Estimate of the dove population of ancient Greece reduced by one

Greek Dove
Greek Dove. Photo (cc) Kristie’s NaturesPortraits.

Scientifically speak­ing a neg­at­ive res­ult is as import­ant as a pos­it­ive res­ult. Nonetheless while pos­it­ive res­ults which no-one expec­ted are pub­lish­able, neg­at­ive res­ults — which people would have expec­ted if they’d thought about it a bit — are dif­fi­cult to get published.

As an example, I’m look­ing at con­nec­tions between ancient Greek con­stel­la­tions and the Greek cal­en­dar. One nice cor­rel­a­tion is that the dove migra­tion sea­son in Greece starts about the same time that the con­stel­la­tion Columba, the Dove, rises in the morn­ing sky for the first time. It’s par­tic­u­larly neat because doves tend to fly at night, so as Columba took to the skies, so did the doves. It would have slot­ted nicely into my model. There’s a small problem.

Columba is Noah’s Dove and wasn’t inven­ted till AD 1679. Not only that, but if you read Aratus’s Phaenomena, which is a descrip­tion of the sky dat­ing from the 3rd cen­tury BC, he goes on at great length how there’s no con­stel­la­tion in that region. Unlike mod­ern con­stel­la­tions, the Greek con­stel­la­tions were fig­ures not regions and not all stars were thought to be in con­stel­la­tions. Some were con­sidered amorphoi or unformed. If I’d really been awake I wouldn’t have needed to look up the con­stel­la­tion, as there are already doves in the ancient Greek sky. The Pleiades are, among other things, doves. That’s what the name means.

It’s sur­pris­ing how spe­cific the ancient sources are about which stars are in con­stel­la­tions or not. It raises the ques­tion of whether con­stel­la­tions named in ancient texts exis­ted in more archaic times, because stars don’t have to be in a constellation.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.