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A Visit To The Apollo Temple at Didyma, Hidden Gem of the Aegean

by June 30, 2021

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In ancient times, Turkey’s Didyma was not a city of trade or agriculture but a place of worship. Located on the country’s western coast, Didim — as it is now called — is home to the magnificent and ancient Apollo Temple. 
An artist’s imagining of the Apollo Temple Didyma during its construction. Credit: unknown German Artist, 1912
While it is considered a lesser-known temple today, the Apollo Temple at Didyma was incredibly significant in its time. It was important not just for the Greeks, but the Romans and the rest of the Mediterranean world as well.
Second only to the Apollo at Delphi, this temple was wider than the Parthenon in Athens and the fourth-largest temple in the ancient Greek world. Many famous (and infamous) western emperors visited the temple at Didyma. Many even vied to become its patron due to the great social, cultural, and political influence the Didymaion oracle had over Anatolia and other Greek and Mediterranean provinces.
Caesar, Julian, and even Alexander the Great passed through the city of Miletus and headed straight to Didyma to consult with the Didymain Oracle. It was here, in 303 BCE, that Emperor Diocletian traveled to consult the oracle. He heeded its advice — which was to persecute the growing Christian population.
But it wasn’t just its famous visitors that made the Apollo Temple great. The building itself stands testament to the true genius of Greek engineering and architectural design. The structure has several features that set it apart from other Hellenistic temples. Firstly, the exterior of the building is typical of large Ionic temples of its time, with a double colonnade surrounding the interior walls and a vestibule at the front, which is enclosed by a portico and projecting sidewalls. But these are the only features the Apollo at Didyma has in common with its contemporaries. 
Here is how it differed: First, the interior of the building has the most unusual design. The great stairway that leads up to the temple is large, wide enough to receive the large festival processions that traveled in from the town of Miletus via the Sacred Way. But upon ascending the steps, the worshippers were met by a huge blank wall instead of a traditional central doorway. The sacred inner sanctuary was accessed instead by two arched doorways sloping downwards on either side, leading to an open-air courtyard. These entrances were extremely narrow, only allowing for single-file access — which suggests that entrance to the inner sanctum was somewhat exclusive. 
Image of the Inner sanctuary from atop the inner staircase. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
The open-air courtyard itself is said to have been lined with bay trees. The sacred spring (naiskos), believed to be the source of the power of the oracle, was enshrined in the center of the sanctuary, along with an impressive statue of the god Apollo. The foundations of the inner sanctuary stood in the middle of the courtyard can still be seen, along with the remains of various altars.
Processional view of the Temple on approach. The now crumbled wall would have blocked worshippers from viewing the sacred inner sanctuary. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
The sanctuary was built to rival the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, which was the largest temple until Apollo. The temple access was built to deliberately prevent a direct approach. Visitors of lesser importance were thus prevented from seeing the inner ‘secrets’ of the temple. Instead, a second inner courtyard lay atop of the wall, which was accessed by 22 steps over 15 meters wide that lead up from the inner courtyard below. It is believed that the purpose of this unusual layout was to allow some worshippers a tantalizing glimpse of the inner sanctum, the priests, and the prestigious visitors that graced its halls.
Unfortunately, there are no surviving accounts of the ritual or ceremony involved in consulting the oracle from the perspective of the enquirer. Instead, we are left with historical and procedural inference from other sources to explain the unusual design layout of the temple. 
Indeed, the history of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma itself contains mysteries. The site was razed and rebuilt many times. In fact, a humble structure of worship stood there even before the Ionic colonization of the Aegean coast. A second much larger structure was built by the people of Miletus and was destroyed in 494 BCE by the Persians. The site was left in ruin until Alexander the Great conquered the region and reconstructed it in 331 BCE. The temple flourished once more under Roman control, with Emperor Caligula allegedly trying to complete the project. In 101 AD, the Sacred Way was restored by Emperor Trajan. The Apollo reconstruction continued until the closing of pagan temples under Theodosius I. Didyma later became a bishop’s seat under the rule of Justinian I. The site was eventually abandoned and left to ruin after the Ottoman conquest of Iona in 1300, and an earthquake in 1493 finally destroyed the temple almost completely.
The ‘end’ point of The Sacred Way a 16.5km processional road that connected the Sacred gate of Miletus to the steps of the Apollon Temple at Didyma. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
Yet the Apollo stands to this day, its size is still hugely impressive, with 25-meter high walls. The temple platform area covers some 5,500 square meters and contains 122 columns over two meters in diameter and some 28 meters in height. Such feats of engineering have puzzled archaeologists for over 200 years. Temple construction could take hundreds of years to complete, so ancient Greek architects and engineers would engrave project plans within the stones of the temple itself, and polish them away once the project was complete. Since the last reconstruction was never completed, the site is awash with inscriptions, diagrams and floor plans from the original builders. Many tourists visit this site daily, unaware that ancient knowledge lies preserved underfoot and for all to see.
Etchings made by ancient builders visible at the base of the External temple Columns. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
In 1979, a team of archaeologists visited the site and were astonished at the preservation of these plans. They report finding finely etched lines on the Temple walls that trace out the intended design of various structures, some of which were never completed. These ancient ‘blue prints’ cover a huge area, and have shed light on the building methods and  mathematical precision employed at the time.
Examples of etchings, initials, insignias, and quotations found along the exterior steps running along all four walls of the temple. Including various etchings, shapes and designs found on the temple floor. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
Inscribed on the floors of the outer sanctuary are plans for the construction and decorating of the columns. Using micro-imaging techniques, horizontal lines were discovered on the unfinished walls of the inner sanctuary that show plans for building column shafts and their plinths. 
Doodles, names, and dates of the construction workers can also be found littered across the site — there are even a few quotations from the oracle.
A possible etching of the sun god Apollo. Apollo was often depicted with a shield and spear. A bird or raven appears on his left side. Raven was commonly associated with the god. Photo credit: Lydia Serrant
The Temple of Apollo at Didyma is a magnificent structure and testament to the ingenuity of those who designed, built, and inscribed it. The site played an important role in the history of the Greek conquest of Anatolia and the politico-cultural reach of the Anatolian Greeks and their later Roman counterparts. 
The site is still cherished by those who live and visit the modern town of Didim. In some ways, the site remains faithful to its original purpose: bringing people together. The Temple of Apollo at Didyma is still a favored location for cultural festivals, community workshops, and a place for local artists, farmers, traders, and visitors to commune. Adjacent to the ruined temple is a modern mosque, demonstrating that despite the modernization of the immediate area, the modern Apollo Temple site remains part of an unbroken tradition of worship and community that stretches back over 2,000 years.
References:
Haselberger, L. (1985). The Construction Plans for the Temple of Apollo at Didyma. Scientific American, 253(6), 126-133. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/24967878
Parke, H. (1986). The Temple of Apollo at Didyma: The Building and Its Function. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 106, 121-131. doi:10.2307/629647

