Episode 8: The Bards Sing of the Skies

August 23, 2021

We outline the early development of Greek civilization after the Late Bronze Age Collapse and how the unique geography of Greece influenced its culture, and ultimately, its astronomy. Then we explore the cosmology, cosmogony, and astronomy of the earliest Greeks based on the works of Homer and Hesiod.


Good evening and welcome to the Song of Urania, a podcast about the history of astronomy from antiquity to the present, with new episodes every full moon. My name is Joe Antognini.

In the last episode we took a winding tour of a series of myths that the ancient Greeks had associated with the two notable civilizations that had preceded them: the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, the Minoans being the civilization that lived on the island of Crete, and the Mycenaeans being the civilization that occupied what is today mainland Greece. These myths were intertwined with the constellations in the heavens, some more directly some more loosely. The Greeks, like all other peoples across the globe, associated the patterns they saw in the sky with objects, some deriving from Mesopotamian influence, others being original to the Greeks. They then associated those objects with stories which explained their significance. The heavens were typically an exalted realm, with the gods bestowing a place among the stars for heroes of especial esteem like Perseus, Orion, or Heracles, or objects associated with them, like the Lyre of Orpheus or Corona Borealis, the crown of Ariadne that we heard about last episode. Though in some instances placement among the stars carried with it some punishment as well as in the case of Cassiopeia, who was placed close to the north star so that during some portion of the night she would be upside down as a lesson in humility. And, of course, many monstrous creatures roam the Greek night sky as well, the dragon Draco in the north, Serpens, the snake being wrangled by Ophiuchus near the zodiac, and the sea monster Cetus to the south, whom we also heard about last month in connection with the story of Andromeda. So while the heavens were often a place of honor, they were not exclusively so — they were more broadly a place of note, and there were lessons to be learned from studying the stories that the heavens told.

Another important feature of these myths was that they took place once upon a time, a long time ago, at some indeterminate point in the past when giants walked the Earth. The Greeks had a sense that they were not living in the first age of the Earth, that other peoples, greater than their own, had come before them. The Greek poet Hesiod, whom we’ll talk about in more detail later this episode, divided history into five ages: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the Iron Age. From their names you can infer what Hesiod thought about how the character of man changed over time.

In the Golden Age, the Titans rule the heavens and the Earth, with the god Chronos in charge. It is perpetually spring on Earth and god and man coexist in harmony, sitting down and sharing meals together every day. War is unknown and from the Earth spring forth all kinds of delectable foods without any labor on the part of man. The rivers flowed with wine and honey dripped from the trunks of oaks.

After the rebellion of the children of the Titans, the Olympian gods, in a 10 year war called the Titanomachy, there followed the Silver Age. Zeus, the new ruler of the heavens, now instituted seasons on Earth. With winter and summer, man had to build shelter. The Earth no longer yielded its fruit without work and man had to plant crops to grow food. Man’s span on Earth was fixed to a hundred years, although he spent this time in perpetual youth, ruled by matriarchs, and died peacefully in his sleep.

There then followed the Bronze Age. Man began to turn from good and grew wicked, children did not respect their parents, people learn to lie, and conflict spread through the land. Over time, one by one, the gods begin to leave Earth for Mount Olympus due to the wickedness of the people, each one following the path along the Milky Way. The last of all to leave was the goddess Astraea, the goddess of innocence, purity, and justice. When she left the Earth, she found a new home in the stars as the constellation Virgo. Hesiod gives more space to this constellation than other in the sky. A somewhat lengthy excerpt from his poem reads:

Once on earth
She made abode, and deigned to dwell with mortals,
In those old times, never of men or dames
She shunned the converse; but sat with the rest
Immortal as she was. They call her justice.
Gathering the elders in the public forum
Or in the open highway, earnestly
She chanted forth laws for the general weal,
Nor yet was known contention mischievous,
Nor fierce recrimination, nor uproar.
So lived they. Far off rolled the surly sea,
No ship yet from a distance brought supplies
But ploughs and oxen brought them. Queen of the nations,
Justice herself poured all just gifts on man.
As long as earth still nursed a golden race
There walked she; but consorted with the silver
Rarely, and with reserves, nor always ready;
Demanding the old customs back again.
Nor yet that silver race she quite forsook.
At evening twilight, from the echoing mountains,
She came alone. No gracious words fell from her
But when the people filled the heights around
She threatened and rebuked their wickedness,
refusing though besought to appear again;
“How have your golden fathers left a race
Degenerate! But you shall breed a worse
And then shall wars, and then shall hateful bloodshed
Be among men; and grief press hard on crime.”
This said, she sought the mountains, and the people
Whose eyes still strained upon her, left for ever.
And when these also died, those others sprang,
A brazen race, more wicked than the last.
These first the sword, that roadside malefactor,
Forged; these first fed upon the ploughing oxen.
And Justice then, hating that generation,
Flew heavenward, and inhabited that spot
Where now at night may still be seen the virgin.

