Software solves the mystery of a 2,500 year-old poem by Sappho
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Software solves the mystery of a 2,500 year-old poem by Sappho

A computer simulation of the sky over the island of Lesbos, Greece, soon after astronomical dusk during the third week of January 570 BC. The 6-day-old waxing crescent Moon lies in the constellation of Taurus forming a triangle with first-magnitude star Aldebaran and the Seven Sisters, or Pleiades open star cluster. Physicists and astronomers from the University of Texas at Arlington believe that this sky scene, or one of a few nights later, to have inspired Sappho’s “Midnight Poem.” AN graphic by Ade Ashford.

Physicists and astronomers from the University of Texas at Arlington have used advanced astronomical software to accurately date lyric poet Sappho’s “Midnight Poem,” which describes the night sky over Greece more than 2,500 years ago.

The scientists described their research in the article “Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited,” just published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. Martin George, former president of the International Planetarium Society, now at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand, also participated in the work.

“This is an example of where the scientific community can make a contribution to knowledge described in important ancient texts, ” said Manfred Cuntz, physics professor and lead author of the study. “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.”

Sappho’s “Midnight Poem” describes the Pleiades star cluster in the constellation of Taurus having set at around midnight, when supposedly observed by her from the Greek island of Lesbos.

Cuntz and co-author and astronomer Levent Gurdemir, director of the planetarium at UTA, used astronomical software called Starry Night version 7.3, to identify the earliest date that the Pleiades would have set at midnight or earlier in local time in 570 B.C. The planetarium system Digistar 5 also allows creating the night sky of ancient Greece for Sappho’s place and time.

“Use of planetarium software permits us to simulate the night sky more accurately on any date, past or future, at any location,” said Levent Gurdemir. “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.

The Starry Night software demonstrated that in 570 B.C., the Pleiades set at midnight on 25 January, which would be the earliest date that the poem could relate to. As the year progressed, the Pleiades set progressively earlier.

Sappho was the leading female poet of her time and closely rivalled Homer. Her interest in astronomy was not restricted to the “Midnight Poem.” Other examples of her work make references to the Sun, the Moon, and planet Venus.
“Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large,” Cuntz added. “Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does.”