Technological ‘Miracles’ Of Ancient Greece

by March 25, 2021

Written by Arslan Hassan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Ancient Greece was filled with inventors and engineers whose machines, instruments, and appliances used are still in use today.

Technology and Entertainment

The Greeks made massive contributions in the fields of theater, music, sports, and stage performances. The theater itself is Greece’s most valuable contribution to the world of entertainment, bringing us comedy, tragedy, and satire.

Moreover, the Greek’s invented animated characters, programmed shows, stage machinery and the mechanical automation required to move them. They also studied various physical laws related to music and its harmony. 

Pythagoras studied the properties of vibrating string, while Aristotle researched sound waves and their relation with motion. Similarly, Vitruvius studied the detailed mechanism of sound transmission. Their research led to the invention of  acoustic musical instruments, modern theaters, and even modern sound equipment.

The Greeks paid attention to both the architectural and functional values of their theaters. They developed technology that changed the entire look of the theater, bringing in moving carts, automatic scenery changes, and stage rotations, to cite a few examples.

 In sports, they invented a technology  the Hysplex that is useful in making fair racing decisions. 

Automata, Robots and Wonders

The Automate Therapaenis, Greece, 3rd c. BC

We also find numerous examples of automata or automated machines developed by the Greeks. One such example is the automatic door system. The concept was first used in a temple where the door opened on its own.

Additionally, they also developed a burglar alarm. This alarm sounded whenever the door was opened, much like the bell that rings in our shops. Other examples of Greek automates include:

  • The first vending machine
  • A robot-servant machine for pouring wine and water
  • A steam turbine, and much more.

Musical Instruments, Games and Toys

Ancient Greek musical instruments

The Greeks loved music; it was their major recreational pursuit. As in other domains, they made commendable contributions in this field. Some major technological developments for music include the panpipes, flute and Greek lyre.

Many of these instruments were developed through scientific study. Ptolemy and Pythagoras were the key drivers. By understanding the relation of the pitch to sound and musical harmony, new ways of creating sound emerged.

The ancient Greeks also developed mind games for kids (and adults). For example, the game Pollis is similar to chess. They also developed puzzles and rolling games.

Sports Technology in Ancient Greece

Reconstruction of a fourth-century Greek Hysplex based off an illustration on the Panathenean amphora dated 344/343 BC, Thessaloniki Technology Museum

When it comes to the sports of ancient Greece, the Isthmian games as well as the Delphic, Olympic, and Nemean may come to mind. The Greeks also developed a racing system for chariot and horse races that gave an equal chance of winning to every participant. Similarly, a hysplex was used to line up all the runners. This was done to make sure that every participant was following the rules.

