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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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Crown of the Northern Skies: Corona Borealis

by November 20, 2020

Written by Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

In Eastern traditions, this constellation is called, rather humbly, the Broken Bowl. It was the ancient Greeks that imbued it with starry mythos and royalty.

The Corona Borealis rises with Scorpion and sets at the rise of the Crab and Lion. It has nine stars in total and only three of them are considered bright, yet it is visible in the Northern Hemisphere during the evenings of late spring and early summer.

One of these stars, known as the Blaze Star, is unpredictable and flares aggressively between magnitudes. It sits between several of the human figures in the sky; the Kneeler, Boötes and Ophiuchus.

The crown can be seen amidst several human-like constellations.

Greek Astronomy

During the 2nd century BC, Hipparchus wrote The Commentary, revolutionizing the way constellations were understood by applying scientific enquiry to the stars. This eventually led to the defining of 88 official constellations, many of which have been known since Ptolemy’s The Algamest (A.D 150).

Ptolemy described traditions that had been popularized in Greek society in a wide-reaching 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 believed to contain the earliest Greek description of the skies.

The earliest surviving written accounts of the stars are the war-filled epics of Homer and cosmological fables of Hesiod (both dated roughly to the 8th century BC). However, these sources only mention major constellations like Orion, the Great Bear and the significant star clusters. That is all, and other Greek sources are remarkably silent about the skies for quite some time.

While the Great Bear has been identified in the skies since palaeolithic times, most of the constellations were defined by 1300- to 1000 B.C in ancient Babylon, and by c.400 BC, the Babylonian zodiac had been brought to Greece.

Plato encouraged the introduction of astronomy and astrology from the East and Egypt, holding the sky-watchers in high regard. At the same time, he wholeheartedly believed the Greeks would improve the imperfect, inherently unreliable system through geometry and mathematics.

The Greek system of constellations housed only eighteen star-images that did not originate elsewhere, and these are undeniably Greek, featuring heroes such as Heracles and Ophiuchus and animals like the Dolphin.

This reflects how changes in culture and society are reflected in the heavens, with the narratives developing alongside the people. As the Hermetics would say: As above, so below.

Urania’s Mirror – Hercules and Corona Borealis

The ‘Corona’ Myth

Corona, which means crown, is the crowning wreath of Ariadne, an eternal reminder of love lost, and love found, and the mythical origins of the garland headdresses worn by women at weddings. Why? Well…

On her wedding day, Ariadne received a prized crown that later became a bridal tradition. The gift was from Aphrodite and the Horai (the Seasons), crafted of ‘fiery gold and Indian jewels’ by Hephaestus and delivered by Dionysus, who had his own seductive agenda. The rambunctious god was discouraged by a divine relative to leave the girl alone – for now.

The bride belonged to Theseus. The hero of Athens had abandoned (or was forced to leave – the sources are not clear, and the debate is still on) Ariadne after using her, and her glowing crown, to leave the Labyrinth of Crete and the city who housed it. He had stolen the princess away, and abandoned her on the next stop, so it seems preposterous that the storytellers claim that the crown was then placed into the heavens to commemorate the love of Theseus and Ariadne – talk about a rushed ending to a bad romance novel!

Ariadne, by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

An alternative version sees Ariadne seduced by Dionysus after he finds her abandoned on the sands of Naxos (or Dia). She then bore the wine-god several sons: Oenopion, Thoas, Staphylus, Latromis, Euanthes, and Tauropolus.

It has been suggested that this divine marriage is due to the vine-cult reaching mainland Greece through Crete, where Ariadne was understood to be a moon-goddess and their children ancestors of several island tribes. Dionysus grieved greatly when she passed to the Underworld and placed her wedding wreath in the sky as an eternal memorial.

But Maybe It Isn’t a Bridal Crown?

Another variant sees the crown as Theseus’, hence its placement beside him in the sky (the Kneeler). Dolphins guided Theseus when the hero dived into the Cretan harbor to retrieve the ring of Minos during an informal, yet no less important, trial to prove his divine parentage.

