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Ancient Agora

by October 23, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The ancient Agora of Athens is one of the most influential archaeological sites and says a lot about the life of the Greeks. ‘Agora’ literally meaning ‘a place of gathering.’ It was a marketplace where every Athenian citizen participated in governance, overlooked judicial matters, traded commodities, exchanged ideas, or worked together to build the most dynamic society in the world.

In fact, the Agora of Athens is the birthplace of democracy. It is at this place that brilliant minds like Aristotle and Socrates gained popularity, taught their disciples, and eventually died.


An imaginary depiction of the Agora of ancient Athens at the time of Pericles.

For centuries, this area served as a common ground for merchants, artisans, politicians, and intellectuals. It was considered an honor to participate in such ‘common activities’ that led to the development of society. (A quick fact: the term ‘idiot’ or idiotis, was coined to mock people who avoided participating in such common activities.)

The history of ancient Agora of Athens stretches from prehistoric times to the modern age. For centuries, the marketplace was a hub of ideas and trades. The present archaeological site saw some devastating years when Persian invaders destroyed the structures completely in 490 BC, but rose again in the 5th century BC with the flourishing of Athenian culture.

Ancient Agora

Agora of Athens – the Archaeological Site 

The Agora was built on flat area with a main street that hosted a market and philosophical activities. In the Agora of Athens, the two main structures were the Temple of Hephaestus and the Stoa of Attalos.

The construction of the Temple of Hephaestus began in 450 BC and still stands intact today. It is one of the most well-preserved Greek temples of the classical period. Being constructed in Doric order, the temple houses two bronze statues of the goddess Athena and Hephaestus. This north-western area of Athens was once a center of ironworking foundries; hence, the temple honored the god of fire and metal-smithing.

The Stoa of Attalos sits on the east end of the site and was built around 150 BC. It is an outstanding exemplar of ancient Stoa architecture and today it houses the Agora museum. Stoas were huge porticos where merchants stalled their goods. They also provided shelter for people during scorching summer days.

The reconstructed Stoa of Attalos

Another magnificent structure that punctuates the archaeological site is the Byzantine era Christian Church of the Apostles. Many other temples formerly stood in the Agora dedicated to Zeus, Apollo, and Ares.

These remained a mystery until 1934, when thousands of artifacts, Amphora pots, marble statues, and reliefs were found during excavations by the American School in Athens, providing a glimpse of life in ancient Greece.

Activities in Ancient Agoras

Apart from being a political hub, the Agora also acted as a communal place for religious activities. Every Greek city had an Agora, which consisted of a massive compound with a main road in the center surrounded by structures for social activities.

The Agora was easily accessible to every citizen, and people would meet there daily. It was the heart of the city that brought the society together. In addition, the Agora road led to the main gate of the city, serving as a sacred travel route for the Panathenaic festival, held in the honor of Athena every four years.

Representation of ancient Greek agora

Athenian citizens took pride in being democratic. Their Agora acted as a space where great ideas, politics, judgments, and legal processions took place. Some of the world’s most important ideas, such as democracy and trigonometry, were probably discussed on its streets. City law courts and senate were located in the Agora, where political proceedings were held openly. Every Athenian had the right to vote for anything he believed in. Laws were posted in the Agora for the public to see.

Aristotle and Socrates frequented the Agora of Athens to discuss life and philosophy. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, and the mathematician Pythagoras were some other famous figures who instructed and shared their ideas in the Athenian Agora.

The activities that took place in the Agora went beyond mundane transactions. The ideas and philosophies born there have literally shaped the modern world. It is almost unimaginable to live in a world without democracy or mathematical formulas to calculate the sides of the triangle. The Agora was a provenance for life-altering principles for which Western civilization is forever indebted.

The Eagle, or Aquila, Constellation

by September 23, 2020

Written by Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Zeus features heavily in a lot of starlore, and the Eagle constellation is no exception.  The predominantly accepted mythos for this constellation is the abduction of Ganymede. Zeus had facilitated the kidnapping, fancying the beautiful mortal boy as his personal cup-bearer.

