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.
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].
We are fighting for ourselves and the working standards we deserve, but we are also fighting for the heart and future of the institution.
The 65-year-old man was reportedly angry that he was not granted a meeting with the Pope.
Inspired by the creation story of DeFeo’s monumental artwork “The Rose,” Lyn’s musical piece debuts at the New York City venue this October.
This week: New York’s disappearing alleys, Wolfgang Tillmans’s fading star, Velma Dinkley is gay, and more.
The technology isn’t available for public use, but Meta (formerly Facebook) released a series of eerie sample clips based on prompts like “cat watching TV” and “spaceship landing.”
This free online event celebrates Sánchez, the recipient of the Artists’ Legacy Foundation’s 2022 Artist Award, and his decades-long multimedia practice rooted in activism.
There’s high demand in the country for the nostalgia-soaked Instagram videos of sister duo Zainab and Sakina Sabunwala.
Gustav Klimt: Gold in Motion transforms a historic bank in Manhattan into the unlikely setting of an immersive art experience one visitor called “mesmerizing.”
Fall shows at the Chicago art space explore how same-sex desire became the basis for a new identity category and celebrate the cosmic work of an acclaimed Chicago-based artist.
Masterworks of American Landscape Painting at the Center for Figurative Painting makes clear that the term “landscape” has been widely interpreted.
The artist’s work quietly asks: How do we read and write the world we live in?
Warsaw Gallery Weekend and Fringe Warszawa hope to offer long-term solutions for a thriving art scene in Warsaw when skyrocketing inflation and a lack of affordable studio spaces have become the new norm.