Theseus crowned with a laurel wreath after slaying the Centaur Bianor, by Joseph Werner

The jury’s still out as to whether Theseus was gifted the crown by Thetis, famed mother of Achilles, or Amphitrite, the little-known wife of Poseidon. Either way, the sea presented Theseus, a descendant of Poseidon, with the crown. It was an early wedding gift, so when Theseus wed Ariadne, he gifted it to her.

Alternatively, Dionysus sought to return his mother, Semele, to the world of the living. On his quest, he met Polymnos in Argos who claimed to know the route to the Underworld and soon led the way. However, Dionysus feared that the Underworld would taint the gorgeous golden crown he carried, so he deposited it for safe-keeping at a site henceforth known as Stephanos. After he retrieved Semele, he cast the crown to the sky. This tale feels incomplete and there is very little to confirm it.

Mythic Wordplay

The etymology of Naxos involves several theories; Homer’s usage of dia could indicate that Naxos was the ‘isle of the Goddess’ as Dia was known to be its’ capital town, however, the name could also derive from naxai (sacrifices), strongly connected to the thysai (rites) of the island as there were many pious sacrifices made to honour the gods.

The connection between ‘crown’ and ‘dia’ sparked further etymological curiosity within me – was there an etymological route for the word ‘diadem’?

Interestingly, the root of the word is connected with the Greek diadema (the headband worn by Persian kings, adopted by Alexander the Great and his successors, enforcing the regal attachment to the band) but also has links to ‘bind across’/’throughout’/’twice’. Ariadne was indeed bound throughout, either by fate or marriage vows (of which she has two).

Thesmophoria, by Francis Davis Millet (1894-1897)

Wedding Rites

Weddings in the ancient world were infused with religio-cultic elements that were believed to enhance fertility, provide protection and purification to the couple as well as strengthen their bond. The wedding procession began at the bride’s house and ended at the groom’s, literally following the passage from one home to another.

These rites could last several days and usually took place just before the new moon. Specifically, the moon of the month Gamelion (January/February), which was named after deities presiding over marriage protection; Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Peitho and Artemis (according to Plutarch). A festival occurred in this month, of the same name, and was celebrated around the same time as modern Valentine’s Day to symbolize the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera (despite its countless flaws).

Aldobrandini Wedding fresco, 1st century BC

On their wedding day, brides would offer personal possessions or a lock of her hair to Hera or Aphrodite and wear a veil and wreath until the feast, which had been provided by her father, was finished. The couple-to-be-wed would bathe according to custom in a ritual called λουτρν νυμφικόν, loutròn nymphikón.

A young boy who had not experienced the death of his parents (therefore representing vitality and strength) would walk behind the couple during their ceremony, “wearing a wreath of thorny plants intertwined with acorns, [and] carried a basket and distributed bread to the guests, reciting the words: φυγον κακόν, ερον μεινον” (I have escaped evil and found something better). This symbolizes the increased prestige provided by marriage and has been argued to be reminiscent of the nomadic hunter-gather transitioning to civilized community cult rituals.

Further homely rites occur, led by the bride as she invites the home to accept her and for protection and fertility including: plate smashing, honey and sesame seed cake distribution, showering in nuts, and, in Sparta, the shaving of ones head and wearing of mens’ clothes in order to deceive maleficent spirts.

During these unprecedented times, it can be hard to associate the word corona with light, love and royalty. However, these tales display how the words can change over time. They show how many perspectives can arise about a singular topic, how different yet similar they are – as if to fit this theme, this is not the only Corona constellation in the sky! More on that later, but for now, let us allow the Corona Borealis constellation remind us of beauty, love and strength.


Everyone knows about the seahorse, but what about the star horse?

by November 13, 2020

Written by Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The horse features relatively heavily in Greek mythology, with Hesiod referring to a horse during his invocation to the Heliconian Muses at the start of his Theogony.

Thus it comes as no surprise that the ancients, who placed their greatest stories and symbols in the night sky, identified a horse by the name of constellation Pegasus. Yet which myth does it refer to? That, of course, is a trickier question.

It could be a reference to a metamorphosed maiden named Hippe, having taken the equine shape when fleeing her father, knowing he would violently disapprove of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, despite its divine lineage – the young girl had been seduced by a son of Helen of Troy, Aoiles.