Technology in Everyday Life

Illustration of an ancient Greek crane

From pulleys and cranes to tackle systems, blocks, and capstan hoists, the Greeks invented a variety of technology for everyday use. They used this technology for building monuments, as it enabled easy lifting of even the heaviest objects with a single hand. Archimedes also used a gearbox for designing a winch.

The Greeks also built a crane on a mobile platform which used Capstan winches to lift, load, tilt and move backward or forward. The crane lifted the stone from one end and dropped it off on the other. Parallel wall building was also made possible by the crane when two of them were used in the line.

Hydraulic Technology

Ancient Greek water mill

To better harness the energy of small rivers, the Greeks used horizontal turbines as well as watermills. They also resolved several irrigation needs and domestic water requirements with multiple pumping systems. The piston pumps and advanced water wheel system also gained huge popularity. In addition, the crew pump was invented by Archimedes.

Machines and Tools

3D rendering of a pantograph

The Greeks developed various machines by using ordinary, everyday components. Some of these basic components include screws, cylinders, nuts, gears, etc. They also invented various advanced tools used for the development of advanced machinery.

One excellent example of the drawing device is the pantograph developed by Hero of Alexanderia. The device was used to duplicate his drawings with ease. Hero is also credited with inventing the first automatic door, the first coin-operated wine dispenser, and the steam engine.

Weapons, Telecommunications and Shipbuilding

Greek trireme

The Greeks gave prime importance to weapons. They knew that having well-trained soldiers was not enough. They must have technology: engines that can combat the enemies, and ships that are faster than ever. Thus, they developed various siege engines as well as a polybolos machine. Archimedes came up with a steam cannon and multiple devices for destroying walls.

For effective and safe communication, the Greeks used encrypted messages. They also invented a hydraulic telegraph system. As far as shipbuilding is concerned, Greeks won the battle of Salamis due to their invention of a powerful galley ship known as the trireme.

Textile, Agricultural Machinery and Medical Devices

Attic lekythoi showing two women at a standing loom, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Since everything was handcrafted during the time of Greeks, they used swing plows, draft animal pills, dual-sided looms, and screw presses for the production of olive oil. In the field of medicine, they invented various kinds of syringes, scalpels, and pliers.

Final Thoughts

In short, the ancient Greeks have made marvelous technological inventions. From medicine to telecommunication, sports, and the arts, their inventiveness is inspiring. Their stage machinery gave rise to the theater. Sports technology like racing systems resulted in fair results. Similarly, hydraulic technology bought advancement in the agricultural sector.

No matter how advanced do we get today, we will always be thankful to the Greeks for providing a base for the latest technology.

About the author:
Arslan Hassan is an electrical engineer with a passion for writing, designing, and anything tech-related. His educational background in the technical field has given him the edge to write on many topics. He occasionally writes blog articles for Carpet Cleaning London.

References:
https://www.ancient.eu/article/1165/ancient-greek-inventions/
https://www.greece-is.com/amazing-machines-museum-ancient-greek-technology/
https://www.magellantv.com/articles/ancient-tech-the-amazing-inventions-of-hero-of-alexandria
https://www.britannica.com/science/acoustics/Early-experimentation

 

 

 

Roman Pantheon: A Gigantic Sundial?

by March 19, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The Romans were great builders and are still revered as great engineers. One of the greatest buildings they constructed was the Pantheon. A new theory argues that the building was designed to act as a sundial during the Spring Equinox, which falls between March 19 and 21. This view could offer insights into Roman religion and ceremonial life.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was constructed during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Its Latin name means the temple of ‘all the gods’ and it played a very important part in the religious and public life of the city.

In the 2nd century AD, the structure was destroyed by a fire and was rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian (c 145 AD). The site, with its concrete dome (rotunda), is considered an architectural masterpiece and remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. In the interior of the Pantheon is a massive circular floor and access is through a splendid portico flanked fifty-foot granite columns.

Panoramic view of the Pantheon in Rome

Today, the Pantheon is an extremely popular tourist site as well as a functioning Catholic Church.

A Giant Sundial?

In the dome, there is a circular aperture known as an oculus, through which light enters the interior. It was once widely thought that the twenty-seven foot wide oculus was designed to provide light and to help to cool the building in the brutal Roman summers. However, it has now been proposed that the oculus was constructed to make the Pantheon a giant sundial, tracking time by the location of the sun in the sky.

The dome of the Parthenon, photographed with a fisheye lens by Victor Grigas, 2016

It has long been speculated that the Pantheon’s design was linked to the movements of the sun. Now two scholars believe they have shown a link between the building’s interior and the movements of the sun as seen through the oculus. They further argue that there are many similarities between the former temple and Roman-era sundials.