In the constellation, which is situated south of Cygnus on the equator, making it visible from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, poor Ganymede can be seen hanging from the claws of the eagle as he is swiftly taken to the heavens.

The constellation appears alongside several other bird constellations. The Eagle’s wings are spread, giving it the appearance of gliding through the stars. As Hyginus states, the beak is separated from the body by a milky circle. It was also said to set “at the rising of the Lion and rises with Capricorn”. (Hyginus, Astronomy, 3.15)

An artist’s impression of the constellation showing Ganymede being forcibly escorted to the Heavens. Image: Geoffrey Cornelius, 2005:43

Greek astronomy

Humans have a natural urge to identify familiar things amongst the twinkling stars of the mysterious abyss above us. These narratives came out of astronomical observations and ancient time tracking. The study of the sky began long before the earliest Greek sources that (sparsely) discuss them, Homer and Hesiod. They likely developed during the transition from oral to written transmission, but to what is extent is unknown.

Even though the Greeks were late to the constellation conversation (500 BC), they received a lot of their knowledge from their Eastern neighbors. The Greeks introduced the word katasterismos, or catasterism, which refers to the process of being set in the heavens. Constellations were used for navigation and an indication of seasonal change; many extravagant mythic connections were added later.

Today, there are 88 constellations officially defined by the International Astronomical Union, and many of them have been accepted since Ptolemy’s The Almagest (A.D 150).

Constellations created by the Mesopotamians between 1300-1000 BC originate in older lands, but the Greek astral mythos canon was solidified by Eratosthenes, in a work now lost to us.

Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle by Bertel Thorvaldsen (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN). Image: Wikipedia

Zeus and his trusted companion

The myth of Ganymede is very ancient lore, being told in the tale of Troy by Homer (Illiad 20.298ff) – albeit with no mention of an eagle escort. In the fifth Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Ganymede was said to be whisked off to Olympus by a ‘heaven-sent whirlwind’.

The eagle was not connected to this tale until the 4th century BC. The constellation was accepted as an eagle prior to this, so it is presumed that this addition was made to make the story fit the stars, probably because Ganymede is said to feature in his own nearby constellation, the water-pourer (Aquarius).

The eagle is said to have been chosen by Zeus, as ‘strives to fly straight into the rays of the rising sun’ (Hyginus, Astronomy 3.15). This association is linked to the origin of the Olympian rule; Zeus had been hidden from his father and when he left the island of Naxos to confront, the Titans, an eagle took flight with him. He regarded this as a favorable omen and deemed the eagle his sacred bird.

It’s not always about Zeus

Another variation sees this constellation representing the eagle that tore at the insides of Prometheus. As a descendant of Gaia and Uranus, he was a Titan whose name meant ‘foresight’ and was considered a protector of humanity. He taught the humans how to use the arts and sciences, much to Zeus’ chagrin, but pushed too far when he gave them fire, smuggled to the earth from the sun in a hollow fennel stem.

Zeus punished the Titan ferociously – he was chained a pillar in the Caucasus Mountains, and from dawn to dusk his insides were torn apart by a predatory bird. He healed each night, fresh for the onslaught of torture the following sunrise. Hercules pleaded with Zeus for mercy, which was granted. The wise centaur Chiron removed the Titan’s immortality in exchange for his freedom, and Hercules shot the eagle.

The punished Titans; Atlas and Prometheus. The eagle is shown to be eating Prometheus’ liver after he stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. Medium: A black-figure Lakonian kylix, c. 570-560 BCE. Image: Karl-Ludwig G. Poggemann via Mark Cartwright

On the other hand, this could be the story of how Hermes met Aphrodite. He fell head over heels in love with the goddess of beauty and her rejection to his advances were beyond disheartening – they were insulting.