Reading that entire passage may have been something of an indulgence, but, in my defense, this entire podcast is an indulgence. At any rate, over time Zeus became increasingly unhappy with the conduct of man during the Bronze Age. According to one story, the final deed that set Zeus off was due to the king of Arcadia named Lycaon. Zeus had been invited to dine with King Lycaon, but King Lycaon wanted to know whether Zeus was truly omniscient. So, as any well adjusted mythological king would do, he decided that the best way to test this hypothesis was to murder his own son, cook him, and serve him as a dish to Zeus, to see if Zeus could tell what it was that he was eating. Well Zeus was omniscient and could tell what it was that he was served and flew into a rage and resolved to destroy the whole human species. He proceeded to blanket the Earth in lightening to burn it up. But as the fires grew, he became worried that the conflagration would engulf the heavens as well. So he abandoned his plan and decided to cover the Earth with a flood instead. He unleashed torrential rains and persuaded Poseidon to raise the seas until the entire Earth was covered, with the exception of Mount Parnassus.

There happened to live on Mount Paranassus a Titan named Deucalion, son of his better known father Prometheus, and Deucalion’s wife, the demi-goddess Pyrrha. These two were just, upstanding, and worshipped the gods with reverence. Seeing that these were the only two left, Zeus relented and let the waters recede from the Earth. When Deucalion and Pyrrha saw that nothing remained of the Earth, they went to consult the Oracle of Themis as to what to do. The oracle, as all great oracles do, gave a suitably cryptic answer. She said, “Depart with veiled head and unbound garments, and cast behind you the bones of your mother.”

Deucalion and Pyrrha were taken aback with this command because they did not dare to profane the bones of their parents. But as they pondered these words, Pyrrha finally understood their true meaning. Their mother was Gaia, the Earth itself, and its bones were the rocks before them. So Deucalion took some rocks and cast them behind him, which then grew into men, and Pyrrha cast behind her rocks which grew into women.

This then began the Heroic Age, during which most of the familiar tales of Greek mythology take place: the Iliad, the Odyssey, the labors of Heracles, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and all the charming tales of Perseus and Theseus I told you last month. The Heroic Age was the only age in which the general moral character and quality of man improves upon his past self. But, as always in Hesiod’s telling, the degeneration of man is inevitable, and over the ages, the heroes of yore devolved into a weaker and more despicable kind of man during the Iron Age, which was the present day during Hesiod’s writing. Well, these myths were a story that the Greeks themselves had of what came before them. But we moderners are no longer satisfied with these kinds of mythical stories of how things came to be. Nevertheless, as humans, we still need a story to tell ourselves. So what is our story of what came before the Greeks and how the Greeks came to be?

Hesiod’s notion that there was an era before his own in which the grass was greener, people were nobler, and things were all around better, may have been a vague remnant of cultural memory of the great Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that had preceded them before the late bronze age collapse. Or it may have simply been an expression of a general, deeply rooted human belief that things juts aren’t like they were in the good old days, and they don’t make them like they used to, and the world is going to hell in a handbasket and kids don’t respect their elders like they did in my day.

But we do know that there were indeed two great civilizations in the region that fairly suddenly collapsed around the year 1200 BC. Or, if we are to quibble, by that point the Minoans had more or less been subsumed by the Mycenaeans, so perhaps one great civilization had collapsed, but either way, the earliest Greeks were correct in thinking that something better had existed in the distant past.

It is possible that the peoples that became known as the Greeks were not the same as the Mycenaeans before them, but instead originated from a little farther north on the mainland, closer to where Macedonia is, and started to migrate to the south in the centuries following the late Bronze Age collapse in what are called the Iron Age Greek Migrations. Ancient Greek historians wrote of an event called the Return of the Heracleidae, which in the modern world has been termed the so-called Dorian Invasion, during which the prevailing dialect spoken throughout Peloponnesus in southern Greece changed from Mycenaean Greek to Dorian Greek. In modern times, particularly during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, the concept of the Dorian Invasion accrued an unfortunate racialized purpose as a number of Northern European historians and philologists attempted to demonstrate that the Greeks of classical antiquity were not of the same race as modern-day Greeks, but in fact had originated from the so-called Nordic race, particularly Germanic peoples who had migrated south during these Dorian Invasions. This allowed the Nazis to claim the achievements of the classical Greeks as achievements of their self-professed Aryan race and formed part of the racial justification for the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II. In the eyes of Nazi officers, they were simply reclaiming land for the Dorian race that they belonged to and who had occupied it millennia earlier. Of course, there is no evidence at all of any migrations from any of the so-called Nordic races to Greece during the Greek Dark Ages. Even the evidence for migrations from Macedonia is not conclusive. There is some linguistic evidence that some migrations took place and ancient Greek historians like Herodotus wrote of such migrations, but as always, ancient historians are not entirely reliable sources and archaeological evidence, which is what you’d really want, is scant.