According to their study, the movement of the sunbeams appeared in the Pantheon’s interior via the oculus. This was important also for the calculation of the calendar. It is also believed that the temple played a role in the calculation of the equinoxes, which is when the night and day have equal hours and the sun sits directly above the Equator.

Researchers believe that beams of light hit above the door of the Pantheon at the Spring and Autumnal equinoxes, which were very significant dates to the Ancient Romans.

Pantheon dome

The Pantheon also played an important part in the ceremonial life of Rome. It is conjectured that the building was designed to allow light from the oculus to fall on the doorway on the 21st of April ever year, the anniversary of the founding of Rome. This was part of the celebration of the foundation of the city, one of the most important civic events in Rome.

The Pantheon was primarily a temple and it was once filled with statutes of the gods. It is believed that the light that fell from the oculus was a symbol of the solar deity, indicating his presence in the Pantheon.

Emperor, Religion, and Power

The Pantheon, as a sundial, may have played an important part in the ceremonial life of the Empire. Rituals and rites were used to proclaim and justify the absolute power of Emperors. The light falling through the oculus in the dome would have fallen on the Emperor during rituals, thus demonstrating his association with the sun gods.

In Rome, the Emperor was also the chief priest and it is possible that the light was used in some long-lost ceremony. The maintenance of the calendar was traditionally one of the main roles of the Emperor. In an era before mechanical clocks, the calendar and calculating time was often very challenging. Emperors such as Marcus Aurelius would have visited the Pantheon to track the movement of the sun as part of his management of the calendar, which symbolized his central role in the state. The Pantheon thus emphasized the sacred role of the Emperor and his role in ruling time.

The Pantheon at night

Conclusion

The Pantheon is one of the most stunning buildings ever constructed. However, it is also still somewhat mysterious and enigmatic, even after almost 2,000 years. The theory that it was used as a sundial could help us to better understand this structure. If the temple was designed to act like a sundial it likely had a greater role in the ceremonial, public and civic life of the city than previously thought.

References:

Marder, T.A. and Jones, M.W. eds., 2015. The Pantheon: from antiquity to the present. Cambridge University Press.

Volcanoes in the Ancient World: Cataclysm and Change

by March 5, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Volcanic eruptions have had a devastating impact on pre-industrial societies such as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Volcanoes have in fact changed history. Some of the most important eruptions in the history of the Classical world are discussed below.

Theran Eruption and the End of Minoan Civilization

Minoan fresco, showing a fleet and settlement

Minoan fresco, showing a fleet and settlement

Bronze Age Minoan Civilization from the Aegean Island of Crete is generally considered the forerunner of ancient Greek culture. This culture suddenly disappeared before the Trojan War (c 1200 BC).  At about this date, a volcano exploded on the Aegean Island of Thera (modern-day Santorini), destroying the town of Akrotiri. It is believed that the force of the volcano caused a tsunami that devastated the island of Crete, located some 75 miles south of Akrotiri. Some believe this to be the source of the myth of Atlantis. The ash from the volcano caused what is known as a ‘cold wave’ that produced widespread crop failure and probably famine. Since the Minoans were dependent on agriculture, their society was suddenly very weakened, allowing the Mycenean Greeks to invade and conquer their Island.

Mount Vesuvius

Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, by John Martin

In 79 AD. the area around the Bay of Naples in Italy was a flourishing with prosperous towns such as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and others. However, with the eruption of Vesuvius, a cataclysm descended on the region. Vesuvius sent pumice and lava into the air. A flow of magma and hot ash flowed down its slope at a rapid speed. The town of Pompeii went dark because the ash blotted out the sun as a tide of lava swept into their homes and streets. Some were able to flee on boats in the harbor, but many were killed. It is estimated that some 2,000 people died in Pompeii and its surrounding areas. Many of the dead were encased with hot ash, preserving them for almost two millennia. Pompeii was abandoned because of the thick ash that had engulfed it and was forgotten for almost 1700 years.

Ptolemaic Egypt

Ptolemy III

Researchers now better understand the link between volcanic eruptions in places such as Alaska, the Arctic and modern Indonesia and war, famine and unrest in Ptolemaic Egypt. For example, in 245 B.C Ptolemy III had himself crowned King of Asia after capturing Babylon, but his dreams of conquest were ended by uprisings. A mysterious volcanic eruption caused him to return to Egypt to quell a major revolt caused by famine. In 205 BC another volcano erupted, causing more famine, starvation and uprisings. The years of Cleopatra’s reign were marked by famines and plagues that were likely the result of some volcanic eruption, possibly in Alaska. Volcanoes greatly contributed to the decline of Ptolemaic Egypt and its eventual conquest by Rome.

