Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta by Gloria Ferrari


AlcmanI wasn’t aware of this book till I saw a review appear on the BMCR feed. If you’re tack­ling any­thing to do with ancient Greece and Rome then it’s a good idea to keep an eye on BMCR as there’s a con­stant stream of reviews high­light­ing inter­est­ing books. I’m very glad I saw this as it’s spe­cific­ally use­ful to me because of a paper I’m pol­ish­ing for sub­mis­sion. However it’s gen­er­ic­ally use­ful too because it’s a good book on the inter­ac­tion of astro­nomy, cos­mo­logy and reli­gion in archaic Greece.

The sub­ject of the book is the Parthenia (Partheneion) by Alcman (Alkman) a poet writ­ing in the 7th cen­tury BC. It describes part of a cere­mony to devote some­thing to a god­dess, pos­sibly Artemis though Bowra (1934:35) dis­agrees. He argues that ὀρθρίαι means at day-break rather than being a ref­er­ence to Artemis Orthia. This is pretty much the prob­lem with the Parthenia. It’s frag­ment­ary and even the frag­ments we do have are ambiguous.

There’s some astro­nom­ical ele­ment to the poem, but exactly what in the poem is astro­nom­ical and what is being offered is also debated. Everyone’s argu­ments about what the poem means stands or breaks on a sec­tion which Ferrari calls ‘the most tor­men­ted pas­sage in this sec­tion of the song’. Thanks to Google Books, I can add the two rel­ev­ant pages below under Pleiades, Hyades and Sirius so you can see what the prob­lem is.

The key pas­sage in near English is some­thing like:

For as we carry ὀρθρίαι φαρος
The Πεληάδες rise and struggle against us
Like the star Sirius
through the ambro­sial night.

Depending on how you trans­late the Greek words you get a dif­fer­ent outcome.

If you think φαρος is a robe or veil then you’re in good com­pany. This is known from other rituals. Usually that means that people then trans­late ὀρθρίαι to describe Artemis Orthia, a vir­gin god­dess with an interest in chil­dren and child­birth. That makes Πεληάδες the Pleiades. Many people then make this a spring fest­ival — and that for me is where this trans­la­tion breaks down.

The Pleiades are not like Sirius. They’re stag­ger­ingly unlike Sirius. Sirius is the bright­est star in the sky and the Pleiades are an open cluster of faint stars that are like a smudge of light to the naked eye. If your eyesight’s good you can make out indi­vidual stars. That would sug­gest that’s it’s not the appear­ance that mat­ters but the tim­ing of their appear­ance. In that light, the spring fest­ival makes sense. In this period the Pleiades first appeared in the morn­ing sky in May. The prob­lem is the ref­er­ence to Sirius. Sirius was set­ting in the even­ing sky at this time. It didn’t rise till July. This is why I can­not see how the poem describes a spring fest­ival. The pres­ence of Sirius seems to rule that out.

The altern­at­ive taken by a smal­ler group of people is that a φαρος is a plough. This would be Ferrari’s inter­pret­a­tion and Martin West’s too who gen­er­ally has a big brain when it comes to lyric poetry. If a plough is being brought then this becomes an autumn fest­ival. There were many har­vests through­out the year, but the agri­cul­tural year restar­ted each autumn after the last har­vest with the plough­ing of the fields. This is astro­nom­ic­ally bet­ter because Sirius would have been vis­ible in the morn­ing sky which very neatly ties to ὀρθρίαι mean­ing day-break. That’s essen­tial because Greek reli­gious ritual often happened in the morn­ing or just before sun­rise. This doesn’t give me so much of a head­ache, as it’s phys­ic­ally pos­sible, but I still struggle with the Pleiades being like Sirius. That’s why I’ve ten­ded to like a third option that Ferrari mentions.

Πεληάδες doesn’t just mean faint open cluster of stars. It also means doves. If were ser­i­ous about want­ing to solve this puzzle then I’d be look­ing at dove migra­tion and his­tor­ical and archae­olo­gical evid­ence for hunt­ing. Birds tend to migrate in autumn, that works with φαρος as a plough. Songbirds also tend to fly at night. Travelling through the sky like Sirius through the night would be a bad simile, but less so than the Pleiades as stars option to my ears. This would tie in with the kind of astro­nomy Hesiod prac­ticed. He didn’t just look at stars, but also at eco­lo­gical signs, like the migra­tions of birds and the beha­viour of other animals.

Don’t go invest­ing too much in my belief though. This is an opin­ion formed from a fairly small amount of read­ing. One of the things that makes this book so use­ful is that it draws on an extens­ive amount of evid­ence. You don’t have to agree with Ferrari’s des­tin­a­tion to see that the trip is worth­while. She also pulls in evid­ence from archae­ology and art as well as drama, espe­cially Euripides. I think it’s spec­u­lat­ive work, but it’s cer­tainly not base­less speculation.

However, I’m not fully con­vinced by the explan­a­tion. Nearly all the sup­port­ing evid­ence post-dates Alcman’s work by a long way. Euripides was writ­ing in the fifth cen­tury BC. I think that’s import­ant because I think some­thing hap­pens to astro­nomy in this period. The fifth cen­tury is when Meton pins down his luni-solar cycle. It’s also a time when there’s a stronger sense of Hellenic iden­tity, partly as a reac­tion to the threat from Persia. I think the book is extremely help­ful for explor­ing what people in the fifth cen­tury thought about the con­nec­tion between the heav­ens and reli­gion. I want to believe that we can take this evid­ence and apply it back to sev­enth cen­tury Sparta. It would make my life so much easier, but I don’t think there’s the cer­tainty in the evid­ence to fix the Parthenia to the autumn. My opin­ion might change in the future. I found the text a bit, ha ha, lac­onic. It means I’ll have to read it a few times to get a bet­ter idea of some of the more subtle argu­ments. It’s not a badly writ­ten book and def­in­itely not delib­er­ately obtuse, but it is concise.

All in all though it’s very thought-provoking. It puts some flesh on to mod­els that try and con­nect reli­gion and astro­nomy. It means that ritual isn’t just about the mater­ial, but also about how it’s used. It would be inter­est­ing to see if any­one else had evid­ence approach­ing the same prob­lem from the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion. A sur­vey of temples to see if there’s some sort of archae­olo­gical cor­rel­ate with the astro­nom­ical beha­viour might be useful.

Bowra, C.M. 1934. ‘The Occasion of Alcman’s PartheneionThe Classical Quarterly 28(1): 35–44 []