Zeus took pity on the rejected Hermes. He sent an eagle to steal Aphrodites’ slipper as she bathed in the river Acheloos. He then gifted it to Hermes who was in Amythaonia, Egypt. She searched for her slipper and met her admirer, where romance bloomed. Grateful for the eagle’s help, Hermes placed its image in the sky.

Hermes’ tale, while referenced in the Odyssey, is heavily folkloric in structure. A very similar story features a courtesan Rhodopis, whose slipper is stolen and dropped onto the lap of the Egyptian pharaoh, who demanded the owner be found so he could wed her. This folkloric theme is likely known to the modern reader in the Disney adaptation of the Brothers Grimm retelling of Cinderella.

Hermes, Aphrodite, and Eros. Image: Louis-Michel Van Loo (1748)

What about a mortal man?

It is also said that the Eagle constellation is about Merops, a moral placed amongst the stars by Hera.

Merops was married to Ethemeia, a nymph who rejected the worship of Artemis. She was felled by arrows by the vengeful goddess of the hunt, but was whisked away by Persephone, still alive but in the Underworld. Merops mourned, and his grief was so deep he yearned to join his wife. Moved by the bond the couple clearly shared, the goddess of marriage transformed him into an eagle and placed him in the heavens, hoping to free him from his memories.

However, why an eagle? Merops means bee-eater in Greek, so potentially he was transformed into a different bird until the eagle variation emerged to fit the constellation.

The European bee-eater inhabits the southern Mediterranean and North/West Africa, with fossils extending from Israel to Russia. Potentially it was involved in mythos concerning love due to its’ magnificent beauty. Image: Otto Plantema via Oiseaux Birds

The Egyptian Eagle

For the Egyptians, this constellation was part of another they named ‘the Giant’, aptly named as it stretched from Aquila (Eagle) to Pegasus. The Mesopotamians identified a ‘Dead Man’ with their Eagle and attributed it para-zodiacal status, its ascension potentially due to housing the ‘royal’ star, Altair. It held special importance around the winter solstice and featured in several major astronomical lists from the time.

For example, an Old Babylonian (c.1830-1530 BC) text reveals a ‘Prayer to the Gods of the Night’, invoking the constellations to bless an entrail divination. Studying the stars was important in Mesopotamian culture, and they kept astronomical ‘diaries’ well into the Hellenistic Age, with the last example being after Persian conquest and dating to 75 AD. The emphasis placed by them on astronomy, and its’ primordial relationship to the gods and divination, is still seen today in certain places within the region.

It is not uncommon to find the eagle associated with solar or victory symbolism cross-culturally, both in the ancient and modern world. This association can be seen in several Eastern cultures, whereas the Western world has the Greek and Roman connection to Jupiter and the rays of the sun as well as the eventual appropriation of the eagle symbolism by right-wing propaganda (most memorably, Nazi Germany).

However, this constellation and its symbolism began with victory over those who would bring darkness and evil. Ningrisu, patron god of Sumerian Lagash, was the god of fertility, war and notably, the storm. In inscriptions, he is described as the master of the heavens and is shown with, or sometimes as, a lion-headed eagle named Imdugud. This divine bird is associated with the rays of the sun and Ningrisu himself was identified as a vanquisher of demons, darkness and evil. This aquiline and solar/storm symbolic connection had been cemented by the 3rd millennium BC – the same time that Babylonian seals start depicting a hero amidst the wings, a potential prototype for Ganymede.

The Akkadian ‘Seal of Adda’ dating from c.2300 BC potentially shows Aquila on the palm of a gods’ hand. Image: (BM 89115), The British Museum

The Eagle constellation shows how stories morph over time, and how they can be shaped to fill a required mould. It also shows the continuity of symbolism and its impact throughout the centuries and countries. Even the stars within the constellation are linked to the word ‘eagle’ despite being of various linguistic origin. The same sky really does lie above us all.

