April 16, 2015

It Happened on April 16th

Don't cha just hate it when the Hubby comes home early?

Odysseus Returns Home and Slays the Suitors, 1178 BC

I have to admit I was more than a little surprised when I read this. I'd always assumed that Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey was a mythological figure. But it seems that there is evidence to suggest that the day that Odysseus is said to have slain his wife's suitors was an actual day, and the astronomers can pinpoint it.

The identification of April 16, 1178 BC as the day Odysseus slew the suitors is based on four significant clues:

  •  A total solar eclipse. A seer had prophesied the day of suitors' deaths, saying, "The sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world."
  • The appearance of Venus. Six days before the slaughter, Odysseus reached home with the "Star of the Dawn" -- Venus -- visible at sunrise.
  • The constellations Bootes and Pleiades. Odysseus set sail 29 ½ days earlier, with both of these constellations visible in the twilight.
  • The position of Mercury. 33 days earlier, Mercury is described as being high at dawn and being near the western end of its path.

People who know more about astronomy than I'll ever know assure us that the only time all those factors occurred (within the general time-frame associated with the Odyssey) was on April 16, 1178 BC.

Now, just because Homer was describing a real date, does that mean that he was describing a real person? Could he, for example, have been using something he'd witnessed personally as content in his epic? Well, since our best guess of a date for the composition of the Odyssey is somewhere around the 8th century BC, probably not. The story is based on an oral tradition, however, so who knows?

Now, just in case your mind isn't boggled enough, there are also archeologists who think they've found Odysseus's tomb. It has always bothered scholars that the Ithaca described in the Odyssey bears little resemblance to the site we call Ithaca today, and there may be a reason for this. Odysseus ruled a multi-island kingdom, and it may be that the capitol was on the island now called Kefalonia, just off the west coast of Greece.

Kefalonia has a good source of drinkable water (unlike the geography of modern-day Ithaca), extensive city walls, and a significant tomb site, of the type used to bury royalty. It is the largest tomb of that type ever found in northeastern Greece, and contains the remains of 72 (or more) people. Gold and jewelry finds at the site indicate that it was probably used to bury kings. The most significant find is a brooch that exactly matches the description of the one Odysseus wore: gold, and with the image of hound holding a fawn between its forepaws.

Marie Tussaud

Death of Marie Tussaud, 1850

Marie Tussaud was nothing if not a survivor. She hobnobbed with both sides during the French Revolution, and ultimately settled in England, where she originated her famous wax museum.

Tussaud was born in Strausbourg in 1761. Her father was a soldier in the Seven Years War, and, after his death, her mother took her with her to Berne where she found employment as a housekeeper for a Swiss doctor, Dr. Philippe Curtius. Curtius had a hobby of molding faces and other anatomical objects in wax. He seemed to be very fond of his housekeeper's daughter -- she called him "uncle," and he taught her techniques in wax portraiture.

Curtius relocated to Paris and set up a wax exhibition there. He was on good terms with the royal family, and even made a wax model of Louis XV's maitresse-en-titre, Madame du Barry. The wax model of du Barry is still in the Tussaud collection -- the oldest one there. It is called The Sleeping Beauty and has a mechanized device that makes it appear that du Barry is breathing. Tussaud herself began doing wax models at this time. Among her first were Jean-Jacques Rosseau, Benjamin Franklin, and Voltaire. Tussaud also was close to the French royal family, even giving art lessons to the sister of Louis XVI.

When the Revolution came to France, Tussaud's connection to the Royals made her an object of suspicion. She was arrested during the Reign of Terror, and her head was shaved in preparation for the guillotine, but she was miraculously saved. In order to prove her loyalty to the new regime, she made wax death masks of the most famous victims, including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Robespierre.

Curtius died in 1794, and left his wax collection to Tussaud. She married shortly after that and had two children. In 1802, she traveled to London with one of her children, taking her exhibit on tour. When she was unable to return to France (because of the Napoleonic Wars) she set up a permanent exhibit in London. After a tumultuous life, Marie Tussaud died in her sleep at the age of 88.

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