Constellation Myths by Eratosthenes and Hyginus, with Aratus's Phaenomena.

Earlier in the month I read Constellation Myths published by Oxford University Press. It includes:
  • Catasterismi (Καταστερισμοί) by Eratosthenes of Cyrene.
  • De Astronomica, or Poeticon Astronomicon by Gaius Julius Hyginus.
  • Phenomena (Φαινόμενα) by Aratus.
Eratosthenes and Hyginus' writings / mythical narratives are presented together under the headings of the certain constellations (accompanied by a commentary), and Aratus' work comes in the second part of the book.

Catasterismi by Eratosthenes of Cyrene and De Astronomica by Gaius Julius Hyginus.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene was a mathematician, geographer, the founder of scientific chronology, a poet, astronomer, and the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria. He was born in Cyrene, part of the Greek Empire which is now modern day Libya, in around 276 B.C. In Catasterismi he writes not on the scientific study of astronomy but the myths of the constellations, and it would appear the original work is lost. Catasterismi is a summary of original and is supplemented with the Vatican Fragments. Gaius Julius Hyginus was a writer and superintendent of the Palatine library, born in 64 B.C., almost 200 years after Eratosthenes, though it's believed the summary of Catasterismi was written roughly around the time of Hyginus' birth. It's not wholly agreed that Hyginus was the author of De Astronomica.

In the Oxford World Classics edition of these two works there are seven broad headings:
  1. Constellations of the Arctic Circle
  2. Constellations between the Arctic Circle and the Summer Tropic
  3. Constellations between the Summer Tropic and the Equator
  4. Constellations of the Zodiac
  5. Constellations between the Equator and the Winter Tropic
  6. Constellations between the Winter Tropic and the Antarctic Circle
  7. The Milky Circle, Planets, and the Constellations of Late Origin
They are an absolute treasure trove of myths, many of which are familiar from stories from, for example, Ovid, Homer, and Hesiod, but there are also some more obscure ones too. It has been noted that some of these placings of the constellations aren't wholly accurate; the real delight in reading both Catasterismi and De Astronomica is in the myths. Here's an example (picked at random):
Draco, The Dragon (The Arctic Circle)
Eᴘɪᴛᴏᴍᴇ 3. Sᴇʀᴘᴇɴᴛ [Eratosthenes]
This is the large Serpent, the one that lies between the two Bears. They say that it is the one that guarded the golden apples and was killed by Heracles; it was placed among the constellations by Hera, who had appointed it to guard the apples in the land of Hesperides. For according to Pherecydes, when Hera married Zeus, the gods brought gifts for her, and Earth came with golden apples; on seeing them, Hera was filled with admiration, and asked that they should be planted in the garden of the gods, which lies near Atlas; and because the daughters of Atlas constantly stole the fruit, she stationed this enormous snake there as a guard.
The Constellation
The Dragon is located between the two Bears, and it seems to enclose the small Bear in a coil of its body in such a way that it can be seen almost to touch its feet, while it reaches the head of the large Bear with its curved tail; it draws in its head, as it were, to touch the arctic circle, and its body is coiled as though in a spiral. And if one looks a little more closely, one can distinguish the head of the Dragon in region of the tail of the large Bear. It has a star on each temple, a star on each eye, one on its chin, and ten distributed over the whole of the rest of the body. So there are fifteen stars in all.
The Mythology
With its huge body, it is shown as lying between the two Bears. It is said to be the serpent that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides; it was killed by Heracles, and was placed among the constellations by Hera because it was her bidding that Heracles had set out to confront it. This is the snake, so it is believed, that watched over the gardens of Hera. For according to Pherecydes, when Zeus took Hera as his wife, Earth arrived bringing branches with golden apples on them, and Hera so admired them that she asked Earth to plant them in her garden, which stretched out toward the Atlas; and because the daughters of Atlas were constantly plucking the apples from the trees, Hera is said to have stationed the snake there as a guard. Further indication of this provided by the fact that the figure of Heracles is shown in the heavens as looming over the Dragon, as Eratosthenes points out; so anyone can understand from this that the name of the dragon belongs to this figure above all. 
According to some accounts, however, this is the dragon that was hurled at Athena by the Giants when she was fighting against them; but she seized the writhing serpent and hurled it into the sky, fixing it to the very pole of the heavens. And so it can be seen there to this day with its twisted body, as though it had only just been transferred to the sky.
Aratus's Phaenomena

Aratus was a Greek poet born in around 315 B.C. His major work was Phenomena (Φαινόμενα), which can be divided into three parts:
  1. The Constellations
  2. Measuring of Time through Observation of the Heavens
  3. Weather Signs
It begins,
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we men never leave unnamed: filled with Zeus are all the streets and all the meeting-places of human beings, and filled too the seas and harbours; and everywhere all of us have need of Zeus. For we are indeed his offspring, and he in his paternal kindness sends us helpful signs to mortals, and rouses people to work by reminding them of life's demands, he tells us when the soil is most fit for oxen and for picks, he says when the right season has come for digging trees into the ground and sowing every kind of seed. For it was Zeus himself who fixed the signs of these things in the heavens by making out the constellations, and arranged that the stars over the course of the year should provide men with most dependable signs of the passing seasons, so that everything may grow as it properly should. And thus it is that first and final homage is always addressed to him. Hail Father, great marvel that you are, and great source of benefit to human beings, hail to you and to the prior race! And to the kindly Muses, one and all! As for me, I who am praying to you to be able to tell fittingly of the stars, guide my song right through to the end.
Aratus goes on to write about the northern constellations and the signs of the zodiac, the southern constellations, the five planets (he writes, however, "no longer do I have confidence in myself when it comes to them"), the circles of the celestial sphere, risings and settings of the constellations, and various weather and seasonal signs, for example:
If a misty cloud is stretched out along the base of a high mountain while the uppermost peaks look clear, you should then have very fine weather. You will also have good weather when low cloud appears above the broad sea, not rising up to any height, but pressed down right there like a sheet of flat rock.
He concludes,
Keep a close eye on these signs, all taken together, throughout the year, and you will never drawn an ill-founded conclusion from what you see in the sky. 

These works are all fascinating from a scientific point of view, but it is the myths the authors explain that make it invaluable. I'm so happy to have come across this: one of my friends on Goodreads had read it, and immediately bought it when I saw! If you get the chance, do read it.

To finish, some illustrations found via Shyam from Alexander Jamieson's Celestial Atlas (1822) -


  1. Oh, I need to read this! Eratosthanes is my favorite Greek dude. :)

    1. This was the first time I read Eratosthanes - need to read more, can you recommend anything? :)

    2. Not that I know of. I meant historically, not literarily; he was after all a librarian! :) I don't know what he wrote and am pleased to find there is something!


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