7 Most Iconic Greek Temples

by August 19, 2020

Written by Divya Gupta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The most sacred structures in Greek Mythology were the enigmatic sanctuaries. Temples were usually located at the center of the sanctuary which was enclosed by walls from all sides. This spiritual place featured a massive landscape with sacred trees and springs. In the center of the area stood a monumental cult statue of the deity that the temple honored. The outdoor altar had several niches where statues of other gods and goddesses were erected.
Unlike modern churches and synagogues, the temple was not a place for rituals, but it was more like a home to the gods and goddesses. Most common people were not allowed inside the temple sparing a few occasions every year. The sacred precincts were built as a place to offer homage to the gods with gifts and offerings. Gigantic columns were the principal component in every temple. Greek architecture features three major types of columns – the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, all of which can be seen in various temples even today.
Temples were located away from the city in a large area and would often benefit from the surroundings to express the character of the spiritual entity. So, a temple dedicated to the god of the sea would be constructed near the seashore.
While many of the Greek temples couldn’t stand the test of time, a lot of them can still be embraced today in Greece and the Southern parts of Italy. Here are some of the most iconic temples that glorify the rich history of Greek architecture.
  1. Parthenon, Acropolis
The Parthenon, the largest Doric temple, was dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, Athena Parthenos. The construction of the temple began during the age of Pericles, around 447BC. This monumental structure stands as a testimony of power and glory, to honor the goddess of indomitable might. Hence the rocky location of the Acropolis served as the ideal location to portray the goddess’s strength. The ancient statue of the deity was made using ivory and gold, which was later stolen by the Persians.

The Parthenon

Today, the Parthenon is considered one of the most renowned UNESCO World Heritage sites, attracting millions of tourists every year. A trip to Greece is practically incomplete if you do not pay a visit to this magnificent structure.
  1. Temple of Hephaestus
The Temple of Hephaestus, dedicated to the god of metalwork, sits on the top of Agoraios Kolonos hill, merely 500 meters away from the famous Acropolis. The region was once considered as a hub of foundries and metal workshops and thus served as a perfect location for the temple. The Temple of Hephaestus was designed by the promising architect Ictinus, who also worked on the Parthenon. It is one of the most well-preserved Greek temples that stands intact even today!
Temple of Hephaestus

The Temple of Hephaistos in Athens

  1. Paestum
Paestum was a famous Greco-Roman city in Southern Italy, very close to the shore. The sanctuary, constructed around 550BC is considered as a pioneer of Greek temples. The ruins of Paestum consist of three famous Greek temples all made in Doric orders. The temple of Hera, goddess of marriage and childbirth, is one of the oldest temples and has surprisingly still has its entablatures intact.

View of Paestum.

  1. Temple of Apollo Epicurius
The temple of Apollo Epicurious, dedicated to the god of healing and Sun, is one of the most unusual Greek temples. The daring architecture consists of all three forms of segments, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, which gives the temple a unique character. Another bizarre attribute of this temple is that it opens up northward, unlike the rest of the Greek temples that are facing east. Located in the mountains of Peloponnese, this well-preserved temple stands as an evocative testament to the brilliance of Greek Architecture!
Temple of Apollo

The Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae, east colonnade, Arcadia, Greece

  1. Segesta 
Located in the north-western part of Sicily, the temple of Segesta offers a distinctive experience to the viewers. Segesta was once inhabited by Elymians, the indigenous people of Sicily. With the widespread Greek influence, the region of Segesta adopted the new culture and blended easily. The temple follows all the strict features of Greek Doric Order but, on a closer look, one can see the unfinished structures. The temple of Segesta never actually had a roof or fluted segments. The inner chamber, also called naos, never really saw the light of day either.

The Doric temple of Segesta

  1.   Erectheum
Erectheum is probably the most popular Greek temple in the modern world. Every history lover and art enthusiast has read about the temple in a million articles, and words fall short to describe the beauty of its architecture! This antique sanctuary, located to the north of the Acropolis of Athens, features the most celebrated segment style, the Ionic Order. The iconic six female figures upheld in the yard, known as Caryatids, is one of the most magnificent examples of Greek architecture.

