Scientists Use Software to Date 2,500-Year-Old Sapphic Poem

Sappho's Midnight Poem of Pleiades setting by midnight helps astronomers calculate date when it was written

Sappho is no ordinary Ancient Greek lyric poet. Her legendary fame is disproportionate to the few fragments of poetry saved from the clutches of the early Christian church, offended by her intimate exploration of erotic passion. As a result, scattered texts believed to have been written over sketchy dates from 630-612BC onwards – mere trickles – are all that have survived. One thing we do know for certain, however, is the exact date of her “Midnight Poem”, written some time between January 15 to March 31, 570 BC, thanks to the work of astronomers of the University of Texas in Arlington.

The scientists were able to calculate the date when Sappho gazed at the night sky over Lesvos based on her succinct description. The 2,500-year-old Sapphic stanza gave important clues regarding when it was written. Details from the poem, using several translations, were fed into an astronomical software program called Starry Night, taking into account the map co-ordinates for Lesvos in the northern Aegean, and other data points such as the way in which time was measured in Sappho’s time.

Drawn by the reference to the Pleiades, an open star cluster that can be seen at certain times, the astronomers examined her yearning portrait of loneliness pinned to celestial bodies using a number of translations. The poem, according to a translation by J. A. Symonds in 1883 shows a meditative Sappho:

“The sinking moon has left the sky,

The Pleiades have also gone.

Midnight comes – and goes, the hours fly

And solitary still, I lie.”

Astronomers describe the stanza as a “prime example of where ancient poetry and astronomy merge”. Their conclusions, published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, add another dimension to a simple poem. 

Astronomers describe the stanza as a “prime example of where ancient poetry and astronomy merge”.

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