Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.09.19

Laurin R. Johnson, Shining in the Ancient Sea: The Astronomical Ancestry of Homer's Odyssey.   Portland, OR:  Multnomah House, 1999.  Pp. 156; 1 map.  ISBN 0-9669828-0-0.  $20.00.  

Reviewed by John M. McMahon, Le Moyne College (
Word count: 4217 words

(The reviewer wishes to apologize for the lateness of this review. Many thanks also to George Thompson for assistance with appropriate Sanskrit reference material and to the anonymous BMCR referee for constructive comments.)

Reviewing Shining in the Ancient Sea: The Astronomical Ancestry of Homer's Odyssey by Laurin R. Johnson (hereafter J.) proved no easy task. The work can hardly be regarded as scholarly since its author shows no real knowledge of ancient Greek, exhibits only a limited control of pertinent (and current) literature, and lacks a truly comprehensive critical approach to what material he does adduce for evidence. J. also sometimes (and by his own admission) engages in elaborate speculation to support his thesis that the survival of an Indo-European oral tradition explaining the positions of the equinoxes and tracing the monthly lunar circuit through the zodiac is the key to unlock the origin and meaning of Homer's Odyssey, particularly the adventures of its hero in Books Nine through Twelve. It is this long lost astronomical context, claims J., that must be reconstructed in order to fully understand the existing account of Odysseus's adventures. Despite its obvious shortcomings as an academic work about Homeric epic, however, the book does afford the general reader some practical information about astronomical principles and enhances a visual appreciation of the heavens.

In the Introduction (15-18) J. presents a brief overview of the tradition of the Homeric epics and their historical origins in the Mycenaean Age. He rightly attributes their eventual survival in the centuries following the disintegration of that culture to oral transmission, but generally mischaracterizes the post-Mycenaean "Dark Age" by referring to the period as one of catastrophic "cultural ... devastation so complete that not even the memory of it survived" (16). For the the decline and eventual disappearance of Mycenaean civilization J. offers the "much disputed" theory of widespread drought (17) but to his explanation adds a level of sensationalism not in keeping with the principles of scholarly writing. The final paragraph in this brief introductory overview is that the Odyssey conceals within its Homeric Age epic tale an Ur-narrative based on a pre-Mycenaean, indeed pre-Greek, conception of the skies. (18)

Chapter One ("The Puzzle", 19-37) lays out the essential foundations upon which J. constructs his theory. It begins with a very general but well written account of how commentators, both ancient and modern, tried to make sense out of the adventures of Odysseus in Books Nine through Twleve. Beginning with a quote from Aristotle, J. quickly introduces a series of questions designed to pique reader interest and to define more fully the scope of the problem as he sees it. The brief treatment of allegorical interpretations of the adventures of the hero (20) soon leads to a longer and more substantive discussion of the Nineteeth Century's linguistic-based explanations of the origins and dispersal of the Indo-Europeans and especially of the theories and influence of Max Mueller upon the interpretation of myth. It is here that J. recounts both the initial success of Mueller in his theories of myth and their final abandonment as untenable and unworkable. J. is eager to point out, however, that the solar associations in myth and legend made by Mueller and his disciples "are not so ridiculous at all" since they can lead us to look to a celestial origin for the tales in the Odyssey (26). Joseph Campbell's Jungian theoretical approach to Odysseus's adventures, in which a male psyche contends with a feminine counterpart, comes under brief scrutiny, but J. quickly moves from consideration of these allegorical aspects to the question of Mediterranean geography and thence to the folktale as the real basis for the core account of Books Nine through Twelve. It is in this latter context that J. locates the essential meaning of these books as evidence for an earlier current of story elements surviving in Homeric epic.

In the second half of Chapter One (29-37), J. first posits an intricately balanced geometric pattern for the adventures of Odysseus and suggests that there is an internal logic for the arrangement of individual episodes. Such a rigid narrative structure, he claims, is entirely consonant with the artistic impulses of the post-Mycenaean centuries. After explaining an elaborate schema (Fig. 1.1, 30) which situates specific episodes in opposition to one another and incorporates several sub-patterns of narrative correspondences, the author proposes an inherent circularity in the epic as a whole, particularly in the books that tell of Odysseus's voyages, and contends that the sequence of the episodes is not arbitrary. Futhermore, that pattern reflects the "circle of the ecliptic, the path of the sun and moon and planets among the stars" (34). In the remaining pages J. sets out to introduce the reader to the concept that "astronomical lore" and a kind of poetic code derived from it are at the heart of the Odyssey. One significant feature of this section is that to bolster his case, the author cites the work of Gerald Hawkins on the astronomical knowledge of the builders of Stonehenge1 and the eventual acceptance of his theories by initially reluctant scholars as evidence that knowledge of the heavens could be passed on orally, much in the manner of the content of the Homeric epic (35-7).

