In a time where the scientific community can contribute to art and knowledge described in key ancient texts, researchers have utilized sophisticated astronomical software to precisely date the ‘Midnight Poem’ by lyric poet Sappho, that accurately depicts exactly how the night sky would have looked over Greece, 2,500 years ago.
Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ depicts a star cluster known as the Pleiades having set at about midnight when ostensibly observed by her from the Greek island of Lesbos.
Manfred Cuntz, physics professor and lead author of the study, argued that evaluation of the poem’s timing had been made in the past. However, the scholars managed to scientifically verify the season corresponding to the poet’s explicit descriptions of the night sky during the year 570 B.C.
The Starry Night advanced astronomy software was utilized by scholars in identifying the earliest date during which the Pleiades would have been set at midnight or earlier for the local time during then 570 BC.
This software confirmed that in 570 BC, the Pleiades would have been directly overhead at midnight on 25THJanuary, and would thus be the earliest date on which the poem could accurately relate to.
Cuntz, despite having an unfortunate surname, argued that the timing issue was complex since at that time mechanical clocks were not existent.
“Consequently, it was also established that the latest date the Pleiades would have been observable to Sappho from that location on different dates was during the evening,” he alleged.
Researchers established that the last date the Pleiades would have been observed at the end of astronomical dusk- the instant when the height above sea level of the Sun is negative 18 degrees and the sky is regarded as completely dark – was 31st March.
“From there, it became easy for us to accurately date this poem to the mid-winter season and early spring, thus scientifically validating all estimations previously indicated by ancient research studies,” said Manfred.
Later, the study was published in the Heritage and Astronomical History Journal
Sappho was the principal female poet of that era and strongly rivaled Homer in her time, despite modern history sidelining her contributions somewhat.
“Sappho deserves to be regarded as an informal contributor to ancient Greek astronomy and to the Greek society a whole,” Cuntz added.
Cuntz concluded that it was rare for ancient poets to explicitly comment on astronomical-related observations as plainly as Sappho had.