Yesterday I posted a poem by Sappho and today I am, indirectly, doing so again because news broke that scientists have used advanced astronomical software to date Sappho's 'Midnight Poem' (number 49). This reports the Archaeological News Network. The poem reads as follows:

"The moon has set,
and the Pleiades;
it is midnight, the time is going by
and I recline alone.
The sinking moon has left the sky,
The Pleiades have also gone.
Midnight comes--and goes, the hours fly
And solitary still, I lie.
The Moon has left the sky,
Lost is the Pleiads' light;
It is midnight,
And time slips by,
But on my couch alone I lie."

Physicists and astronomers from the University of Texas at Arlington have now used advanced astronomical software to accurately date the poem, which describes the night sky over Hellas more than 2,500 years ago. The scientists described their research in the article "Seasonal dating of Sappho's 'Midnight Poem' revisited," published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. Martin George, former president of the International Planetarium Society, now at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand, also participated in the work. Manfred Cuntz, physics professor and lead author of the study stated:

"Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large. Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does. This [research] is an example of where the scientific community can make a contribution to knowledge described in important ancient texts. Estimations had been made for the timing of this poem in the past, but we were able to scientifically confirm the season that corresponds to her specific descriptions of the night sky in the year 570 BC."

Sappho's 'Midnight Poem' describes a star cluster known as the Pleiades having set at around midnight, when supposedly observed by her from the Greek island of Lesbos. Cuntz and co-author and astronomer Levent Gurdemir, director of the Planetarium at UTA, used software called Starry Night version 7.3, to identify the earliest date that the Pleiades would have set at midnight or earlier in local time in 570 B.C. The Planetarium system Digistar 5 also allows creating the night sky of ancient Greece for Sappho's place and time. Gurdemir stated:

"Use of Planetarium software permits us to simulate the night sky more accurately on any date, past or future, at any location. This is an example of how we are opening up the Planetarium to research into disciplines beyond astronomy, including geosciences, biology, chemistry, art, literature, architecture, history and even medicine."

The Starry Night software demonstrated that in 570 BC., the Pleiades set at midnight on Jan. 25, which would be the earliest date that the poem could relate to. As the year progressed, the Pleiades set progressively earlier. Cuntz explains:

"The timing question is complex as at that time they did not have accurate mechanical clocks as we do, only perhaps water clocks. For that reason, we also identified the latest date on which the Pleiades would have been visible to Sappho from that location on different dates some time during the evening."

This date would have been at the end of astronomical twilight--the moment when the Sun's altitude is -18 degrees and the sky is regarded as perfectly dark. In this year, that date was March 31. This allowed Cuntz to draw his conclusions.

"From there, we were able to accurately seasonally date this poem to mid-winter and early spring, scientifically confirming earlier estimations by other scholars."

Those interested can read the full report here.