Chapter Two ("The Celestial Framework", 39-59) lays the foundation for later argument by emphasizing the physical mechanics of the heavens and ancient interpretations of the movements of the celestial bodies and their visual relationships, including an explanation of the concepts of stellar heliacal rising and setting and the annual movement of the rising and setting sun along the eastern and western horizons (39-45). Once this basic information is established, J. turns to the specific application of this information in the Vedic texts, which he considers "the culmination of a long oral tradition" in which "we can expect to find a record closest to the original Indo-European conception of the heavens" (45). After briefly discussing the difficulties encountered in interpreting metaphorical expressions referring to celestial objects in the various texts, J. uses the association of the term dhruva ("firm-fixed-constant") with the pole star in later Vedic texts to support his contention that traditional astronomical knowledge was passed down unchanged over two millennia (46-7).

The remainder of the chapter (47-59) treats in detail the star patterns along the ecliptic through which the moon appears to move in its monthly orbit around the earth. In the Vedic texts there were 28 asterisms (small star patterns), generically called naksatras, to which were assigned specific names. In most Vedic lists the first of these, krttikas, corresponds to the Pleiades and, according to the author, represents the position of the Sun at the vernal equinox in the third millennium BCE. From this calculation, J. then proceeds to associate the various other naksatras, referred to as "wives of the moon" in some texts, with some of the female characters in the Odyssey, claiming that it is this early and half-remembered store of Vedic associations that the Homeric epic preserves (49). In addition to other correspondences (destined to be treated in more detail in later chapters), the final part of the chapter focusses on the two ayanas (paths) into which the ecliptic was divided. One, the devayana, was the portion of the ecliptic north of the equinoctial points; the other, the pitryana, was its southern equivalent. These opposing paths (with a variety of additional cultural associations) find representation in the accounts of the voyage of Odysseus (devayana) and his homecoming (pitryana) (54-5). The chapter closes with a careful explanation of the precession of the equinoxes and its importance for further understanding of the book's basic premise.

With Chapter Three ("The Gates of Heaven", 64-77) J. begins in earnest the process of association that links Vedic astronomical concepts with the Odyssey. The prominent stars in the eastern quarter of the heavens (Sirius, Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel and Betelgeuse), and especially the constellation of Orion, form the bases for this association. J. emphasizes that the proximity of all of these to the vernal equinox as it stood from 4000 to 700 BCE enables us to see how the figure of the Greek mythological figure Orion is really to be identified with the earlier Indic hero Prajapati and how the close grouping of three stars in the constellation was identified with the third of the Vedic naksatras, known as mrgasiras, the "head of the stag." In a circuitous explanation based on Greek myths of Orion's death as well as upon the earlier Vedic tales concerning the slaying of Prajapati, the two strands are linked with the demise of Actaeon, turned by Artemis into a stag (62-6).

These stories are linked celestially as well, for Orion once stood at the juncture of the two paths of the sky with the Milky Way; a corresponding meeting place appeared in the opposite region of the sky, 180 degrees away in the tail of the constellation Scorpius. Furthermore, the sun standing in Orion in the Spring was a sign of birth, while the full moon in that same region marked the Autumn, the time of dying. Furthermore, the Milky Way was known as the path by which souls reached the regions of death. Thus, despite the precession of the equinoxes, these original Indo-European concepts, preserved in the Vedic texts, are ultimately responsible for the association of the brilliant constellation with a region of death, a tradition that survived into Greek times, remembered but not understood (66-7).

The survival and integration of this material into Homeric epic forms the remainder of the chapter. In it J. suggests that the incident of the killing of a stag in Book Ten of the Odyssey (ll. 144-71) is a remembrance of the association of Orion with the stag's head and Prajapati; that the mysterious μῶλυ of ll. 302-6 does not represent the Homeric φάρμακον but rather echoes the Vedic mula, the naksatra in the tail of Scorpius, as a celestial marking point; that Circe's island represents the point of the equinox, a contention adduced by the linguistic association of the Hyades with pigs; that the Laestrygonians, Atlas and, finally, the Biblical Samson are ultimately to be drawn into the celestial identification of Orion; and that the death of Orion (like that of Samson) entails the destruction of the "Gate of Heaven." The conclusion to be drawn from this complex of intercultural narrative is that in the layers of remembered stories "the residue of the former cosmological structure" is preserved and brought forward into succeeding ages (77).