The Fall of the Roman Republic

“Destruction” from The Course of Empire Series by Thomas Cole

By the mid-first century BC, the Roman Republic was in crisis, wracked by political instability and rebellious generals. In 43 B.C. the Okmok volcano, located on the Aleutian Islands just off Alaska, erupted. This cooled the global temperature, resulting in poor harvests that may have contributed to the instability in the Roman Republic. Food shortages led to rioting in Rome and other cities in Italy. This instability made an authoritarian government more appealing, likely accelerating the decline of the Republic and the rise of Octavian who became Augustus, the First Roman Emperor.

Arctic Volcano and Third Century Crisis

The Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus or “Great” Ludovisi sarcophagus showing a battle scene between Roman soldiers and Goths/Germans, ancient Roman sarcophagus dating to around AD 250–260

For the first two hundred years of the Roman Empire, volcanic activity was limited. This may have contributed to the stability and the prosperity of the era. There was no unexpected droughts or sudden drops in temperature to disrupt agriculture. However, this changed during the Crisis of the Third Century—a period when the Roman Empire all but collapsed. The crisis period consisted of a series of emperors, civil wars, barbarian invasions, famines, and economic collapse. A recent study has shown that during the period, there was also widespread economic and social dislocation in Egypt. This was unexpected, as the province was believed to have escaped the worst of the Crisis. However, a volcano erupted in the Arctic in about 260 A.D, causing cataclysmic climate change in the whole region. The changes brought flooding and crop failure. Thus, it is now believed that volcanic activity played a role in the existential crisis faced by the Roman empire in the third century AD.

The End of the Classical World

Scene from The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), directed by Anthony Mann © 1964 Paramount Pictures Corporation with Samuel Bronston Productions

There are many dates for the end of the Western Roman Empire. Today, many scholars believe that it occurred later than previously thought. Many have pointed out that Roman law, culture, society, and social organizations continued well into the sixth century AD. Indeed, at this time it appeared that Emperor Justinian might even be able to revive the empire. However, something else also occurred in the sixth century AD: the climate cooled, bring a decline in agriculture. This change may have contributed to the spread of diseases such as the plague.  The mid-sixth century AD has also been called the Late Antiquity Ice Age due to two massive volcanic eruptions. In 530 A.D, a volcano erupted in Iceland, causing temperatures to drop, crops to fail and famine, according to Byzantine and Irish chroniclers. Before the ancient world could recover, the eruption of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador caused temperatures to plunge again, leading to renewed hunger and disease and even war. It appears that volcanic activity ensured that the Classical World would not revive, marking the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages.

Conclusion

Volcanoes caused cataclysmic events that resulted in large-scale destruction and loss of life in the ancient world. Eruptions have led to climatic changes that triggered agricultural losses which ultimately led to famine, plague and war. Even volcanoes located thousands of miles away had a devastating impact on ancient societies and their development. This can help explain important historical developments, such as the rise and fall of empires. Occasionally, these disasters may—as in the case of the Minoans—lead to the downfall of an entire civilization.

References:

De Boer, J.Z. and Sanders, D.T., 2012. Volcanoes in human history: the far-reaching effects of major eruptions. Princeton University Press.

Serpent in the Stars: Draco

by February 5, 2021

Written by Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

There are certain mythical creatures that seem to exist in most cultures, and the dragon is one of them. The Greeks were no different and immortalized a serpentine shape in their sky situated between the two Bears (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor).

Draco constellation

Dragon to Snake: What happened to the wings?

In India, this star cluster is referred to as a crocodile or alligator, but in other regions, it has been identified as a Hippopotamus. In the classical world, this curling constellation is known as the serpentine Draco.

The Mesopotamians originally identified wings with the constellation, however, the Greek philosopher Thales (c.6th century BC) lopped them off to form Ursa Minor. One of its tail stars, Thuban, was the Pole Star around 2,800 BC, but is not now due to the precession of the equinoxes.

Greek astronomy

Draco & Ursa Minor, detail


The earliest surviving written Greek sources are the war-filled epics of Homer and cosmological fables of Hesiod (both dated roughly to the 8th century BC). The philosopher Plato encouraged the introduction of astronomy and astrology from the East and Egypt, holding sky-watchers in high regard.

He also believed the Greeks would improve upon the imperfect, inherently unreliable Eastern system by employing geometry and mathematics. By c.400 BC, the Babylonian zodiac, which had emerged c.1300-1100 B.C, made its way to Greek shores.

Ptolemy’s The Algamest (A.D 150), describes traditions that had been popularized in Greek society by way of a popular poem by Aratus c. 275 B.C, The Phaenomena.  This poem was said to heavily reference the works of Eudocus (366 B.C), lost tomes that are said to contain the earliest description of Greek skies.

During the 2nd century BC, Hipparchus wrote The Commentary and it marked a shift in how constellations were understood by introducing a scientific mode of enquiry.

