In Brief

Astronomers Attempt to Date Sappho’s “Midnight Poem” Using the Stars

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Saphhos’ poem “An Old Age” (lines 9-20). Papyrus from 3rd cent. BCE (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

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 on papyri fragments. One such bit of verse, called “Midnight Poem,” describes a lonely night of stargazing (belying her exaggerated reputation for promiscuity). 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.

“Previously, [it was] estimated that the poem was composed in late winter/early spring, a time frame that is not unusual for lyrics of an amorous nature,” the researchers write in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. “The aim of our paper is to revisit this earlier finding by using modern-day software.”

Using the software package Starry Night — a sky-mapping simulation that plots the positions of celestial objects throughout history — researchers plugged in Sappho’s assumed location at the time of writing (the Lesbos city of Myteline). They also plugged in the latest date on which the Pleiades would have been visible to Sappho around midnight from Lesbos on different dates. That date was 570 BCE, the year of Sappho’s death. Based on the results “Starry Night” turned up, the researchers posit that the poem was written on a night between January 25 and March 31, 570 BCE.

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The Pleiades, an open cluster consisting of approximately 3,000 stars at a distance of 400 light-years (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

While these claims of cracking an ancient poet’s code using modern technology have ignited the nerdosphere, the findings should be taken with a grain of salt: There are too many unknown factors to consider this dating of the poem at all conclusive. As The Rogue Classicist and science historian Darin Hayton point out, the researchers’ findings are based on a set of untested assumptions. There is, of course, the possibility that “Midnight Poem” is an invented reflection –– for all we know, Sappho could’ve simply imagined the Pleiades. And even if the poem does reflect a reality Sappho experienced, the researchers can’t know for certain that she wrote it on the very night of her lonely stargazing.

There’s also the faulty assumption that Sappho’s “midnight” — translated from the Aeolic Greek, “μέσαι δε νύκτες” — corresponds to 2016’s definition of midnight (12:00 AM), and that Sappho had a way of accurately telling the time. “We could not establish precisely what type of time-keeping device was used on Lesbos around 570 BC[E],” the researchers admitted in the paper, “although we assumed that it was the clepsydra (water clock).” But what if Sappho didn’t check her clepsydra at the time of writing the poem? The findings would be null and void.

Perhaps, as the researchers put it, the study is “a prime example of where ancient poetry and astronomy merge” — but it’s also an example of the scientific community’s literalism applied a bit unrigorously to poetry, that least literal of genres.

Read the full article in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage [PDF].

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