Chapter Four ("Further Remnants of the Procession" [sic], 79-88) discusses the next two naksatras, the Pleiades and the constellation of Aries, and identifies their remains in two episodes of Odysseus's fairytale adventures. J. indulges in more etymology in trying to uncover the associations between the Pleiades as the place of the equinox and the encounter that Odysseus has with Aeolus at the beginning of Book Ten. One meaning of their Vedic name krttikas, "hide", is used to link them to the bag of winds given Odysseus; the ancient derivation of the Greek name from πλεῖν , "to sail", then becomes the basis for the idea of winds. The number of the readily visible stars in the cluster, six, is also linked to the number of offspring of Aeolus. A similar technique is brought to bear on the relationship of the next naksatra, bharanis, to the Cyclops story (pp. 83-7): since the word means "the bearer" and Aries is the celestial ram, it is easy to see in this grouping the ram that bears Odysseus to safety. The Cyclops in this heavenly reconstruction is none other than the blinded Orion, and the wild goats encountered on the island are identified with the stars of the constellation Auriga, including Capella, "the she goat." In fact, the very olive staff used to blind Polyphemus has astronomical resonance in J.'s reconstruction, for in an elaborate series of associations with the olive tree he symbolically links it to both Aries as the marker of the Spring Equinox and to the constellation of Libra as the Autumnal Equinox. In the closing paragraphs (87-90) J. then admits that there are no celestial connections that can be made for the episode of the Lotus Eaters (10.82-104) despite its position immediately preceding that of Polyphemus. Indeed, the last material J. presents is a chart (Table 4.1) which rearranges the order of Odysseus's adventures to suit their origins in the Vedic naksatras.

In Chapter Five ("Okeanos and Other Celestial Rivers", 89-97) J. begins by identifying the Milky Way with Homer's Okeanos (among other mythological streams) and relies on A. B. Cook's contention that "in pre-Greek times ... [it] simply meant the Galaxy" (91). Celestially, moreover, the rivers which Odysseus is told he must cross to visit the Land of the Dead (10.505-15) are actually to be identified with the constellation Eridanus, at one time itself divided into two streams. The mention of the Cimmerians in Odysseus's own account of his journey (11.13-22) prompts J. to place their heavenly abode "at the naksatra called ardra, which means, appropriately, 'moist'" (95). It is identified with Betelgeuse in the shoulder of Orion, but its association with dampness is based only on speculation. Other connections to the Land of the Dead are also present in this region of the sky: Sirius in Canis Major represents Cerberus, Hades is the part of the Milky Way below the horizon, and Heracles' capture of Cerberus echoes the gradual movement of Sirius higher in the sky as a result of the precession of the equinoxes (95-6). Lastly, J., citing Od. 9.26: πρὸς ζόφον, envisions the journey of Odysseus to Ithaca as taking place celestially across "the great expanse of the night sky that lies within the circle of the Galaxy on the path known as the devayana" (96) and encountering the chief constellations between Taurus and the region of Scorpius and Sagittarius where the Milky Way again intersects the ecliptic. The chapter ends with a chart (Table 5.1) of the equivalences among Homeric place names, characters, and imagery; the Vedic naksatras; and the modern constellations (97).

In Chapter Six ("The Northern Path", 99-111) J. next turns his attention to the route of Odysseus as it follows the ecliptic through the naksatras that correspond to the present zodiacal constellations from Gemini through Virgo. Further, he associates this celestial journey with that of the Argonauts as they return from Colchis, contending that the two tales are closely related. Thus, the Homeric account of the Sirens is linked to the stars Castor and Pollux, but only by the slenderest of linguistic threads, and J. must admit that the purported connections between the Vedic asterisms and Odysseus's travels beyond the regions of the equinoxes are quite slim (101-2). In the same vein and with the same more or less speculative associations, J. makes the incident with Scylla (12.222-59) correspond to the constellation Cancer and that of the slaughter of the cattle of the Sun to the first magnitude star Regulus in the heart of Leo. Likewise, the naksatra made up of the three stars in Leo's hindquaters, representing a fig tree, finds its way into the Odyssey as the fig tree clutched by Odysseus escaping Charybdis (12.431-36). For added evidence, J. cites Ovid's tale of Apollo and the raven (Fasti 2. 243-65). The final episode in this section is that of Calypso, which J. identifies in the heavens with the star Spica in the constellation of Virgo. Here the association is based upon the concept of the "navel of the sea" used by Homer to describe Calypso's island (1.50) since Spica "lies midway on the celestial path aross the expanse encricled by the Milky Way" and "is also the closest bright star to the center of the great circle of Okeanos," representing the "navel of the sea...[and] of Okeanos as well" (108). The chapter ends with a discussion of the relevance of the directions, based on the constellations, given Odysseus by Calypso to find his way back to Ithaca. J. concludes that this passage is "a descriptive set-piece", a fact shown by its similarity to the desciption of the constellations on the Shield of Achilles (Il. 18.487-9).