Temple of Erectheum

  1. Temple of Poseidon at Sounion 
Sounion is considered one of the most important sanctuaries in the Attica region. The temple was erected in honor of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Hence, the sanctuary catapulted overlooking the gorgeous views of the sea from three sides. Once upon a time, this Greek Doric temple flaunted 34 grand columns made of white marble. But today, only 15 stand tall, preserving the marvelousness of Greek architecture.
Temple of Poseidon

Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion

Thousands of years later, these enchanting Greek temples still provide a window to the past and remain some of the best-preserved testaments to history.

Quarantine in the Ancient World

by March 18, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The World Health Organization has declared the COVID 19 outbreak a pandemic. This has caused something of a global panic and has led to a great deal of economic dislocation. This has led to many governments imposing an obligatory system separating many people that may be carrying the virus. People have been obliged to self-isolate in case they inadvertently spread the influenza-like virus.
Quarantine is a series of measures that are taken to isolate those who may be carrying a communicable disease. The concept of social distancing was known to the ancients, and they were aware that it was potentially hazardous to come into contact with infected people. They knew that some diseases are contagious and that measures were needed to protect the healthy population from those who were infected.
Lack of Medicine 
The Greeks and the Romans made many scientific advances. However, they were extremely limited in their medical knowledge. They had no real concept of what a virus is or what was bacteria. They were aware that many diseases such as plague were highly infectious.

The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

The Greeks and later the Romans believed that plagues and epidemics came from miasmas (an unpleasant or unhealthy smell or stench) that came from the ground. However, they were also aware that humans could spread these diseases.
There is evidence that ancient cities practiced some form of quarantine. Since they did not have the advanced medicine that we benefit from today, they could only rely on prevention. All ancient societies were aware of the need to separate the healthy from the sick.
In the Ancient World, the population, especially in urban centers, was very prone to epidemics. There are many recorded instances of plagues in the Classical World. The Plague that devastated Athens during The Peloponnesian War, in 430 BC., killed, up to 25 % of the inhabitants. Then the great Antonine Plague in the late 2nd century AD devastated the population and gravely weakened the Roman Empire.
Greek and Roman Quarantine
While there is evidence that city leaders in the ancient world used their powers to enforce quarantines, there is little documented evidence on the exact practice of quarantine. These ancient peoples did not have hospitals as such as they only emerged with Christianity. Civil leaders in Athens and elsewhere would prohibit strangers from entering the city walls. This included traders, merchants and other travelers.

Asclepius with his serpent-entwined staff, Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus.

The sick would often be ordered to ‘self-isolate’ and would be expected to stay in their home. As a result, many people would die in their home. However, some communities may have helped to feed the ill in their homes.  The need for the quarantine may have been limited by the fact that many people fled the cities when there was a pandemic or outbreak of diseases.
Many Ancient Greeks and Romans, during epidemics, may have sought sanctuary in temples and shrines. Many would flee to the Temple of Asclepius, the Greek God of Medicine, for his protection.  Moreover, it is believed, that many people would often receive basic healthcare at these sites. The sick would congregate in these and that helped to quarantine them and keep them separate from the healthy population.
The Ancient quarantines were not only aimed at preventing people from spreading the disease. Goods and products were also believed to have been spreading illnesses. Galen, in the first medical work on Epidemics, believed that bad cereals and grains caused plagues and other infectious diseases. As a result, it seems likely that the civic governments prohibited many foodstuffs and other goods into a city. This may have been effective in some instances, however it may have exacerbated the economic crises that many urban centers experienced during epidemics.

