yes it would be passed on. But the other celestial events are another matter: if the naming of planets after gods dates to around 1000BCE, then even if the poet or poets were familiar with the practice it's unlikely that they would be able to accurately associate the movement of the planets with events which were purported to have happened several centuries previously.

Even if one accepts that, however, there is one line in the article which just made me cringe:

"Not only is this corroborative evidence that this date might be something important," Magnasco says, "but if we take it as a given that the death of the suitors happened on this particular eclipse date, then everything else described in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described."

Oh, ok. So the Greek underworld exists as described, there was at least one real Cyclops, who was the son of - wait for it - Poseidon. A god.

Please, scientists, leave the literature alone. It's all very fascinating - and possibly historically valuable - but art is art. As if Troy didn't do a good enough job of pissing all over some of my favourite mythology.

2 comments:

Dan said...

You could do worse than take a leaf out of the Scientific approach, and not quote out of context. If you read the article proper:

http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/abstract/0803317105v2

then you'll see that that quote appears nowhere. It makes no sense in the context of the original article. Shame on the journalist.

If you really care about your mythology, and how Scientists deal with it, read the primary text, like all good researchers. :)

Unless, of course, you are simply pissed off that a pair of Scientists had something to say about literature...

Darkwinter said...

My quote wasn't out of context, and I assume the quote from the ScienceDaily article was taken from a comment made by Magnasco in an interview on the piece.

I actually failed to track down the original article myself, but you have my sincere thanks for pointing me to it - I'll give it a thorough read ASAP.

And no, to be honest the only thing I had a really big problem with was the completely illogical generalisation made by that quote. It's very exciting to see this sort of research done in truth, and perhaps I should have stressed that aspect of my attitude in the original post.