Category: Ancient Greek literature

133. The Constellation Myths of Eratosthenes (c. 220 BC) and Hyginus (c.24 BC)

133. The Constellation Myths of Eratosthenes (c. 220 BC) and Hyginus (c.24 BC)

Plot:   ‘Eratosthenes’ and Hyginus’ descriptions of the astral myths, or catasterismi, used to describe how figures or items from mythological stories became enshrined in the Heavens, and are often ‘tacked on’ to the original myths.

My version is the Oxford University Press volume Constellation Myths, containing both Aratus’ Phaenomena and Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi, (with Hyginus’ expanded version of the myths from his Poetical Astronomy), translated by Robin Hard (ISBN 9780198716983)

My thoughts: Although Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) is often claimed to be the author of the Catasterismi, there is some doubt. The original is lost to posterity, so we only have some sets of fragments (one known as the Vatican fragments) which seem to be annotations to the original text by Aratus (see post #130). Hyginus came along roughly two hundred years later and expanded on Eratosthenes’ notes.  Hence reading about each constellation is quite repetitive as you read Eratosthenes’ version/s, then Hyginus’, then the modern editor’s commentary on both.  Still there is far more mythological than astronomical detail so the volume is a wealth of information and treasure for myth lovers, including variations to the stories and alternate stories for many of the astral myths. The inclusion of an illustration of each separate constellation would have been nice, as the two hemisphere maps provided are small and crowded and not much use beyond the slightest of aesthetics.

Interesting tidbits include:

  • Perseus slew Medusa while she slept, not by watching her reflection in his shiny shield as she stalked him through the catacombs  (thanks, Hollywood!!)
  • The modern medical symbol of the caduceus (two snakes entwined around a staff) actually originally represented peace, as the story tells of Hermes placing his wand between two fighting serpents.
  • Speaking of medicine, the great healer Asclepios was such a good doctor he could raise the dead, so Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt for rivalling the power of the Gods.
  • Scorpio is so large that the stars representing its claws are actually the sign for Libra (the Scales). Mythic Orion the Hunter (one of the most famous constellations) was killed by a giant scorpion, so night sky observers will see that Orion sets as Scorpio rises, perpetually in pursuit.
  • Apparently centaurs never used bows, so Sagittarius (the Archer) cannot be a centaur.
  • The Greek gods were attacked by the monstrous Typhon in Egypt and turned into animals to escape, including an ibis (Hermes), a cat (Artemis) and a goat (Pan). This story might be a way of adopting Egyptian art into Greek mythology. The zodiac sign for Capricorn (half-goat, half-fish) may have been Pan trying to swim away.
  • One of the explanations of Aquarius (The Water Bearer) is that he is the Demon of the Nile, regulating its crucial flow of water.

Eratosthenes (whether the author of the Catasterismi or not) was a polymath in his own right, devising a way to measure the circumference of the Earth as well as writing on geography, mathematics, philosophy and literature. Sadly, he is reputed to have starved himself to death when he went blind and could no longer read or observe things around him.

Diversions and digressions:

Gigantomachy : the war between the Giants and the Olympian Gods, (not to be confused with the Titanomachy which was the war between the Titans and the Olympians)

Personal rating:  6/10

Kimmy’s rating:  Liked the stories about Canus Minor. 3 out of 4 paws.

Also in that year: Between 245 and 220 BC, Rome’s rule extends to Sicily, Sardinia,  Corsica and North Italy, and Roman literature can be recognised. Carthaginian forces invade Spain but are beaten back from Sicily by the Romans. Elsewhere, Macedonia takes control of Sparta, and Buddhism spreads to Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Next :  The start of Latin literature (finally) with the early plays of Plautus. Hail Rome!!!!

132. The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (c.245 BC)

132. The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (c.245 BC)

Plot:  Jason, the rightful heir to the throne of Thessaly, forms a league of Ancient Greek superheroes to help him retrieve the Golden Fleece; fighting harpies, giant snakes, and fire-breathing bulls along the way.