The Greek system of constellations housed only 18 star clusters that did not originate elsewhere. These are undeniably Greek, representing heroes such as Heracles and Orphicous and cultural familiarities, such as the Dolphin.

The Greeks’ relatively late entry into the constellation conversation did not stop them from introducing the term ‘katasterismos’ or catasterism, which means the process of being set in the heavens.

They were also not afraid to rename the star-images, denoting one the ‘Triangle’ during the 6-4th centuries B.C, corresponding with the introduction of organized geometry.  This reveals how changes in society are reflected in the heavens. As the Hermetics’s would say: As above, so below.

Ssssnake: Protector or Problem?

Drace and Ursa Minor

There are several variations on how a serpent came to be coiled amongst the stars.

Some accounts say the snake is the memory of the magnificent Python of Delphi, slaughtered by Apollo when the god came to claim the impressive oracular site as his own.

Other stories speak of it as a loyal serpentine guard of Hera, who catasterised (set in the heavens) the snake, in appreciation for its service. During the incestuous wedding festivities of Hera and Zeus, the bride received a glorious gift from Gaia and the Horai (Earth and the Seasons) — a branch laden with golden apples. Hera, admiring their beauty, begged Gaia to house them in her glorious garden.

The Garden of Hesperides by Ricciardo Meacci, 1894

This garden lay by the feet of Atlas and his cheeky daughters, the Hesperides, who were frequent thieves of its fruits. Thus, Hera appointed Ladon the serpent to guard her precious gift. One cannot help but wonder if these golden apples were those involved in the Epic Cycle, the famous saga in Homer’s Iliad.

But the story doesn’t end there. Unfortunately, Heracles visited the garden and shot the snake with an arrow, ridding the Eden of its protector so he could nab the apples. Alternatively, he slaughtered the snake during his trials. Either way, heartbroken, Hera placed the snake in the sky for eternity (this undoubtably was another justification for Hera’s vengeful persecution of Heracles).

Alternatively, the snake constellation has been tied to Zeus, hiding in dragon form from his father Cronos on the island of Crete. Interestingly, Crete is dominated by serpentine iconography, often associated with the ‘Great Mother Goddess’ and birds.

Grecian culture can be traced back through the Mycenaeans to the Minoans, as was recently demonstrated by genetic analysis. The Minoans in Crete were known to be a Bronze Age powerhouse and were likely the dominant stepping-stone for the introduction, and eventual domination (academically agreed to be c.2000 BC), of eastern Indo-European ideologies in Greece. They were no stranger to assimilating with indigenous communities, and the native cosmology helped form what today we know as the Greek Pantheon.

Mosaic of the third century BC from Kaulon in southern Italy

Other mythological tales of Draco see the coiled serpent as the only dragon who fought with the Titans against the Olympians in the Titanomachy. It is said that after ten years of conflict, Athena met with the dragon on the battlefield and proceeded to hurl it by the tail into the heavens, where its lanky body snagged on the North Pole and it swiftly froze.

The great war between the gods finished not long after, and the Olympians reigned supreme. It is interesting to note that Athena, connected with the owl and a masculine goddess, was the Olympian to throw the serpent to the sky. Could this be a mythical representation of the patriarchal Indo-Europeans, using mythological assimilation to make the process easier? By the Gigantomachy, Athena, clad with adopted serpentine imagery, led battles against the Giants, described as wild and snake-like.

Also concerned with dragon, rather than snake form, this constellation potentially depicts the dragon that had guarded the spring of Ares until Cadmus came along.

Cadmus Slays the Dragon, by Hendrik Goltzius

Cadmus killed the beast and sowed its teeth into ground. Surprisingly, they sprouted into men, known as the Sparti, who promptly fought to the death. Only five survived, and these are the ancestors of the five noble families of Thebes. This appears to be a localized version of the tale, concerned with the birth of a city state. Mythical political propaganda is not uncommon in the ancient world due to the social status that came with having heroic ancestors. Such claims gave them foundations in antiquity, in a Golden Age long ago that the Greeks aspired to achieve again.

Serpents were frequent protectors in ab aeterno mythology, representative of an older age. It is said that even the Acropolis of Athens was guarded by a snake, Erichthonis, who loyally protected Athena when coiled in her shield.  In older mythos, snakes were concerned with goddesses and represented life, death, and rebirth.

References:

Cornelius, G. (2005). The complete guide to the constellations. London: Duncan Baird, pp.76-77

Schaefer, B. (2006). The Origin of the Greek Constellations. Scientific American, 295(5), pp.96-101.

Kirk, G. S. (1972). Greek Mythology: Some New Perspectives. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 92, pp.74-85

Ératosthène, Hygin, Aratus and Hard, R. (2015). Constellation myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.12-14

Graves, R. (2012). The Greek myths. New York: Penguin Books.

