Archaeastronomy Vol. 16 (2001), 98-99: Review of Theony Condos, Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook (Phanes Press, Grand Rapids Michigan, 1997, ISBN 0-890482-93-5, Paper, $18.95).
John M. McMahon
Le Moyne College
In Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook Theony Condos
(hereafter C.) brings together in translation two important astronomically inspired mythological texts from the Greco-Roman world. The first is the Constellations of Pseudo-Eratosthenes, a first or second century C.E. epitome of the astronomer Eratosthenes' third century B.C.E lost prose work, the Catasterismi, on the origins of the constellations. The other is the De astronomia attributed to Hyginus (first century B.C.E.), somewhat misleadingly called here the Poetic Astronomy, from the title of Ratdolt's 1482 edition. The works represent major sources of the mythological background to star patterns commonly recognized in Hellenistic and Roman times. Their inclusion in one volume, accompanied by the translator's commentary and attendant notes, makes for a generally informative and entertaining reference.
C.'s Preface (11-13) discusses her translations, commentaries, and notes while explaining textual issues, the spelling of Classical names, and her laudable but sometimes speculative and superficial attempts to identify specific stars by referencing those in Ptolemy's Almagest. In her Introduction (15-25) she outlines the cultural, historical, intellectual, and social circumstances of the Hellenistic Period (323-30 B.C.E.), that prompted the joining of literary approaches with scientific and technical themes in didactic works, both prose and verse.
The heart of the book consists of forty-two sections devoted to the mythological treatment of star groups, the Milky Way, and the planets, all arranged in alphabetical order (27-207). Each consists of three elements: a translation of an astral myth from the Constellations, including ancient information about a group's prominent stars; corresponding selections from Books 2 (myth) and 3 (star identification) of the De astronomia; and the author's commentary, further notes to which appear at the back of the work (217-63). The translated selections themselves present both familiar tales and arcane ones (Triangulum, e. g,), and they range from comprehensive narratives to brief, unadorned identifications. With two exceptions (the Pleiades and the planets) the selections are accompanied by illustrations from Ratdolt's edition, few of which, however, accurately represent either the figures themselves as they appear in the sky or even the actual location of their stars. Appearing with the notes after the main text are appendices on Greek and Roman names, a list of the constellations and their standard abbreviations, and two small reproductions of Schaubach's 1795 constellation maps (214-5). The book also features a bibliography, an index of authors and a comprehensive general index.
Star Myths of the Greeks and Romansmakes several contributions to the understanding of how astronomy, literature and mythology interacted together in the cultural matrix of the Greco-Roman World. Foremost is that it situates in their cultural contexts the primary sources that record both the ancient experience of the night sky and the long tradition of mythological narrative characteristic of Classical culture from Homer onwards. The various references to particular stars in each constellation, to their number, and to their locations within the figure as imagined in the sky also prompt an understanding of the ancient engagement with a visualized reality resulting from simple observation as well as from specialized scientific study. Importantly, the book also demonstrates how the Hellenistic period was marked by intellectual developments that fostered the preservation and analysis of the literature of the past, by a continued expansion of scientific knowledge across many fields, and by the presence of an educated reading public for whom the marriage of technical information and literary expression became a significant part of the prevailing culture.
Thus, it was essentially the literary theories and practices of Hellenistic Alexandria that established the concept of catasterism itself as a means of memorializing the tales of individuals, of animals, and even of simple objects and consciously associating them with the constellations. In this sense catasterism stands in complete opposition to any scientific consideration of what the star groupings actually represent and how they really came about. Catasterism also was to play an increasingly important role both in the popular imagination and in the political sphere as a general awareness of celestial events and objects associated the visible heavens with contemporary activities and public personalities. Indeed, so called ruler catasterism plays a major role in the literature and art of the Augustan Age in Rome at the very time when Hyginus's De Astronomia is thought to have been composed. A prime example of this is the famous Sidus Iulium, the comet associated with the death and deification of Julius Caesar.
Despite its positive features, however, Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans suffers from a number of deficiencies. As other reviewers have noted (Ceraglioli, Journal for the History of Astronomy 30.3 : 313-15; Ramsey, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.28 ), there are problems with C.'s translations and her commentaries, to mention just two areas of concern. Some of these are more critical than others, but caution is still advised for any reader. As far as the present reviewer is concerned, simple suggestions for improvement would certainly include adding modern constellation maps for each of the star groups. Also, closer attention to identifying individual stars in some of the star groups (Orion, for example) and reference to a modern comprehensive star atlas would enhance the usefulness of the work. Several additional works on Classical astronomy, available to C. at the time of publication, would also have improved the bibliography and the commentary in general: for example, Le Boeuffle's works on astronomy in the Roman period and West's magisterial commentary on Hesiod's Works and Days, to name just some possibilities.
Nevertheless, Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans does provide valuable insights into the ways that literature, mythology and astronomy came together in the Greco-Roman world and offers its readers a comprehensive look at its astral mythology. Furthermore, if the work inspires just one person to look upwards into a dark, starry sky to recapture the wonder of our forebears, it will have served a useful purpose despite any of its shortcomings.
John McMahon is Professor of Classics at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY. He has published and lectured on Classical literature and ancient natural history and is currently editing and translating a collection of Neo-Latin verse from Colonial Pennsylvania. An avid naturalist, amateur astronomer, and dark-sky activist, he serves on the board of the Syracuse Astronomical Society.