My version was the Penguin Classic The Voyage of Argo,  translated by E. V. Rieu (ISBN 0140440852) which includes a detailed map of their journey throughout the Mediterranean and a useful glossary. The verse retelling also published by Penguin was tempting too, and I may very well buy myself copies of both editions.

My thoughts:  I had been looking forward to reading this as the 1963 Ray Harryhausen movie Jason and The Argonauts is one of my favourite childhood memories. I am pleased to say that the book was very enjoyable, although the “foul murder” of Apsyrtus by Jason and Medea took some of the heroic shine off. There is also a wealth of information about other Greek myths, weaving through the story as background, including Hercules’ twelve labours, and Perseus slaying Medusa, which brings the whole mythic world together in a satisfying way.

To focus the reader on Jason as the hero, the tale does not say much about the other Argonauts except Heracles (who leaves the story about a quarter in) but they really were sprinkled with superheroes. Most were related in some way to the Gods, who left plenty of their genetic stock lying around. Besides Heracles’ strength, we have Orpheus who could charm the very rocks and trees with his music, Tiphys who could read the waves and winds, Lynceus who could see further than anyone (including underground), Periclymenus who could shapeshift in battle, Euphemus who could run so fast he could speed across water, and the twins Zetes and Calais who could fly with wings on their ankles. Few of these powers were used in the tale, as they also had Hera, Athene,  Aphrodite, Haephestus, Aeolus, Triton and Apollo on their side, and relied heavily on the magic of the witchette Medea.

Apart from various tribes who they managed to get on the wrong side of, the Argonauts also had to face the Clashing Rocks, the Harpies, the Stymphalian Birds, the fire-breathing bulls of King Aeetes, the earthborne army of warriors (beautifully realised as skeletons in the movie) and the giant snake guardian of the Fleece, and the bronze giant Talos. Quite an adventure! Of course things don’t bode well for Medea later (see Euripides’ play Medea) but she eventually marries Achilles in the Underworld.

The only fault is that Apollonius ends his story quite abruptly with a promise that the Argonauts safely arrived home but no mention of Jason’s welcome bearing the Fleece.

Some of the many dangers faced by Jason in the movie version

Apollonius had two attempts at writing this tale. The poor reception of the first version, along with his feud with Callimachus, drove him to leave Alexandria and resettle in Rhodes. His redrafting of his epic was apparently much better received, allowing him to eventually return to Alexandria and gain the role of Librarian at the Great Library.

Favourite lines/passages:

Once more the Rocks met face to face with a resounding crash, flinging a great cloud of spray into the air. The sea gave a terrific roar and the broad sky rang again. Caverns underneath the crags bellowed as the sea came surging in. A great wave broke against the cliffs and the white foam swept high above them. Argo was spun round as the flood reached her.

But the dove got through, unscathed but for the tips of her tail-feathers, which were nipped off by the Rocks. The oarsmen gave a cry of triumph and Tiphys shouted at them to row with all their might, for the Rocks were opening again. So they rowed on full of dread, till the backwash, overtaking them, thrust Argo in between the Rocks. Then the fears of all were turned to panic. Sheer destruction hung above their heads.                                                                                                                    page 88-89

Diversions and digressions:  Just HAVE to rewatch that movie 🙂 

Personal rating:  A delightful read with equal doses of poetic description and myth-laden action. 9/10. Will definitely re-read.

Kimmy’s rating:   Lots to creatures to bark at here. 4 paws.

 Also around 245 BC:  Ptomley III of Egypt defeats Seleucus II of Syria in the Third Syrian War (246-241 BC). Parchment starts to be used as writing material in Pergamum, in Asia Minor.