At any rate, over the course of two centuries or so, the Greeks spread throughout the region, blanketing mainland Greece, Crete, Cyprus, various other islands in the Aegean, and the western coast of Anatolia, or modern-day Turkey. Memory of these migrations persisted in the Greek cultural memory as the nations and city-states founded by mythic figures like Perseus founding Mycenae, or Heracles founding Sardinia.

History is inextricably linked to geography, and the Greek mainland is not especially fertile. It is largely rocky and hilly and the only fertile regions are along the coasts and in alluvial plains along rivers. This geography of the mainland, and the profusion of islands across the Aegean Sea, led the Greeks to turn outwards to the sea rather than spend a great deal of effort expanding throughout the infertile mainland. As a consequence of this, Greece became a heavily seafaring civilization.

As the population grew in its various cities over the centuries, the scarcity of viable farmland meant that the inhabitants couldn’t simply expand into the neighboring countryside. Instead, when the population grew to a point where the need for new farmland became necessary or other political tensions had become acute, a portion of the city’s population would form an expedition and sail across the Aegean or Mediterranean Sea, to found a colony in a new location.

The process of Greek colonization throughout the Mediterranean and Near East was a remarkably organized endeavor compared to the earlier Iron Age Greek Migration that had come before, and indeed, most migrations generally throughout human history. Different city-states had different rituals and procedures, but in broad strokes, when it was decided that it would be necessary to establish a colony, the citizens would consult an oracle to obtain the advice of the gods. They would nominate a leader of the expedition. In some cases, every household in the city that had multiple sons would have to select a son by lot to leave his homeland and travel to unknown lands to found a new city. The colony retained close ties with the mother city. The constitution would usually be adopted from the mother city, as would the patron gods. The voyagers would often transport a ceremonial fire from the public hearth of the mother city to the colony and keep the sacred fire alive in the new city.

Incidentally, a modern homage to these ceremonial fires persists today in the Olympic flame rituals. In Ancient Greece the Olympic games were marked with the ignition of a ceremonial fire and the modern games continue this tradition, though with the addition of the Olympic torch relay. A few months prior to the opening of every Olympic competition, eleven women, representing the eleven vestal virgins, perform a ceremony at the Temple of Hera in Greece where they ignite the Olympic flame using a parabolic mirror to concentrate the rays of the Sun. The flame is then passed to a torch which is carried by a relay of thousands of torchbearers to the site of the games.

Well, the earlier Iron Age Greek Migrations had more or less hoovered up all the available fertile land around the Aegean Sea, so over time these colonies had to go further and further afield to find unoccupied fertile land. In the 700s the Greeks started to establish colonies on the coast of Italy and Sicily. By the 600s BC, the Greeks were establishing colonies throughout the Black Sea, and by the late 600s, the Greeks had colonies in what is today southern France and Spain. By the end of the Archaic Era, Greek colonies were dotted along the entire coast of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, from as far west as Gibraltar to as far east as the coast of Georgia. Many colonies were also established not so much to provide the Greeks with more farmland, but as a trading post where they could trade with the locals.

The end result of all this was what is called a thalassocratic civilization, a civilization that has hegemony over the seas but little control over the land. In fact, outside of mainland Greece, the Greeks inhabited relatively little territory despite the fact that their settlements lined thousands of miles of coastland. By contrast, most other powerful civilizations are what are called tellurocratic civilizations, that is, having hegemony over a region of land. Thalassocratic civilizations like the Greeks are rather unusual throughout history, but by no means unknown. In the ancient Mediterranean, the Phoenicians were also a thalassocracy, and two millennia later, a little to the west, the Venetians also possessed a thalassocracy. In southeast Asia the Malay archipelago hosted a number of thalassocratic empires, notably the Srivijaya Empire in the second half of the first millennium AD and the Majapahit Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Now, it’s important to distinguish between Greek civilization and many of the other thalassocracies I mentioned. Many of these were empires — they had a centralized government and unified control over the seas. But the Greeks were highly decentralized and had no unified government. Occasionally, out of necessity groups of city-states would form alliances called Leagues, but these were generally unstable and fell apart after the conflict that justified their creation passed. So if you want to be pedantic, you could say that ancient Greece was not a thalassocracy, but a thalassocratic civilization. Each of the cities operated independently as a sovereign state. Cities and their colonies maintained close ties and usually had friendly relations, but they were separate political entities and occasionally would go to war with each other. And the various city-states, although they all shared a language — spoken in different dialects to be sure — and shared a common pantheon — though with different patron gods — were fiercely independent of each other and oftentimes at each others’ throats. Nevertheless, although the political organization was highly decentralized, the Greeks did recognize that they had something substantial in common — a common culture and a common language. Although they grouped themselves into Dorians, Aeolians, Ionians, and so forth, they also collectively referred to themselves as Hellenes and all other peoples as barbarians from the strange, unintelligible bar-bar sound they made when they talked.

