Sappho, the astronomer

For centuries, scholars have mined the verse of Greek lyric poet Sappho, Plato’s “tenth Muse“, for clues about her life. Her biography remains speculation: Most of her poetry was lost, and what’s left survives only in papyri fragments. One such bit of verse, called “Midnight Poem”, describes a lonely night of stargazing. Here is Henry Thornton Warton’s 1887 translation, from the original Aeolic Greek:

The moon has set
And the Pleiades;
It is midnight,
The time is going by,
And I sleep alone.

Though these musings seem sweeping, they contain scraps of information about the particular night in question: Sappho describes a night when the moon, and the star cluster Pleiades, set before midnight on the island of Lesbos. Now, in the tradition of trying to paint a biographical portrait of Sappho from her work, a group of astronomers and a physicist at the University of Texas, Arlington have attempted to seasonally date “Midnight Poem” using these bits of data.

Using highly-specialised astronomical software, a team of scientists has managed to accurately date ‘Midnight Poem’, a work by lyric poet Sappho. The poem, according to the researchers, describes the night sky in Greece, some 2,500 years ago. Recently published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, the paper, titled ‘Seasonal dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ revisited’, was the result of research by physicists and astronomers from the University of Texas at Arlington.

The team also included Martin George, the former head of the International Planetarium Society and a current member of the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand. Speaking about the study, Manfred Cuntz, a professor at the university and the paper’s chief author, said:

“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 BCE.”

The Pleiades star cluster

In ‘Midnight Poem’, Sappho describes in striking detail a star cluster called Pleiades. Observed from the island of Lesbos, which was also the birthplace of the ancient Greek poetess, the Pleiades is depicted as setting at about midnight. With the help of an advanced computer program, known as Starry Night Version 7.3, Cuntz and his colleague Levent Gurdemir successfully identified the earliest date, on which the star cluster might have set at around midnight or earlier, in 570 BCE. Using the high-tech Planetarium system, called Digistar 5, the researchers were also able to accurately recreate the night sky in ancient Greece, during Sappho’s time. Gurdemir added:

“Use of Planetarium software permits us to simulate the night sky more accurately on any date, past or future, at any location. This is an example of how we are opening up the Planetarium to research into disciplines beyond astronomy, including geosciences, biology, chemistry, art, literature, architecture, history and even medicine.”

According to the astronomers, in the year 570 BCE, the earliest date that the Pleiades set at or slightly before midnight was January 25, which is possibly what the poem refers to. In fact, the time, at which the star cluster set, got progressively earlier as the year went on. Cuntz explained:

“The timing question is complex as at that time they did not have accurate mechanical clocks as we do, only perhaps water clocks. For that reason, we also identified the latest date on which the Pleiades would have been visible to Sappho from that location on different dates some time during the evening.”

Additionally, the scientists estimated that the last date for the Pleiades star cluster to be visible towards the end of what is known as astronomical twilight – the instant when the Sun’s altitude is exactly -18 degrees, and consequently, the sky is perfectly dark – was likely March 31. Many of Sappho’s poems deal with astronomy, with some referring to the Sun, the Moon, the stars and even Venus. Cuntz went on the say:

“From there, we were able to accurately seasonally date this poem to mid-winter and early spring, scientifically confirming earlier estimations by other scholars… Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large. Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does.”

Talking about the significance of the research in the field of astronomy and science, Morteza Khaledi, the dean of the university’s College of Science, said:

“This research helps to break down the traditional silos between science and the liberal arts, by using high-precision technology to accurate date ancient poetry. It also demonstrates that the Planetarium’s reach can go way beyond astronomy into multiple fields of research.”

Source: University of Texas at Arlington

Let's keep in touch!

Give us your email and we’ll keep you in the loop.

We'll never share your email with anyone else.