Next :  The Constellation Myths (Catasterismi) of Eratosthenes


131. The Hymns and Epigrams of Callimachus (c. 250 BC)

131. The Hymns and Epigrams of Callimachus (c. 250 BC)

My version is the Loeb Classical Library edition (no. 129) Callimachus, Lycophron and Aratus, translated by A. W. and G. R. Mair (ISBN 0674991435)

My thoughts:

It seems that the six degrees of separation theory can be applied as far back as Ancient Greece. Just as there were direct personal links connecting Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Menander and Theophrastus; likewise, my last four Greeks are connected. Aratus and Callimachus were students together under Praxiphanes, and Callimachus later taught both Apollonius and Eratosthenes. The work of Eratosthenes has only survived as annotations in Aratus’ work, while Callimachus and Apollonius became bitter enemies on both a personal and professional level over their disagreement on the merits of their respective writing styles : Apollonius in favour of the longer Homeric epic while Callimachus liked a brief polished style. The fact that Ptomley II awarded the Chief Librarian post at the Library of Alexandria to Apollonius over Callimachus would surely have added fuel to the pyre. After Apollonius, the Librarian post was given to Eratosthenes.

On to Callimachus’ work. It is believed he wrote 800 pieces, from which only six hymns and 64 epigrams survive intact. The hymns are not startling great prose but do provide extra details on the backgrounds of Zeus, Apollo, Artemis and Demeter. However the most intriguing hymn was addressed not to a God, but to the Isle of Delos, birthplace of Apollo, which was the only piece of land brave enough to allow Leto to rest and give birth, risking the enmity of Hera. It then became the custom of passing mariners to land on Delos and pay their respects by running in a circle around the altar and biting the trunk of the sacred olive tree with their hands bound behind their backs, to provide amusement for Apollo. Ah, the days before television and the Internet!

The hymn to Demeter was interesting too. I always think of Demeter as a relatively placid goddess, not warring or plotting like Ares, Aphrodite, Poseidon and Apollo. But in Callimachus’ last hymn, we see her in full vengeance mode. King Erysichthon of Thessaly wanted to cut down the trees in Demeter’s sacred grove to build a grand banqueting hall. Despite her warnings, he persists and she loses her temper and curses him with never-ending hunger. He eats all the food in his palace, his livestock, then his racehorses and even his cat, but nothing eases his hunger pangs – he is reduced to sitting at the crossroads and begging passersby for morsels. The story is retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Erysichthon finally eats himself.

The epigrams are brief two or three-line dedications at shrines or inscriptions on tombstones. Of particular fun was several marking the grave of Timon, who hated people and must have given instructions to have nettles and stakes planted around his remains to deter casual visitors. Also the step-son who was killed when the tombstone of his step-mother toppled over and struck him. It seems step-mothers have had a bad rap for a while.

Diversions and digressions:  Despite missing out on the top job at the Library of Alexandria, it seems that Callimachus was the first library cataloguer, creating a list of the authors of all the works held, so he can’t have been all bad.

Personal rating: 5/10 for content, but only 3 for style.

Also around that year:  Rome defeats Carthage in the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC).  Will read about this in coming months in Polybius’ Histories.

Next :  Jason goes in search of the Golden Fleece in The Argonautica, by Apollonius of Rhodes.


130. Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 270 BC)

130. Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 270 BC)

Plot: Aratus describes the constellations visible in the Northern Hemisphere sky, their physical and rotational relationships to each other as a way of determining the time, month and season (particularly with regard to agricultural and maritime ventures)  and various other signs of foretelling the weather, including animal behaviour.

My version is the Oxford University Press volume Constellation Myths, containing both Aratus’ Phaenomena and Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi, translated by Robin Hard (ISBN 9780198716983)

My thoughts:  Aratus and Eratosthenes were not even on my radar until a recent and timely post on the excellent On Bookes blog.

Constellation myths are used to describe how figures or items from mythological stories became enshrined in the Heavens, and are often ‘tacked on’ to the myths. Sometimes Zeus or another god will commemorate some mortal by creating their image in the stars, and other times the myth actually suggests the hero is changed into the constellation. Either way, Aratus assumes the reader is up on all their mythological stories and spends the bulk of his poem describing the spatial arrangement of the various constellations.