The history of ancient Greece is traditionally divided into five major periods, the first of which was the Greek Dark Ages, a period of ad hoc expansion and recovery after the Late Bronze Age Collapse, from around 1100 BC to around 750 BC, followed by the second major period, the Archaic age. It was largely during the Archaic age that the Greek peoples established their extensive network of far-flung colonies across the Mediterranean and Black Sea and during which the Greek identity formed. We won’t hear of the later three periods of ancient Greek history until a few episodes later, but to complete the list, they are the Classical age, from around 500 BC to 323 BC with the death of Alexander the Great; the Hellenistic period, from 323 BC to 31 BC, when Rome defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Actium and subsequently conquered Alexandria, the last remaining Greek city free from Roman control; and the final period of ancient Greek history was the Roman period from 31 BC on until 330 AD when Constantine established Constantinople as the capital of the Roman Empire and we symbolically demarcate the ancient world from the medieval world.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re still talking about the Archaic age and you’re probably itching to hear about the astronomy of this period. Well, we are almost there. During the Archaic period, the Greeks not only expanded across the Mediterranean, but Greek political society developed substantially as well. We see in the works of Homer and Hesiod cultural memories of the oldest form of Greek government, tribal monarchies where a king would rule over a small city-state. But over the course of the Archaic period the kings became progressively weaker. The few tracts of arable land were owned by a relatively small number of landholders who, over time, became wealthy and came to form an aristocracy. Their land was farmed by a larger class of freemen, some of whom may have owned a small patch of land of their own. Probably the largest class of people, though, were slaves. Some of these were captured after a victory in war, others bought from foreign nations. It seems that in the Greek Dark Ages only women were enslaved — men captured on the battlefield were killed, but as Greece expanded the Greeks found that they needed to keep their prisoners alive as a source of agricultural and household labor.

Like many aristocrats, the Greek aristocracy found manual labor and commerce to be undignified and beneath their station in life. They instead achieved status on the battlefield through courageous fighting, and thanks to the income from their estates, they could afford horses, spears, armor, and everything else needed to conquer on the battlefield. Through might of arms and money these aristocrats ruled their cities even if they continued to recognize a weak king. During the early part of the Archaic period, the only merchants in Greek city-states were foreigners.

But by the sixth century BC, gold and silver money had been introduced from the Near East to the city-states throughout the Greek world, although Sparta held out on this decadent modern corruption for far longer than any of the other cities. Commercial trading colonies expanded across the Mediterranean, and Greek freemen, who didn’t have the same hang-ups that the aristocrats did, became involved in trading. Many became wealthy in doing so. The rise of a new class of wealth had profound implications for Greek political society. One effect was that as the Greek economy developed, more freemen could afford to purchase arms and armor for themselves and participate more effectively in combat. Over the course of the Archaic period, these soldiers, known as hoplites, became more regimented and evolved a particularly effective formation called a phalanx. Now, this is not a podcast on military history, but it has been argued that the phalanx formation has broader implications for Greek society as one of the drivers for the development of democracy during the Classical period, so it’s worth exploring briefly. The idea of the phalanx was that each hoplite had a spear in their right hand and on their left arm, a shield made of heavy wood, possibly with a layer of bronze on the outside. The shield was circular and had a handle at the right edge, and then a leather strap closer to the middle, that the hoplite could put his left arm through. This was called the Argive grip and it made it extremely difficult for the shield to wobble or be dropped when it was struck. But because the hoplite’s left hand was holding the right end of the shield, only half the shield was covering him. The other half extended to his left. In a phalanx formation, the hoplites would stand closely together in a line. That way each hoplite’s right side would be protected by the hoplite to his right, and he would be protecting the hoplite to his left.