Galen and Hippocrates; Galen of Pergamum, left, with Hippocrates on the title page of Lipsiae (1677), a medical book by Georgii Heinrici Frommanni. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland

The Rise of Christianity
After Christianity became the official state religion in the Roman Empire, they developed many charitable institutions. Most historians argue that they built the first hospitals in the Classical World. Here, during epidemics, sick people were able to receive care. These hospitals, which were ubiquitous in the Roman Eastern Provinces, often helped to quarantine the sick and those infected with illnesses.
Medieval Developments
The ancient world, it appears, only practiced a limited form of quarantine. However, their medical ideas influenced other societies who practiced quarantine more rigorously. The Byzantines drew on lessons learned from the past to develop a more sophisticated way of separating the healthy from the unhealthy.
It was the Arabs who learned most from the Greeks and their ideas about separating the infected from the uninfected. The Nestorian sect of Christianity (developed and practiced in Asia Minor and Syria), for instance, translated the works of leading Greeks such as Galen. There was also the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate, both of which developed sophisticated quarantine systems, including public hospitals.
Islamic physician

Depicting a scene in the hospital at Cordóba, then in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), this 1883 illustration shows the famed physician Al-Zahrawi (called Abulcasis in the West) attending to a patient while his assistant carries a box of medicines. SHEILA TERRY / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The modern system of quarantine developed in Medieval Europe, especially in Italy, and was influenced in part by the ancients. The idea of isolating people for 40 days was based on ideas derived from Galen in his investigations, but the term quarantine comes from the Italian word “Quaranta”, meaning 40.
The history of quarantine is a long and fascinating one. As we hunker down and self-isolate, let’s keep in mind the ancient wisdom behind the very idea of doing so.

The History of the Rosetta Stone

by October 29, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient Egypt has fascinated people since ancient times. However, the history and knowledge of the land of the Pharaohs were lost for centuries because people were unable to read the ancient writings of the Ancient Egyptians…that was until the chance discovery of the Rosetta Stone. This remarkable artifact allowed the modern world to once again read the texts of the Ancient Egyptians.

The Rosetta Stone

Egyptian writing
Ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs in their writing system, which are pictographs that represent some concept or idea and is very different from those based on alphabets. However, they also developed a demotic script that was similar to other writing systems, such as Greek and Latin. Following the Christianization of Egypt, knowledge of the ancient writing systems was lost because the Egyptian priests were persecuted, and their temples all destroyed. As a result, the world of the Pharaohs and their subjects remained a mystery.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics

The History of the Rosetta Stone
The writings of the Egyptians remained enigmatic until the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon. In order to outflank the British in 1798, the French general decisively defeated the Mamelukes, the descendants of slave-soldiers who ruled the country, at the Battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon also brought with him to Egypt scientists, historians, and other researchers. They played a very important role in the development of Egyptology, which opened up the wonders of Ancient Egypt to the West.
The most important discovery was the stele that came to be known as the Rosetta stone.
One day in the hot summer of 1799, a French officer and engineer, Pierre-François Bouchard, was overseeing work on a planned fortress in Rosetta, an important port in northern Egypt. When he came across a stele or monument that was made from a block of granite, he knew it was important and alerted experts. The officer had discovered one of the most famous artifacts in Egyptology.

The Battle of the Pyramids

The Rosetta Stone- What Is It?
The stone is a stele which has engraved on three sides a decree that was issued by Pharaoh Ptolemy V in 196 BC. He was a member of the Macedonian Ptolemaic Dynasty that was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. The decree was a ruling from a priestly council in Memphis which granted the monarch the status of a living god and urged Egyptians to make sacrifices to the new god-king. This was an effort by Ptolemy V to legitimize his rule in the eyes of his Egyptian subjects, who hated their Macedonian overlords.
The granite piece stood in a temple for many centuries but when Christians closed it, the stele was used in the foundation of a new building. The original stele was broken up, and what remained was the largest fragment. It was later incorporated into the foundation of a building during the Middle Ages and laid there until it was rediscovered by the French officer.

