I 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.