In principle this was a very effective formation because an enemy would find no openings to attack, but it required a few conditions to really work. The most important one was that the hoplites needed the discipline to hold their formation. If any one of them broke the formation, the hoplite to his left would be immediately exposed, which would mean that he would need to break formation, and so on down the line to the left and very rapidly the whole thing would fall apart. So it required both individual discipline and trust in their neighbors. Hoplites would usually group themselves in a phalanx next to family or friends. It’s a lot easier to trust that the hoplite to your right will hold his position if it’s your brother or cousin. The other condition for this to work was that the land had to be fairly flat so that the hoplites could stay grouped together. But this worked out well for the Greeks because the little valuable land they were fighting over were the alluvial plains and coastlines which were flat. Well, it has been argued that the group cohesion necessary to maintain a phalanx was a factor in the development of the relatively free political life that Greek hoplites enjoyed and the rise of democracy.

Democracies weren’t to come until the Classical period, but the increased wealth from commerce towards the end of the Archaic period did have the effect of weakening the aristocracies as more Greeks came into some money. The immediate impact was the rise of tyrannies throughout the Greek archipelago, particularly during the 600s BC. The word tyranny has a rather distasteful meaning today, but the original tyrants were not necessarily so bad. They were simply rulers who came to power, usually coming from or representing the interests of the freemen. But the problem of transferring power was generally not solved and most tyrannies died after a generation or two. By the 500s, the tyrannies were mostly gone and the Greek city-states began to turn towards more democratic mechanisms of government, centered around the hoplite class — freemen who were wealthy enough to afford the requisite arms and willing to participate in the city’s army.

Okay, well I have spent a substantial amount of time talking about Greek geography, migrations, battle tactics, but the reason for all this is that they influenced the development of Greek society, and the character of Greek society influenced the nature of the astronomy that the Greeks developed. Although over the centuries the Greeks drew from Babylonian astronomy, the nature of Greek astronomy was quite different from Babylonian astronomy. Babylonian astronomy was a priestly business, developed slowly over centuries and was infused with religious ritual. Remember the incantation that opened every tablet, “in the name of god Bel and goddess Beltis, my mistress, an omen.” Greek astronomy was a business for laymen. The questions that Greek astronomers asked and at least tried to answer were far broader and more wide ranging in nature. Babylonian astronomers made no developments in cosmology. To them, the planets were lights in the skies that were associated with the gods and that was the end of that, at least so far as we know. By contrast, for centuries the Greeks did nothing but speculate about cosmology. The development of predictions of planetary motions came later on. The Babylonians didn’t really have any physical model of planetary motions. They were just interested in predicting the locations of planets as accurately as possible, the Greek astronomers were far more interested in the physical models they developed than the accuracy of the predictions those models made. In short, the nature of Greek astronomy was far more creative, was interested in a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe, changed more rapidly, and, as well, was far more useless than Babylonian astronomy. And the character of its astronomy was also present in the broader civilization, particularly toward the end of the Archaic age and into the Classical period. Greek civilization as a whole changed much more rapidly than any of the great civilizations before it. Empires would rise over the course of centuries and maybe collapse rapidly after a military defeat, but over the centuries their political structures, artistic artifacts, religious, philosophical, and scientific ideas just did not change a whole lot. But Greece was different, and it has seemed to many classicists that one reason for this difference was the geographic and political structure of the region in which dozens of independent city-states alternately warred with each other and allied with each other to attack other rivals or fend off barbarian invasion. And within each city-state the decentralized political structures led to a lively civic life. This freewheeling civic and intellectual spirit captivated the imaginations of Europeans centuries later and they regularly turned to the culture of ancient Greece as inspiration in their own day and attempt to replicate it in their own societies. Of course, it’s possible to get carried away with just how freethinking and innovative the Greeks really were, and in some periods of later European history the idea that Europeans had of what ancient Greece was was perhaps more important than the reality.

Okay, so despite that caveat, I have been boosting Greek astronomy for a little while now. Let’s get into it. We will start with the earliest cosmological ideas in Greek civilization. Here we will find that, at least in the beginning, Greece was not qualitatively different from other civilizations in the ancient world. Our understanding of early Greek cosmology primarily comes from two sources, both of whom I’ve mentioned before: Homer and Hesiod.

Homer, of course, was the author of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. The ancient Greeks referred to the author of these two poems as Homer, or oftentimes simply, “the poet”, but it is not known whether or not the individual Homer existed. The Iliad and Odyssey are stylistically different enough from each other that it is plausible that they were written by two different authors. The central plot was probably derived from earlier stories, but based on the unity within each of the texts, it does seem to be the case that the author or authors really crafted the two poems as a whole rather than splicing together previously existing poems. At any rate, it’s somewhat cumbersome to say “the author or authors of the Iliad and Odyssey”, so we’ll just say Homer to collectively refer to the author or authors of those two texts. The two epics were written sometime during the 8th century BC and told tales of deeds done long ago, so the social structure described in the Iliad and Odyssey had already transitioned from tribal kings to an aristocracy by the time Homer composed the poems. These two texts were exceedingly popular in ancient Greece and were copied more than any other text and came to be the foundation of Greek education, and later on the two foundational texts of European civilization along with the Bible. The huge numbers of copies of these two works is quite good news for us because it means that complete versions of the texts survived to modernity.