One possible reconstruction of the original stele

The Rosetta Stone’s Writing
The stone is not important in itself. However, what makes it priceless is that it contains three different versions of the decree of Ptolemy V. There is Greek which was the language of court and the Macedonian elite who ruled the country. However, the vast majority of Egyptians could not read Greek and could only read demotic Egyptian or Hieroglyphs. This meant that the decree was also issued in demotic and hieroglyphs. This was a stunning find.
Experts could read Ancient Greek and indeed were very proficient in it. They could use the Greek to learn how to decipher the two Egyptian texts. In this way, they knew that they had a great opportunity to finally understand the writings of the great and mysterious Pharaohs.

Experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the Second International Congress of Orientalists, 1874

The discovery of the stone and other treasures led to a craze in Europe for all things Egyptian.
The Race to Decipher the Stone
Technically it should have been easy to decipher the decree, especially as the French made impressions of the writings and they were published and circulated all over Europe. Classicists and linguists all studied the writings in a race to be the first to read the words of the Ancient Egyptians.
It took many years before a breakthrough in 1803 when the first full translation of the Greek version of the decree appeared. However, here was a great rivalry between experts, in particular the French and English, with regards to the Egyptian texts. Finally, in 1822 Jean-François Champollion announced he had made a successful transcription. He was the first person to fully decipher the stone and allowed people for the first time in centuries to read the writings of the Pharaohs. It’s important to note still that his work was only possible because of the earlier research of English linguists, especially Thomas Young.

Visitors viewing the stone at the British Museum

The Fate of the Stone
Nelson’s great victory over the French at the Battle of Aboukir Bay (1799) doomed Napoleon’s invasion. He soon fled back to France and the stone was seized by the British after they defeated the French in 1801. The stele was taken back to London where it has remained ever since. It can be seen to this day in the British Museum.

Ray, J. D. (2007). The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt. Harvard University Press.

The Bear in the Big Blue Abyss: Ursa Major

by October 21, 2019

By Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When you look up at the twinkling stars in the velvet sky, what constellation is it you look for to orientate yourself? It is almost always the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor constellation duo – or as some (me) prefer to call them, the ‘saucepan set.’
This starry collection has been known by many names, including the Plough, Big/Little Dipper, Wagon/Oxherd, respectively, but most importantly, the Greater and Lesser Bears. Our focus today is on the Ursa Major; in the northern hemisphere, the constellation never sets below the horizon and reaches its’ zenith in the night sky at midnight in March.
Ursa Major

Seven bright stars are indicating Ursa Major. (Image: ESA Science & Technology)

Ancient Greek Astronomy?
This easily identifiable set of stars is the third largest constellation in the sky out of the 88 officially recognized constellations according to the International Astronomical Union – a pretty impressive feat. Most of these accepted groups have been documented since 150 A.D, by Ptolemy in his The Almagest.
But that doesn’t mean Ptolemy was the first to study the sky. It was during the 6th century BC that Greece absorbed the astronomy and mythology of their cultural neighbors: Mesopotamians, Persians, and Egyptians. Then, around the 4th century B.C, they adopted the Zodiac from the Babylonians. Indeed, the Greeks were quite late to the party, as the Mesopotamians had most of their constellations recorded between 1300 – 1000 B.C.
Painting of Ptolemy

Ptolemy with an armillary sphere model, by Joos van Ghent and Pedro Berruguete, 1476, Louvre, Paris

Mapping the stars and their movements likely developed alongside lunar monitoring. The skies were not only used for navigation and tracking time but also for inspiring awe and sparking the imagination. The star clusters became associated with mythic figures, legendary tales or, simply, aspects of daily life. The astral mythology that is most commonly known today had its canon unintentionally cemented by Eratosthenes in a work that is now, tragically, lost to us.
However, that does not mean we are without insight into ancient astral mythology!