I have always found it hard to see the various figures depicted without the helpful drawing and join-the-dots efforts of more imaginative people. My favourite part is therefore the third section which describes the way to predict weather by the look of the sun and the moon, and the behaviour of birds and animals – much more my forte. Signs of bad weather include boisterous play from lambs, butting each other, springing up with all four feet in the air, and eating grass all the way home; cattle licking their front hooves, lone wolves howling, and mice squeaking louder than usual and dancing around. (You have been warned – ignore these signs at your peril)

His poem was actually used as a textbook in schools of the Ancient World, and accordingly survived the passage of the years. His successor Eratosthenes (more on him next week) did not survive as well, except as annotated copies of Aratus.

Diversions and digressions:

Catasterize : to set someone or something in the sky as a constellation (a real word – I kid you not!)

Personal rating:  4.

Kimmy’s rating: Kimmy sat politely in my lap and did not display any signs of approaching inclement weather, neither howling nor digging at the ground.

The sanity in between:  Murder on the Links, Agatha Christie’s second Poirot novel. Arrrgh, will I never solve one of her mysteries?!!

Next :  The poetry of Callimachus (305-240 BC), followed byThe Argonautica (Voyage of the Argo) by Apollonius of Rhodes, and finally, the companion to today’s post, Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi (Constellation Myths) to finish the literature of the Ancient Greeks.


128. The Idylls by Theocritus (c.270 BC)

128. The Idylls by Theocritus (c.270 BC)

Plot:  A collection of about thirty poems. The first dozen are mostly gentle competitions between shepherds and oxherds in song and music, set in the countryside, but later ones show more variety : mythological stories, praise for potential patrons, unrequited love stories, and comedies, some of which may not have been written by Theocritus. (More and more it seems that anonymous inferior works were attributed to famous authors to give them greater standing)

My copy is the Loeb Classical Library volume, Theocritus, Moschus, Bion, edited and translated by Neil Hopkinson, Harvard University Press, 2015 (ISBN 9780674996441)

My thoughts:  I have finally reached the the third century BC, after deciding to ditch Chuang-Tzu in mid-philosophize.

Theocritus is described as the father of bucolic or pastoral poetry, from which I immediately start picturing shepherds playing pan pipes and seducing milkmaids, which is not too far from some of these short poems. Unfortunately the first few fell a little flat, so I was pleased when the later examples were more interesting, notably the mythological retellings, which had much more detail than in some of my previous readings – for instance the tale of baby Heracles strangling the two serpents in his cradle describes the scene, the action and the aftermath of the event.

I also lingered awhile with the other two poets in this volume. Moschus wrote an amusing piece on Aphrodite creating a “wanted” poster for her errant son Eros, warning the public to be wary of his innocent appearance but dangerous touch, while Bion’s Lament for Adonis is almost Gothic in style, describing Adonis’ corpse bleeding on the ground and later laid out on his couch, and Aphrodite in such depths of misery and grief as is rarely portrayed for a Greek god.

Favourite lines/passages:

From Idyll 11, where the Cyclops Polyphemus bewails his love for the sea nymph Galatea

“There is in nature no remedy for love”             page 169


“Even if I seem rather too shaggy, I do have oak logs and undying fire under the ash, and in my burning love for you I would yield up my soul and my single eye. I have no dearer possession than that.”                                                                                page 173

Idyll 27 is a seduction between a young girl and her suitor, included this pretty but perhaps unconvincing encouragement:

“There is sweet pleasure even in empty kisses”          page 375

In Idyll 18, the bridesmaids of Helen sing outside her bridal bedroom, serenading her and Menelaus on their wedding night, but the reader knows from Homer’s Iliad that this joy will not last, and the editor points out that the Greek words for “comparison” (parisothe) and “cypress” (kyparissos), both used in this poem, contain the name “Paris” hidden within.

Diversions and digressions:

Bucolic : sounds more like a chest infection, but of course refers to beautiful countryside.

Halcyon : used now to refer to some time happy and peaceful in the past, but used here to name a mythical bird which made its nest floating on the ocean waters, charming the winds and waves.

Personal rating: Quite entertaining once I got into the flow. Overall a 6.

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy showed some interest in the amorous billy goats but more fascinated by the plumber fixing our hot water system outside.