The other source we have for ancient Greek astronomy is Hesiod. These days, if you didn’t take a class in the classics, Hesiod might be a little less familiar than Homer, but he was also an extremely influential poet and was active around the same time as Homer in the eighth century BC. Unlike Homer, there is no doubt about the historicity of Hesiod. Whereas there’s no trace of Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey except for the lyricism of the text, Hesiod writes a bit about his own life in some of his poems. Only three of his poems survived to modernity: the Theogony, Works and Days, and the Shield of Heracles. The first two of these are very relevant to the history of the astronomy. The Shield of Heracles not so much. But the Theogony, as its name implies, tells the story of the creation of the gods and the universe. The Works and Days is somewhat instructional in nature and describes agricultural practices and explains how to use the stars to determine when to sow and when to reap. This is also the source for the five ages of man that I described earlier, the Golden Age, the Silver Age and so on down to the Iron Age.

The cosmology of Homer and Hesiod are remarkably consistent with each other. The Earth is assumed to be a flat disk, although this assumption is not stated explicitly. It can instead be inferred from various episodes in the poems when the gods see clear across the world. For example, in the Odyssey the sun god Helios is said to be able to see his cattle on the island of Thrinacia far to the west when the sun rises in the east, and also Poseidon, while standing on a mountain in Pisidia far to the east can see Odysseus in Scheria on the western side of Greece.

The disk of the world is encircled by a rapid river called Oceanus. The sun god Helios in his chariot drives the Sun to rise in the east and then at the close of day, sets in the west. The river Oceanus then transports the Sun back to the East for the next day. So at this early stage the Greeks had no conception that the heavens formed a sphere around the Earth — the heavens were instead only a hemisphere. This is not to say that there was nothing under the Earth — just that there were no stars there. Instead, the region under the Earth was the realm of Hades. And naturally the Sun and stars could not pass through the realm of Hades because the realm of Hades was dark and gloomy, and if the Sun and stars went through it, they would light it up. So they had to go around the edge of the disk instead.

The path to the realm of Hades was far to the west. One of the furthest western lands was Aethiopia. You’ll recall that in the previous episode we traced the journey of Perseus to the furthest western extent of the world in order to kill the gorgon Medusa. On his way back he passed through Aethiopia where he stumbled across Andromeda being attacked by the sea monster Cetus. The Greeks saw evidence for their cosmology in the dark skin of the Aethiopians. Because they were so close to the setting Sun it burned their skin. In fact, the word Ethiopian derives from the Greek for “burnt face”.

Homer in the Odyssey also briefly describes a people called the Kimmerians who lived in a gray, shadowy land beyond the great river Oceanus, right at the edge of the entrance to the underworld. He writes in book 11:

By night
our ship ran onward toward the Ocean’s bourne,
the realm and region of the Men of Winter,
hidden in mist and cloud. Never the flaming
eye of Helios lights on those men
at morning, when he climbs the sky of stars,
nor in descending earthward out of heaven;
ruinous night being rove over those wretches.

The notion of the Kimmerians slightly modifies the flat disk model of the Earth that the ancient Greeks held to add a sort of panhandle to it which served as the entrance to the realm of Hades, or maybe a smaller disk next to the main disk of the Earth. It is possible that this supposed panhandle beyond the great river Oceanus may have been the Canary Islands.

After passing through the land of the Kimmerians, one would enter into Erebus, which was the first part of the underworld. Beyond Erebus the underworld was divided into at least two regions: Elysium and Tartarus. Elysium was a paradise. Homer writes:

with golden Rhadamanthos at the world’s end
where all existence is a dream of ease.
Snowfall is never known there, neither long
frost of winter, nor torrential rain,
but only mild and lulling airs from Ocean
bearing refreshment for the souls of men—
the west wind always blowing.

Although Elysium is part of the underworld, it doesn’t actually seem to be under the world, just very far west, beyond the great river Oceanus. By contrast, the other region of the underworld, Tartarus, is definitively under the world. In the Iliad, Zeus says

If I catch sight of anyone slipping away
with a mind to to assist the Danáäns or the Trojans
he comes back blasted without ceremony
or else he will be flung out of Olympos
into the murk of Tartarus that lies
deep down in the underworld. Iron the gates are,
brazen the doorslab, and the depth from hell
as great as heaven’s utmost height from earth.

Tartarus is a place of punishment for both mortal and god — many of the Titans were cast into Tartarus after the rebellion of the Olympian gods.

One of the things to note here when describing the overall structure of the world in early Greek thought is that they believed the distances involved to be vast. Hesiod writes that if an anvil were dropped from the heights of the heavens, it would take nine days to reach the Earth. And if it passed through the Earth it would take another nine days to reach the depths of Tartarus. In the Iliad, Hephaestus doesn’t heed Zeus’s warning and is cast out of Olympus and falls for an entire day. In the first book of the Iliad, Hephaestus says:

One other time I took your part Zeus caught me
around one foot and flung me
into the sky from our tremendous terrace
I soared all day! Just as the sun dropped down
I dropped down, too, on Lemnos — nearly dead.
The island people nursed a fallen god.

Incidentally we can use modern physics to actually calculate how big the universe would have to be if it took an anvil nine days to fall from the highest part of the heavens and it turns out to be slightly further out than the distance to the Moon.

So overall the universe is spherical with one half consisting of the heavens, the other half consisting of the underworld, Tartarus in particular, and the disk of the Earth separating the two.

The overall cosmology, that is, the structure of the universe, is not really laid out explicitly by Homer or Hesiod and so we have to piece it together from the background assumptions in lines of poetry here and there. Hesiod, however, does go into ancient Greek ideas about cosmogony, that is, the creation of the universe in the Theogony. In fact, the whole purpose of the Theogony is to describe how the first gods created the universe, how other gods sprang from those original gods, and then chronicled the generations of the gods down the ages.

You may be grateful to hear that I won’t go through the entire Theogony, but in Hesiod’s telling, the primeval state of the world was one of chaos, a formless void. But chaos was not only this formless void, but also a god. After Chaos three other primordial gods came into being spontaneously. First came Gaia, the goddess of the Earth, but also the Earth itself. Then came Tartarus, which we’ve heard about already, the underworld. But as with Chaos and Gaia, Tartarus was both a place and a god. And lastly came Eros, the god of love and sex. Hesiod writes:

These things declare to me from the beginning, you Muses who dwell in the house of Olympus, and tell me which of them first came to be. In truth at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros, fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.

These four gods ultimately give birth to the entire Greek pantheon. Hesiod then proceeds to lay out who laid with whom to give birth to the second generation of the gods, although some gods simply sprang from one of the primordial gods in an apparently asexual manner. Hesiod writes:

From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bore from union in love with Erebus. And Gaia first bore starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.

And Hesiod continues describing this genealogy. One of the important features of the Theogony is that it is an expression of the Greek impulse to produce grand theories that explained the origin and development of the universe. This impulse was not unique to the Greeks, of course the ancient Israelites, Babylonians, Egyptians and many other ancient civilizations had their own cosmogonies as well. But the Greeks took this impulse and transferred it to their later ideas of natural philosophy. So the cosmogony that I just described with the four primeval gods described by Hesiod, while being the generally accepted story of creation throughout ancient Greek history, was by no means the only cosmogony. It may be that when Hesiod wrote the Theogony, this cosmogony was not universally accepted, because Homer seems to imply that the great river Okeanos is the source of all things, not Chaos. In the Iliad, we hear the goddess of sleep say:

Most venerable
goddess, daughter of Kronos, great of old,
among the gods who never die, I might
easily lull another to sleep — yes, even
the ebb and flow of cold Okeanos,
the primal source of all that live.

But over time the popularity of Hesiod’s Theogony ensured that it became the canonical cosmogony in Greek society. Nevertheless, down the centuries various philosophers proposed their own cosmogonies and sometimes distinct branches of the Greek religious tradition like Orphism developed their own cosmogony.

Well so much for cosmology and cosmogony. What did Homer and Hesiod have to say about observational astronomy? In the case of Homer, not much. A few stars, the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters, and some constellations are mentioned here and there in the Iliad and Odyssey. In book 22 of the Iliad, for example, Homer writes about Sirius:

And aging Priam was the first to see him
sparkling on the plain, bright as that star
in autumn rising, whose unclouded rays
shine out amid a throng of stars at dusk —
the one they call Orion’s dog, most brilliant,
yes, but baleful as a sign: it brings
great fever to frail men.

In book 18 there is an especially notable passage:

Hephaestos pictured on his shield earth, heaven, and sea,
unwearied sun, moon waxing, all the stars
that heaven bears for garland: Pleiades,
Hyades, Orion in his might,
the Great Bear, too, that some have called the wain,
pivoting there, attentive to Orion
and unbathed ever in the Ocean stream.