Astral Mythology: Zeus and his childhood
Both of the earliest Greek sources, Hesiod and Homer (8th century B.C), mention the Great Bear constellation, but throughout Greek and Latin history, the mythos became muddled, and with the loss of essential works, it’s not possible to determine an ‘original.’
There is the claim that the duo of the Ursa Major and Minor constellations are the nymph nurses of Zeus, Helike and Cynosura, who raised him after he avoided getting eaten by his father, the Titan Cronos. Zeus then rewarded their help by placing them in the sky.

Showing the Bear image of the Constellation. (Image: Little Astronomy)

Another variation claims that Helike was a Cretan born worthy of heavenly placement, and it was just Cynosura who had been his nurse. Meanwhile yet another myth claims that the Ursa constellations are his bear-morphed nurses, and Zeus transformed himself into the constellation Draco to hide from Cronos, his baby-eating father.
However, these myths are much less common and recounted than the tale of Zeus and Callisto.
Zeus and one of his unfortunate lovers, Callisto
Callisto was a nymph huntress in service to the goddess Artemis, and as such, committed a vow of chastity. In some versions, she is the daughter of Lycaon, ruler of Arcadia, though her service to Artemis remains the same.
One day, the young maiden is seduced (again, variation dependent and also with questionable consent) by Zeus and is impregnated by the encounter. Artemis noticed the growing baby bump and banished Callisto. For a goddess connected with childbirth, you would have expected a little more leniency before banishment, but that isn’t the Olympian way…
Callisto’s transformation into a bear varies per tale. One states that Artemis caused the change as she banished the girl. Another places the morphing magic in Hera’s jealous hands, another in Zeus’ after being afraid he would get caught. Either way, Callisto birthed Arcas while in bear form.
Diana and Callisto by Rubens, c. 1635

Diana and Callisto by Rubens, c. 1635

The babe grew old and raised in Arcadia. One variation claims that Callisto, hearing his voice in the forest, rushed to Arcas, who knocked his hunting bow instinctively, unknowingly seconds from matricide. Another two sources state Hera encourages Artemis to hunt the bear; in one, Artemis kills the bear with no issues, whereas the other sees her spare the bear upon realizing its’ identity.
A differing source claims that Zeus raped Callisto when he was in the form of Artemis, causing the girl to claim the goddess was the cause of her misfortune, and thus Artemis punished the maiden for the miscommunication by changing her into a bear. Meanwhile, Arcas grew older and became a hunter and when the bear was brought to the city, Arcas naturally went to hunt her, his mother. However, Zeus interrupted the accidental attempted matricide, and feeling sorry for Callisto due to their bond, placed her in the heavens. It seems being hunted by your son is worth eternal twinkling in the sky.

Callisto and Arcas by Hendrik Goltzius (1590) (Image: The British Museum)

Versions differ in retelling Callisto’s rise to the heavens. Some claim it’s after her death, some before, sometimes by Zeus and sometimes by Artemis. In another, Arcas grows to be the ancestor of the Arcadians, and in yet another, Callisto is the daughter of Arcadian ruler Lycaon and Arcas grows old as a hunter. The mythos is obviously ancient, complicated and has become confused over time. One even claims that her name was, in fact, Megisto, daughter of Ceteus, the ‘Kneeler’ constellation. Another name variation originates from Creten verses, which also indicates just how old this tale was within Greek culture;

“And thou, born of the transformed Lycaean nymph,
Who, snatched from the frozen heights of Arcadia,
Was forbidden by Tethys from ever bathing in the ocean,
For daring to consort with the husband of her foster-child.”
(Mythical Tales 177, Callisto)

As seen in the Cretan verses, the Titaness Tethys, wife of the Ocean had banned the Great Bear from ever bathing, or setting below the horizon, due to her involvement with Zeus’ infidelity.
It seems complicated
There is no doubt this tale is old and that the variations are confusing. But the most common mythos that the ancients understood to be connected to the Ursa Major constellation was bear-focused, and mostly centered around the myth of Callisto and Zeus, albeit with many variations. While we may never know the ‘real’ story of the Ursa Major, we can continue to marvel as its twinkling lights and imagine, as the ancients did, how they got there.

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