The basic premise of Chapter Seven ("Olive Trees at the Corners of the Year", 113-26) is that at especially meaningful points in Odysseus's travels the appearances of an olive tree are recorded in three appropriately significant naksatras, those that mark the two equinoxes and the winter solstice. In Chapter Four J. explained the association of the constellation Aries as the position of the vernal equinox with Odysseus's encounter with Polyphemus, specifically linking it to the olive staff that figures prominently in the episode. In this schema the corresponding autumnal equinox is located in Libra, two stars of which form the naksatra known as visakhe, "branched" or "forked." J. thus identifies with this naksatra the two-branched olive that shelters Odysseus upon his arrival on Scherie. Furthermore, the star Arcturus as well as nearby Ursa Major figure prominently in J.'s explanation of the discovery of the hero by Nausicaa. The cave on Ithaca in which Odysseus begins his return to power is also important (117-21); and after more celestial identifications, including equating the goddess Athena with the star Antares (119-21), J. concludes that the cave itself is symbolic of the ancient Indo-European equinoctial system (121). Subsequent to this, Odysseus's adventures on Ithaca no longer follow the pattern established by the Vedic naksatras but do reflect an astronomical origin in the constellations, the appeal of Phemius (22.340-3) still to be seen in Lyra and the execution of the serving women (22.465-77) in Pisces. Finally, the olive tree from which the bed of Odysseus is crafted is linked with the constellation of Pegasus, once the celestial site of the winter solstice and "imagined by the Vedic poets as a couch or bed" (125), and, through the precession of the equinoxes, eventually with the star Altair, itself once associated with the tree of life. The chapter ends with the suggestion that the inherent movement of the solstice is reflected in Odysseus's anxiety about his olive tree marriage bed and in the general sense of instability throughout the Odyssey.

The brief final chapter ("Who was Odysseus?", 127-33) is an attempt to identify the fictional hero Odysseus with one of the celestial bodies that journey through the ecliptic. This highly speculative effort (as the author himself admits) finally concludes that if "Odysseus once lived in the night sky" (129), the planet Saturn would be the best choice. (The planet takes about 29.5 years to complete its trek though the zodiac and a variety of methods are adduced to show that the planet's course corresponds closely to the individual episodes of the hero's adventures. This includes a discussion of the numerological associations that might support the identification of Odysseus with the seventh planet.) In J.'s final comments, however, he credits the artistry of Homer with making the poem "something more than astronomy, something even more beautiful than the constellations shining in the night sky" (133). A brief appendix on "The Celestial Location of Ortygia" (135-7) attempts to identify that island's heavenly position with the star Sirius.

The work has numerous deficiencies that disqualify it as a serious academic contribution. A few will serve as examples. First off, the title page lacks information on publisher and place of publication. Pagination begins with Chapter One (19), the entire front matter and Introduction having no numbers at all. Indeed, while the Table of Contents lists the individual chapter headings and a short synopsis of each, there are no page numbers indicated. What is more, no index is included, a serious oversight for the general reader to whom the work clearly seems directed. Annoying little details distract the reader as well, such as the obvious typo in the title of Chapter Four ("Procession" for "Precession"), outright error in transliteration (apsoroos, 90; Arkhtos, 116) and an inconsistency in the way specific non-English words appear in the text (Krttikas capitalized, 82 and krttikas, 88; the practice of making the "o" in moly long while neglecting to do the same for the "u" in mula). Finally, J.'s bibliography lacks the depth and breadth for a true scholarly treatment of the subject. For example, in discussing the meaning of the name of the Pleiades and its role in Hesiod's Works and Days (81-2) J. surely should have consulted M. L. West's commentary (Oxford: 1978) on ll. 383-4 for more etymological background. Likewise, Gregory Nagy's Greek Mythology and Poetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990) would have offered a wealth of material linking Sanskrit and Greek literary motifs in Homeric epic. One might also expect to see reference to M. Mayrhofer's extensive Kurzgefasstes etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen (Heidelberg: 1956-80) and his Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoiranishcen (Heidelberg: 1986ff.) in addition to A. A. MacDonell and A. B. Keith's Vedic Index of Names and Subjects (Delhi: 1912), which does appear. Similarly, there is little attempt to include any specific works of literary interpretation that might shed light on the individual episodes in the Homeric poem as a work of the imagination.

