BMCR 2000.11.03

Response: Johnson on McMahon on Johnson

Response to 2000.09.19

Response by

I am pleased that Shining in the Ancient Sea: The Astronomical Ancestry of Homer’s Odyssey has been reviewed in BMCR, given the number of books that the Review receives every month. When I pitched the book over the ramparts into the citadel of classical studies I half expected to be ignored or at best to be showered with a vat of boiling oil. I am not a classicist, nor even any longer an academic, and the close reading that Professor McMahon accorded I consider an honor, even though I came away from reading his review a bit singed and a trifle slippery.

McM.’s summary of the chapters is thorough and accurate, with only a few discrepancies — e.g., 700 BCE instead of 1200, referring to Saturn as “the seventh planet” — yet his rendition of the thesis, while not incorrect, seems to me to miss the tenor of the argument. I maintain that the Odyssey had its beginnings as a poem designed in a pre-literate society to pass on the knowledge of the heavens, not as one more tale of a hero’s return from Troy. Later poets added the Trojan dimension, but the astronomical bones can still be discerned beneath the bronze-age flesh. Evidence for these astronomical beginnings I find in the many seemingly gratuitous, incongruous, and sometimes downright bizarre details in the Odyssey that have never been explained — Circe’s Island of the Dawn, the paths of day and night coming close together at Telepylos, the incestuous household of Aeolus, the double olive tree on Scherie, the cave with two entrances, one for mortals, one for immortals, Phemius placing his lyre midway between the mixing bowl and the silver-studded chair. These details and many others defy any earthly explanation, yet they all make sense if we look to the heavens. The fact that the sequence of adventures Odysseus undergoes does match the sequence of Vedic asterisms that mark the passage of the sun and moon and planets, adventure for asterism, is, to me at least, more than mere coincidence, and in itself forms a major part of the argument. McM.’s summary lists all the ingredients of the soup, but leaves out the flavor.

I do agree with some of McM.’s criticisms. I admit I haven’t looked at the books he believes I should have. He nailed me on that typo, “Procession,” which is acutely embarrassing. Including the coin was a mistake, I agree, even though I offered it as evidence hesitantly, at a point where the fabric of the argument was getting thin. But I don’t know what to make of the accusation that I color outside the lines, as it were, in the discussion of myths surrounding the constellation of Orion. The point was to show that ALL the stories about this largest and most beautiful of constellations, whether it is called Prajapati or Orion or Samson or Actaeon, are stories about how the figure died, and one might be led to wonder why.

McM. is disappointed that I don’t discuss the Phaistos disk, since one figure on it depicts the Pleiades. Should I also have discussed the Subaru out in the driveway which also sports an emblem of the Pleiades? (Subaru means Pleiades in Japanese.) I am also derelict in not including “any specific works of literary interpretation that might shed light on the individual episodes in the Homeric poem as a work of the imagination.” The book is about the astronomical ancestry of Homer’s Odyssey. Whether Penelope’s sorrows are imaginatively rendered or not is beyond the scope of my inquiry. McM. also takes me to task for not including other tales of return in my discussion when the whole thrust of my argument is that the Odyssey is utterly different from them in origin. My very brief description of the Greek Dark Age contains “a level of sensationalism not in keeping with the principles of scholarly writing.” We should all be grateful that McM. was not around to yank the pen from Gilbert Murray’s hand.

As for the missing page numbers in the introduction, the lack of an index, etc., “that disqualify it as a serious academic contribution,” all I can say in my defense is that there are only two of us on the staff here at Multnomah House, myself and the dog Harley, and Harley, smart though he is, is little help in making indexes, while it was all I could do to get the book in the shape it is in as it was. It is a slim volume, only 40,000 words, an evening’s read. If any subscribers to BMCR would like to see a copy, I will gladly send them one, gratis. I can be reached at