Also in that year:  Well into the third century BC, and Alexandria is now the centre of Western learning, with the Great Library and the Pharos Lighthouse built by Ptolemy I (who Theocritus tried to woo as a potential patron). Greek astronomer Aristarchus theorises that the Earth revolves around the Sun (!), while the rest of Europe begins to revolve around Rome, leading up to the First Punic War against Carthage in 264 BC.

The sanity in between:  The Girl in Blue, a late and relatively unknown P.G. Wodehouse comedy, not quite to his usual standard, but any Wodehouse is enjoyable.

Next : Let’s finish up the Old Testament with the remaining twelve Books of the Minor Prophets.

123. The Athenian Constitution (probably not written by) Aristotle, (c.332-322 BC)

123. The Athenian Constitution (probably not written by) Aristotle, (c.332-322 BC)

Plot:  Presumed a work of one of Aristotle’s students rather than the busy man himself, The Athenian Constitution charts the history of the government of Athens from its foundation through tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies, flicking back and forth between these styles of government, including the leaderships of Cylon, Draco, Solon, Pisistratus and Cleisthenes. It ends with a description of the present day (c.322 BC) democracy’s laws and government, at a time prior to the Macedonians stamping their presence on Greece.

My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by P. J. Rhodes (ISBN 9780140444315), with half of its 196 pages devoted to explanatory notes, diagrams and maps, glossaries and indexes.

My thoughts:    Occasional points of interest did surface while reading this short work. The first individual of note, Solon, was brought in as mediator between the rich few and the poor masses, and enacted moderate laws which proved unpopular to both sides despite their fairness, such as cancelling debts which led to enslavement if not paid, freeing existing slaves, and allowing everyone access to appeal to the courts if they believed themselves wronged. He ended up banishing himself from Athens for ten years after realising his unpopularity, having failed to redistribute all property as the people expected, nor restoring the notables to the highest position, and refusing to side with either side and thereby ignoring the opportunity to set himself up as tyrant.

“I gave to the people as much esteem as is sufficient for them,

Not detracting from the honour or reaching out to take it, …..

I stood holding my mighty shield against both,

And did not allow either to win an unjust victory”                   Solon, page 51

He also had the rather unusual idea of outlawing anyone who tried to stay neutral in future strife between parties.

The next ruler Pisistratus emerged from the resulting dissatisfaction, and had three attempts as tyrant – the second stint began with a triumphal procession through the city, with a flower seller from Thrace masquerading as Athena beside him in his chariot, lending her ‘holy’ support to his bid. Surprisingly he was a moderate ruler, and enjoyed good relationships with rich and poor alike. We tend to think of the word tyrant as a cruel ruler, but this was not always the case in Ancient Greece.

The last standout section is the reign of terror of The Thirty, an oligarchy arising from the loss of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, and their joint tyranny over Athens, executing 1,500 of their rich or powerful peers to guarantee their grasp on power, and inviting into Athens a garrison of 700 Spartan soldiers.  Eventually democracy is restored, and the author spends the last third of the book describing current conditions, including the separation of powers between the ruling Council, the administrators (treasury, leases and mines, and the armed forces) and the Jury-courts.

Diversions and digressions: Some more definitions for you

Telos : the goal at which a thing is aiming for, as its reason for existence e.g. the city-state is a work of nature which exists to provide mankind with a good life

Atthidographer : a writer on the history of Athens (I defy you to use that in a sentence with your loved ones over the dinner table tonight!)

Personal rating:  Same as Aristotle’s Politics, 4

The sanity in between:  Finally finished book 5 of Robert Jordan’s fantasy series the Wheel of Time, The Fires of Heaven. I think it’s becoming a love/hate relationship between me and this series, but I will be borrowing the rest from the local library as I have run out of personal copies.