Diana, Chasseresse, by Jules Lefebvre. Diana is equated with the Greek goddess Artemis

Artemis, feeling pity for the woman who had been pious for so many years, hid her in the sky. The backside of the horse is never seen as to conceal her female form.

A total of 18 stars create this half-horse constellation, its equine shape identified by a distinctive square. (Equine is taken loosely, for the ancients had creative imaginations and I have to strain to find the “horse”.) 

Its most famous star is Andromedae, located in the north-eastern corner of square, but its brightest star has Arabian etymology. It is known as Homam (“lucky star of the hero”), potentially memorializing an Arabic hero said to have mounted the divine steed, or sometimes as Hammam (‘whisperer’) in reference to the secret ancient art of horse whispering.

This constellation can be seen galloping into midnight culmination during September in the Northern Hemisphere and some middle-latitude Southern locations.

Pegasus constellation artwork by Liz Forester

Anonymous ancient sources claim it could potentially portray Pegasus, the winged steed of Bellerophon that sprung from the head of Medusa, despite a lack of twinkling wings.

The story goes that a Greek queen by the name of Anteia fell in love with hero Bellerophon, but he refused her advances. In retaliation – and fear he would speak of the incident to her husband – she accused Bellerophon of rape. Fortunately for the accused, the King had taken a liking to the man and did not wish to punish him directly.

So, he gave Bellerophon a seemingly impossible but highly honorable task: to defend the king’s daughter’s honor against the torturous Chimera.

Against all odds, Bellerophon was victorious, but ultimately committed hubris – he sought to transgress the realm of mortals to reach the home of the gods, Mount Olympus. He was hurled from his horse at the boundary. As Bellerophon cascaded through the sky to his death, the story goes that the horse sailed through the heavens and remained in the stars.

Bellerophon riding Pegasus, 1914

Greek astronomy

The Greeks were not alone in their desire to find familiar things among the twinkling stars of the mysterious abyss above us. Astronomical knowledge has been identified in prehistory, arising from the observation and tracking of the stars to situate peoples and their cultures within the cosmos.

Narratives then evolved over time, with the earliest Greek sources being Hesiod and Homer, valued highly for their insight to ancient cosmology. The constellation narratives developed slowly, from generation to generation, and likely took form during the transition from oral to written transmission, but to what is extent is unknown.

Myth is both molded by culture and molds it, predominantly through art – Classical astronomical art is still recognized in modern astronomical artwork and naming processes.

Today, there are 88 constellations officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union, and many of them have been accepted since Ptolemy’s The Almagest (A.D 150). Constellations often originate in older lands, defined by the Mesopotamians between 1300-1000 BC, but the Greek astral mythos canon was solidified by Eratosthenes in a work now lost to us.

Even though the Greeks were late to the constellation conversation (500 BC) – and received a lot of their knowledge from their Eastern neighbors  – it was the Greeks that introduced the word katasterismos or catasterism; the process of being set in the heavens. Despite knowing many constellations for the purposes of navigation and indication of seasonal change, many extravagant mythic connections were added later.

The Pegasus constellation

Horse history

The horse was domesticated on the Eurasian Steppes during the 4th millennium BC and gradually dispersed through the Near East and Mediterranean. The domesticated horse was expensive to purchase and maintain, yet quickly became important in many aspects of the ancient life (warfare, travel, sports, and hunting), despite being largely limited to the privileged class.

The second-highest rank in Athens was that of hippeis or ‘horse-owner’; therefore, the horse was a status symbol.  Chariot racers were also very popular and took place in arenas known as ‘Hippodromes’. There were also other equid-related sporting activities, such as horseback acrobatics and horseback javelin throws.

It was said that Poseidon was the father of all horses, so they were often ritually sacrificed through drowning, and most frequently in funerary ceremonies. These customs, predominantly displayed in Homer’s Illiad with the extravagant funeral of Patroclus, can be dated back to Mycenaean times.

For the modern reader, the horse is no longer a vital part of daily life. Horses are associated with the countryside, a different lifestyle than the one most of us are used to. Or they are simply kept in paddocks and rode along country roads. Thus, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of the horse for the ancients and why it features heavily in mythologies across the world.

Through astronomy, the ancient Greeks immortalized the horse, providing it with an eternal field of stars to gallop through, its mane flowing in the abyss of night.