More substantive problems, however, lie at the heart of Shining on the Ancient Sea, just a few of which are quite illustrative. While J. criticizes Max Mueller's linguistic approaches to interpreting Indo-European myth (24-5), in effect he falls into the very same trap by assuming that etymology alone can reveal the significance of literary depictions in Homeric epic. For example, in his desire to link Odysseus's encounter with Aeolus to the stars, his attempt to locate Aeolia and relate it to the larger theme of the work (79-82) relies heavily on the etymological origins of the name of the Pleiades in both Greek and Sanskrit. Similarly, the author's dependence upon translated Sanskrit texts as evidence for what he sees as original Indo-European astronomical material leaves itself open to criticism since questions can be raised about why Greek linguistic and cultural representations presumably derived from I-E cultural traditions should be so different from the original when (according to J.) the Vedic material preserves those astronomical traditions so well. Indeed, J. makes no mention of Minoan cultural influences on the Mycenaeans or even takes into account the possible astronomical significance of the Phaistos disk, one figure of which clearly points to the Pleiades.2 By singling out the Odyssey alone for consideration, he also does not acknowledge the existence of an entire cycle of stories relating to the returns of the principal heroes from Troy, thereby excluding discussion of any other oral traditions. Nor does he even acknowledge that the system of the naksatras themselves may not derive from an Indo-European astronomical or calendrical tradition at all, a point made by one of his own sources.3

In terms of J.'s presentation of his own ideas, there also exist clearly identifiable lapses in the formulation and support of a coherent argument. First, sheer speculation based on limited information pervades the work. In the case of the association made by J. between Cancer and Scylla (102-4), for example, some of his evidence rests on a late 5th c. coin of Akragas (Fig. 6.2, 103) on which are depicted Scylla and a crab. Yet the crab has more to do with symbolizing the city than with the sky; in fact, combined with the eagle representing Zeus, it probably represented Poseidon.4 J. also makes connections to suit his purposes without a comprehensive examination of pertinent information. Thus, moly "is a derivative of mula, a Sanskrit word meaning 'root'" (69), while in reality the source of both words is still very much open to speculation, a fact that calls seriously into question J.'s conclusions about the whole significance of the naksatra known as mula (in the tail of Scorpius) as an Indo-European survival.5 Lastly, J.'s willingness to draw examples from disparate cultural and literary artifacts is particularly disturbing. The extensive associations made among the figures of Orion, Atlas and the Biblical Samson (71-7), for instance, is indicative of the book's indeterminate methodology and scholarly weakness.

There is, however, some merit to the work, if not in the academic sense, then at least in the practical. J.'s sense of wonder about the visible night sky is obvious, and his explanations of the workings of the heavens are lucid as well as appropriately illustrated (e.g., 39-45, 56-8). Indeed, J. well understands the limitations placed upon those moderns who would view the heavens in all their unsullied majesty (89). The star maps themselves, though small, are clear, and they outline specific celestial groupings well enough for ready identification, while the fold-out map of the naksatras at the back adds a pleasant and instructive touch. Furthermore, when plotted on a computer planetarium program, J.'s reconstructions of the positions of equinoxes and solstices from the past are largely accurate.6

The book itself is also attractively produced. The entire work is printed on recycled paper, using soy-based inks. The author's cover photograph evocatively depicts the night sky against the darkened outlines of evergreens. In fact, one of the things that the work may accomplish is to prompt readers unfamiliar with the night sky to actually step outside and look up at the very heavens that had so much of an effect on the culture of the ancients. That alone might be enough to warrant an uncritical perusal.


1.   Hawkins, Gerald, Stonehenge Decoded (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965).
2.   Robert Burnham, Burnham's Celestial Handbook, 3 Vols. (New York: Dover, 1978): Vol. 3, 1868-9.
3.   MacDonnell and Keith, 427-31.
4.   From the University of Tasmania's John Elliot Museum web page ( "The crab was the city badge of Akragas..."
5.   Mayrhofer, 667
6.   SkyChart III, (Saratoga, CA: Southern Stars Software, 1998).

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