Douglas, H. (2020). When is a snake just a snake? The lack of cultic continuity between the Minoan Mother Goddess and Classical Greek deities based on snake imagery. Unpublished thesis. University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Wales.

Ribbens Dexter, M. (2011) The Monstrous Goddess: The Degeneration of Ancient Bird and Snake Goddesses into Historic Age Witches and Monsters. Journal of Archaeomythology, 7:181-202. ISSN 2162-6871

Serpents in the Stars: The Hydra Constellation

by December 30, 2020

Written by Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

In modern astronomy, this constellation is often divided into two or four parts. One is a female water snake called Hydra, the other, Hydrus. A smaller constellation located in the southern hemisphere, Hydrus is considered the male counterpart of this giant, sprawling star serpent.

At twenty-seven stars, this is the largest constellation in the sky, visible from almost anywhere around the world. Unfortunately, it lacks particularly bright stars, so can be difficult to spot. The brightest, an orange star named Alphard, meaning solitary in Arabic, is so named due to its seeming loneliness in the abyss.

The six stars that form the snake’s head are the constellation’s most distinctive feature. The head has a culmination on January 31st, whereas the tail culmination occurs during April. Culmination is when the constellation, or in this instance part of the constellation, reaches the zenith of the celestial sphere’s rotation, appearing higher in the sky.

Greek Astronomy

An artistic impression of Hydra with its surrounding asterisms. Image: Sidney Hall

In case you haven’t noticed, humans have a curious fascination with the night sky. Some of the stories we “see” as constellations go all the way back to Mesopotamian times (1300-1000 BC), where sky-watching was a prestigious occupation.

Gradually, early astronomy developed a mythic component. Over time, different narratives evolved in response to changes in interests and values over the generations, reflected in patterns in the sky. These narratives likely experienced dramatic development during the transition from oral to written transmission, but to what is extent is unknown.

Today, the International Astronomical Union lists 88 official constellations, many of which date back to Ptolemy’s seminal work on astronomy, The Almagest (A.D 150).

Compared to the rest of the ancient world, the Greeks began investigating the stars rather late (Hesiod and Homer, 500 BC). As such, they incorporated a lot of astronomy from their eastern neighbors. The Greek astral mythos canon was solidified by Eratosthenes, in a work now lost to us.

Slithering Across the Sky

Hydra photographed above the scenic lake of Llyn y Fan Fach in the Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve in Wales, U.K. Image: Huw James Media

Hydra was identified as far back as ancient Sumer, where it was named after the primordial salt-water dragon goddess, Tiamat. In the myth, Tiamat slaughters the inhabitants of Earth, her offspring with Abzu/Apsu, the primordial god of fresh water, after they had slain her beloved. As myth and time progressed, she was usurped by the storm god Marduk, who overthrew the queen to gain divine regency amongst the Mesopotamian pantheons.

The introduction of Marduck, Babylon’s supreme deity, reflected the increase of political power that Babylon had over the Sumerian and Akkadian states of Mesopotamia. In this way, the Mesopotamian myth of the serpent contains a simplified, mythologized history of the region.

The serpent also held importance in Egypt, where it was likened to the unfurling, curling nature of the Nile, signifying changes in zodiacal alignments and celestial events.

However, in ancient Greece, this constellation was the formidable Lernean Hydra, the second of the great Labors of Heracles. The story goes that Hercules was set against the Hydra, mythological monster with nine heads that oozed venomous substances from gaping jaws.

The offspring of Typhon and Echidne, reared by Hera, the Hydra was terrorizing the sacred and fertile region of Lerna, near Argos. On ancient Greek coins, the Hydra is stylized with seven heads to mimic the river Amymone, where it was said to have lived prior to invading the Lernean swamp. The problem of the multiple heads couldn’t be resolved by decapitation due to their fierce regrowth, sprouting two or three more heads from their bloody stumps.

Heracles, with the aid of Athena, tempted the Hydra out of hiding with flaming arrows and held his breath when it emerged. He then lopped off its heads, but they just grew back. The twisting tail sought to trip him as it gripped his ankles and he uselessly waved his club around. Hera, determined to see the young hero fail, sent a crab to pinch his feet. It was swiftly squished. This then became the astrological constellation of Cancer.

Hercules and the Hydra

The flailing and ever-increasing number of heads was becoming overwhelming for Heracles, who was saved by his charioteer, Iolaus. Iolaus heroically set fire to the grove in which the battle occurred and waved burning branches at the fresh stumps, cauterizing the wounds and preventing their regrowth. This also provided sufficient distraction for Heracles, who was able to access the golden head of the Hydra and remove it with a golden falchion (a type of sword), thus claiming victory over his second trial. He then dipped his arrows into the disemboweled body of the monster. However, his victory was short-lived as Eurystheus, who had set the trial, held that Hercules had cheated because he received assistance.