Next : Should have been 124. Old Cantankerous by Menander and then 125. Characters by Theophrastus, but they have already been read and posted. I have “lost my bottle” with Aristotle, so any Greek classics lovers out there still enamoured with Ari and his ideas on Metaphysics or Logic had better go it alone, and I’ll meet you at the docks to board the Argo in Apollonius’ Argonautica to search for the Golden Fleece. For the rest of us, I’m afraid it’s back to the OT and the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel.


122. The Politics by Aristotle (c. 335-323 BC)

122. The Politics by Aristotle (c. 335-323 BC)

Plot:  Aristotle searches for the ideal constitution for a city-state by examining those existing around his part of the world, including those proposed in theory as models, such as those found in Plato’s Republic and Laws.

My copy is the Penguin Black Classic The Politics, translated by T. A. Sinclair, and revised by Trevor Saunders (ISBN 0140444211)

My thoughts:  Like his biological treatises, The Politics is a series of essays or lectures written in a conversational style. It starts with building up from basic units (individuals, families, households, village, to the city-state) the assertion that the city-state is the goal which will make men happy. Unfortunately, Aristotle cannot dispense with the need for slavery so it will make only some men happy. In Book 1, dealing with household management, he claims that some men are “slaves by nature”, their bodies suitable to do menial work by their inherent strength and their virtues underdeveloped or missing, and should be regarded as tools or property of the household manager, as it is “nature’s purpose to make the bodies of free men to differ from those of slaves” (page 69). Not so enlightened after all, despite actually raising the question of equality and justice, and then dismissing them with the above obfuscation. And his position on women and wives is not much better.

Likewise, the attitude towards the Earth and all other living things is similarly of its time but repugnant now (at least to me)

“If then nature makes nothing without some end in view … it must be that nature has made all of them for the sake of man  … even the art of war … must be used both against wild beasts and against such men as are by nature intended to be ruled over but refuse …”  page 79

He now moves on to his quest for the ideal constitution for a city-state, starting with Plato’s idealised Republic. Yet here he undermines his slavery argument by pointing out that free men should take turns ruling for a year and then be ruled by their peers after that. So by his own argument, they are all capable of being ruled (ie slaves).

And now we have the observation that agricultural classes (ie the ruled) have a lack of strong affection for their wives and children, unlike the upper classes!!

Moving on to a less personal (?) subject is the idea of communal ownership of property (including wives and children as Plato proposed in The Republic) which Aristotle is not wholly in favour of, with his observation that “it is more necessary to equalise appetites than possessions” (a neat summation why true communism is so difficult to achieve) and the difficulty of the need to fix the amount of allowable private possessions at a level not too high or too low.

These anomalies aside, Books 3 and 4 cover the art of government and choice of constitutions more appropriate to a study of politics, discussing the three basic models : monarchy, aristocracy and polity, in different flavours, and their respective ‘deviations’ (tyranny, oligarchy and democracy). Although Aristotle is obviously not a fan of democracy as it existed in Ancient Greece, he does admit that the masses (by which he only means free men, not the whole population) may be correct in their collective voice regardless of their individual baseness. He also points out that the best constitution will take into account the middle classes, who are usually the most numerous. This leads on to constitutional change, and the highbrow theories meet reality as his examples of factions (which are a leading cause of change to a different form – oligarchy to democracy or vice versa) involve jilted brides, rejected suitors and disappointed heirs forming groups amongst their supporters to revolt and eventually change the ways of government.

I must confess to starting to skim sections at this point, but this was due to my disinterest rather than any flaw with the text, and readers interested in political philosophy will no doubt be more fascinated than I was. I eventually succumbed to defeat by Book 5 and gave myself an early birthday present by shutting down and going off for a lavish Chinese takeaway. True monarchy in action!

Favourite lines/passages:

“For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice. …. Man without virtue is the most savage, the most unrighteous, and the worst in regard to sexual license and gluttony.”                       Book I, part ii, (page 61)

Personal rating: 4/10

The sanity in between: Destination Unknown. Agatha Christie lets Poirot and Miss Marple have a holiday and tries her hand at a spy thriller, creating a Hitchcockian story with a Bond-style villain. Quite enjoyable and very escapist.

Next : Staying with the theme and reading Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution