February 25, 2010


For my lit project, I read the Phenomena and Diosemeia of Aratus.

This was an obscure outing for me, and an interesting one. In Ovid's Amores, Aratus is mentioned as a Great Poet who has achieved Immortality. Aratus was very popular in the Classical world; he is forgotten today. Though I found that intriguing, I was not convinced to read Aratus until I discovered that his most famous poem is about the constellations. Enter the astronomy geek.

Phenomena is a description of the constellations. If you are not out among the stars, the descriptions can be confusing. There are some inaccuracies. The work is dry (this might just be the literal prose translation I read). Many have wondered what here drove the Ancients so wild. I wonder it myself.

But I am an astronomy geek, and the Phenomena gripped my imagination in a number of ways. I have always been fascinated by the idea of a constellation: How are they named? Who named them? Why did they name them? It all seemed so fantastical and arbitrary. What is most fascinating is that these constellations, named in some forgotten past, are still called by the names they were called millennia ago. We see the same Orion Aratus did. We know the same Arcturus. I suppose this is a question of praxis; the stars, once so important for sailors and farmers, were most memorable when related to myth, and we, who have so little use for stars, find the constellations memorable enough and have no practical need for change.

Most curious for me about the Phenomena is the universe-view of the Ancients. Since my childhood, I have always looked up to the stars and imagined them continuing on forever; my father would reinforce this wonder in me and impress me with infinity, telling me to imagine, at all those distant points, a sun like our sun, a system like our system. The Ancients, however, looked to the sky and did not see infinity but a ceiling, a sphere, a thousand lanterns or gods. For the Ancients, the Earth stood still and a dome revolved above it. No infinity, but a collapsed plane. Why, I ask, why have I never seen the universe in this light? Why have I never stopped the earth and collapsed the heavens? There is something wondrous about this naivete, something attractive about this simplicity. I have never considered the Universe in these different ways. And now I must. Perhaps the poetry of candles dotting a vaulted dome will reveal to me the poetry of accretion discs, pulsars, dark matter...

Diosemeia is about predicting the weather. It is mostly worthless*. I did however realize that I am totally blind to my environment when it comes to subtle cues (about the weather). I am sure this applies to most of us. But most of us don't need to watch for wasps to know what kind of weather is about to come -- the internet is a marvelous thing.

[*like DG and his 20th C lit]


DG said...

low blow

Ian said...

You are right. I apologize to you, Aratus, for comparing Diosemeia to DG. I am not normally so cruel.

DG said...

every time people refer to david gordon green as DGG i get confused for a second

also how does the word verification thing work? the word for me is aratu. bizarre.