Lerna was known as the location where Dionysus had ventured to the Underworld, and so housed several divine shrines to the god, where secret nocturnal rites were performed. Additionally, the Mysteries of Demeter were celebrated there, in a shrine set at the locale where Hades took Persephone to the Underworld. It appears this location was a hotspot for traversing realms. Robert Graves has suggested that this classical mythology was a historical attempt to suppress the archaic fertility rituals of the Mysteries that took place there.

Crimes of Corvus

Urania’s Mirror, 1825

Hydra actually has two constellations perched on its back: Crater, or Bowl, and Corvus, or Crow. This peculiar combination is associated with Apollo’s punishment of the Crow. The tale goes that the bird was sent by Apollo to retrieve water for a ritual libation. Unfortunately, some figs distracted his feathered friend while on the quest. The Crow waited several days for the figs to ripen in order to pluck the delicious snack from the tree and gobble them up, having forgotten his heaven-sent task.

Once his tummy was full, the Crow suddenly remembered – the water for the gods! In a bid to save his own feathers, he snatched a water-snake and brought it before Apollo, claiming it had consumed all the spring water. Apollo, seeing the ruse, cursed the Crow to suffer from thirst during the season of fig ripening. In order that the crime would not be forgotten, Apollo put the imagery into the heavens, with neither the Snake nor the Crow able to reach the bowl of water.

In some versions, the Crow returns with a bowl of water, albeit several days late, and the Snake was only placed amongst the stars to deter the Crow from the bowl. This is not the only story involving Apollo cursing the Crow, and it makes you wonder why he kept them in employment!

The ‘Bowl’ Constellation in Troy

Image showing Hydra in the southern sky at around 9 pm ET, mid-latitudes, Northern Hemisphere. Credit: © Starry Night Software

The Bowl, also known as the Crater, is a constellation in its own right and has mythological roots going back to Troy. While the city was ruled by Demophon, it was plagued with a … well, plague. Demophon, distraught by the epidemic, invoked Apollo, who had worked with Poseidon to construct Troy and so favored the city. In order to stop the plague, Apollo demanded a maiden of noble origin be sacrificed to the patron god of the cities every year.

Demophon devised a system in which all the noble women would be sacrificed except his own daughters. This worked for a while, until another noble family patriarch, Mastousios, refused to enter his daughter. The king, outraged, ordered that his daughter be sacrificed, without drawing lots.

Mastousios played the long game and did not seek immediate retribution against the king. He pretended to befriend him, and spent a year winning his favor. When it came to the sacrifice, he informed the king he had chosen a victim this year and organized the ceremony. The king, no doubt busy with royal affairs of state, sent his daughters ahead of him with a wave and a “I’ll meet you there.”

The vengeful noble Mastousious slaughtered the king’s daughters and mixed their blood into the wine that he presented to the King upon his arrival. Unsurprisingly, the plan came to a bad end when the King realized what had happened and threw Mastousious into the sea. This body of water retained the name, and the event was placed into the sky as a reminder against abusing power for one’s own benefit.

This tale does not bare much resemblance to the imagery presented in the stars. It appears to have been created to provide an origin for the harbor and sea name in the region, rather than being representative of the story around the constellation.

Conclusion

The serpent in the stars reflects the tales of love, betrayal, and political upheaval. The size of this constellation reflects the variations of mythos surrounding it, regardless of whether it is seen entirely as Hydra or divided into the crow and the crater. As the story of the bowl constellation in Troy demonstrates, some Greek tales almost seem forced into place. The serpentine motif is predominantly associated with the pre-Olympian pantheons and the rage of primordial Tiamat, yet it continues to dominate today by taking up the largest part of the night sky.

References:

Cornelius, G. (2005). The complete guide to the constellations. London: Duncan Baird.

Ératosthène, Hygin, Aratus and Hard, R. (2015). Constellation myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.110-114

Fontenrose, J. (1940). Apollo and the Sun-God in Ovid. The American Journal of Philology, 61(4), 429-444. doi:10.2307/291381

Graves, R. (2012). The Greek myths. New York: Penguin Books.

Kirk, G. S. (1972). Greek Mythology: Some New Perspectives. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 92, pp.74-85

Liritzis, I., Bousoulegka, E., Nyquist, A., Castro, B., Alotaibi, F., & Drivaliari, A. (2017). New evidence from archaeoastronomy on Apollo oracles and Apollo-Asclepius related cult. Journal Of Cultural Heritage, 26, 129-143. doi: 10.1016/j.culher.2017.02.011

Schaefer, B. (2006). The Origin of the Greek Constellations. Scientific American, 295(5), pp.96-101.