The comment about the Great Bear, which we today refer to as the asterism of the Big Dipper, never dipping into the stream of Okeanus, was a statement that the Big Dipper was circumpolar, that is to say, it never set. This is interesting because in Greece today, the Big Dipper is not circumpolar. But due to the precession of the equinoxes, in Homer’s time the north celestial pole was somewhere between the Big and Little Dippers and the last star at the end of the handle of the Big Dipper got very close to the horizon at its lowest point, but didn’t quite reach it. Today, however, this star does dip below the horizon.

There is a very similar passage in Book V of the Odyssey, but it has one notable addition:

Now Odysseus, the great seaman, leaning on his oar,
steered all the night unsleeping, and his eyes
picked out the Pleiades, the laggard Ploughman,
and the Great Bear, that some have called the Wain,
pivoting in the sky before Orion;
of all the night’s pure figures, she alone
would never bathe or dip in the Ocean stream.

So not only is the Big Dipper a circumpolar constellation according to Homer, but it is the only circumpolar constellation. At this point it seems that the Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, or the Little Dipper, had not yet been identified. There is actually more evidence for the Little Bear being a later constellation but I’ll save it for the next episode when we talk about Thales of Miletus.

The next lines of the Odyssey continue:

These stars the beautiful Kalypso bade him
hold on his left hand as he crossed the main.

So we see here that by the time of Homer’s writing sailors had learned to use the stars to navigate at sea. Well, that is about it as far as astronomy goes in Homer.

Well I’ve talked about what Hesiod had to say about cosmogony, but what did he have to say about astronomy? Hesiod had some practical advice in his other great poem, Works and Days. As I mentioned earlier, this was a sort of instructional poem about agriculture, and Hesiod explains how to use heliacal risings and settings to mark the seasons and when to engage in various phases of agricultural activity. In case you’ve forgotten, a heliacal rising of a star is the time of the year when a star which was previously too close to the Sun to be seen at night becomes visible once again, peaking over the eastern horizon just before sunrise. The heliacal setting was the time when the opposite happened, the last day that the star was visible low on the western horizon shortly after sunset before it became obscured by the Sun.

The heliacal settings of Orion, the Hyades, and Pleiades marked times for sowing various crops around mid-November, and the heliacal rising of the Pleiades in mid-May marked the harvest time. Grain was threshed at the heliacal rising of Orion in mid-July, and wine-making time was marked by the heliacal setting of Arcturus in the constellation of Boötes, the Ploughman, in mid-September. Hesiod also marks the beginning of spring with the heliacal rising of Arcturus, which would put it 57 days after the winter solstice, but Hesiod goes on to contradict himself by elsewhere saying that spring begins 60 days after the winter solstice. Perhaps he was just giving a round number. But it is also probably the case that the Greeks of Hesiod’s time did not have the means to determine the date of the winter solstice to within an accuracy of more than a few days anyway.

The final bit of astronomy of special note in the Works and Days is in reference to the star Sirius.

When the piercing power and sultry heat of the sun abate, and almighty Zeus sends the autumn rains, and men’s flesh comes to feel far easier—for then the star Sirius passes over the heads of men, who are born to misery, only a little while by day and takes greater share of night—then, when it showers its leaves to the ground and stops sprouting, the wood you cut with your axe is least liable to worm. Then remember to hew your timber; it is the season for that work.

Later on Hesiod writes:

But when the artichoke flowers, and the chirping grass-hopper sits in a tree and pours down his shrill song continually from under his wings in the season of wearisome heat, then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat.

This is interesting because the implication is that during the height of summer, the light from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and also called the dog-star because it was next to Orion and seen as being Orion’s dog, combines with the light from the Sun to produce the hottest days of the year. This is, in fact, where the term the “dog days of summer” originates. Now this is perhaps a plausible theory in its own right, but what is really interesting here is that it means that the ancient Greeks recognized that the stars of the night sky were still in the sky during the day, but simply obscured by the Sun, which is quite a remarkable inference.

Now we should have much more to say about the astronomy of Hesiod since he apparently wrote a poem called “Astronomy” which was unfortunately lost to the ages. Or at least, a poem called “Astronomy” was attributed to him by later authors. As we’ll talk about in the next episode, many, many works of the ancient Greeks were lost which makes it very difficult to pin down exactly who wrote what and what the earliest philosophers believed. But that is a problem for the next full moon. We’ll go over the sources we do have and start to look at the life and ideas of the first Greek astronomer, Thales of Miletus. I hope you’ll join me then. Thank you for listening, and until the next full moon, good night and clear skies.