Stars & Constellations

Category: Gods

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1 Introduction

Although the earliest Greek poets, like Hesiod and Homer, only name a few celestial bodies, over time – through crucial Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences – the stars became ever more important in Greek (and later Greco-Roman) learning and religion. This is most obvious in the case of the planets and the constellations relevant to astrology, but stars were also some of the most discussed gods in philosophy (beginning with Plato’s Timaeus; see Astral Gods), and by the Roman period, many no longer expected to go to the underworld after death, but hoped to ascend and dwell among the stars (as expressed perhaps most vividly in Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, but also in many funerary inscriptions).

2 The Earth is not a planet

The Earth is not a star – except in the view of some ancient Pythagoreans and Neoplatonists (e.g., Damascius, On the Phaedo A 509) –, but it is a planet. Only… to the ancients, the planets were stars, and the Earth was not a planet. However, this was not because they were confused. Since ‘planet’ (gr. planēs, pl. planētes) is a term coined by the ancients, it is by their understanding of the word that we must measure them. And by that standard, they were entirely right not to include the Earth among the planets, because in the literal sense, a planet is a ‘roaming, wandering, erratic’ star – one whose apparent course in the sky is idiosyncratic, diverging from that of the ‘fixed stars’ (gr. aplanēs, pl. aplaneis). Since the Earth, by definition, is not seen in the sky at all, it is therefore neither a planet nor a fixed star.

2 Sun and Moon are planets, and planets are stars

Since, as we have seen, planets were defined by their apparent movement, not by their real movement or composition, the Sun and Moon are both classified as planets, alongside the five so-called classical planets. They are only sometimes treated as a class of their own – as the two luminaries (gr. phōta, sg. phōs) –, not so much as not being planets, but as being something greater than the other five. In any case, all seven celestial bodies were called stars (gr. astēr, pl. asteres), which means little more than a celestial body, usually one that is persistently visible (unlike comets, for instance).

There are various possible orders in which to list the planets, so I will give them in the most familiar one, that of the weekdays, beginning with Kronos as was usual in antiquity:

While Helios and Selene were worshipped as gods from the earliest period, the other planets were initially named ‘star of X’, e.g., ‘star of Hermes’, meaning the the one “that is said to be sacred to Hermes” (Plato, Timaeus 38d), but not ‘the star that is Hermes’. Nevertheless, the planets were already seen as gods at this time (the 4th century BCE), with Plato even deriving the word theos (‘god’) from the ‘running’ (theein) of the stars (Plato, Cratylus 397d).

The catasterism myths (see section 6) respond to the question of their identity in various ways, but eventually, the planets simply came to be identified with the gods they were named after. This is also what happened in Mesopotamia, from where the predominant Greek names had been derived. Other names, which once represented real alternatives, soon faded in importance. By late antiquity, the identity of of the stars with their gods is generally taken for granted, and presupposed (rather than argued for) by the Neoplatonists.

3 Zodiac

The zodiacal signs (gr. zōdia, sg. zōdion), like the planetary names, were derived from the Mesopotamian astronomical tradition. Since they are as well known today as they ever were in antiquity, they need no special introduction here. I will simply list the signs in order, with their Latin names first, then the Greek with modern transcription in brackets, and finally an English translation:

  • Aries / Κριός (Krios), ‘ram’,
  • Taurus / Ταῦρος (Tauros), ‘bull’,
  • Gemini / Δίδυμοι (Didymoi), ‘twins’,
  • Cancer / Καρκίνος (Karkinos), ‘crab’,
  • Leo / Λέων (Leōn), ‘lion’,
  • Virgo / Παρθένος (Parthenos) , ‘virgin, young woman’,
  • Libra / Ζυγός (Zygos), ‘scales, balance’,
  • Scorpio or Scorpius / Σκροπίος (Skorpios), ‘scorpion’,
  • Sagittarius / Τοξότης (Toxotēs), ‘archer’,
  • Capricornus / Αἰγοκέρως (Aigokerōs), ‘goat-horned one’,
  • Aquarius / Ὑδροχόος (Hydrokhoos), ‘water-carrier (lat.) / water-pourer (gr.)’,
  • Pisces / Ἰχθύες (Ikhthyes) , ‘fish (pl.)’.

(Of these Latin names, only Capricornus differs from the modern English form, Capricorn. But note that the modern transcriptions into the Roman alphabet differ from the conventions that were used in antiquity. Compare, e.g., modern Karkinos vs. ancient Carcinos, or Aigokerōs vs. Aegoceros.)

Although the zodiac signs were regarded as gods by many, they were not commonly worshipped under the listed names. They were, however, sometimes identified with deities of popular worship, or at least connected to them (see Astral Taxonomies). For instance, Virgo was variously regarded as Justice, Fortune, Demeter or Isis (Scholia on Aratus’ Phaenomena 96); Manilius assigns each of the signs to one of the twelve gods; Lucian of Samosata jokingly connects the Egyptian sacred bull Apis with the sign of Taurus (Lucian, On Astrology 7) and the oracular god Ammon with Aries (ibid. 8); and so on. Some such correlations are based on the catasterism myths (see section 6).

4 Other constellations of the fixed sphere

While the zodiacal signs are the most prominent constellations culturally, there were many other constellations of fixed stars recognized by Greco-Roman astronomers. ‘Fixed stars’ being that great majority of stars which appear to move at the same speed and in the same direction, as if attached to one great steady vault, the ‘fixed’ or ‘inerrant sphere’, or simply ‘the fixed’ (to aplanes).

The great authority for knowledge of the constellations in antiquity was the poet Aratus, although his magnum opus, the Phaenomena, was neither innovative, nor entirely reliable or comprehensive. Rather, it was the literary qualities of his work which made him canonical, and which led to the production of three different Latin adaptations that are still extant (and more that are lost). A good deal of information about ancient astronomy in fact survives only as prefatory material and appendices to Aratus.

It is from one of these prefatory texts, the so-called Proem to Aratus’ Phaenomena, that I take the following list of constellations:

  • Arctic: The Bears (Ursa Major & Ursa Minor), Cepheus, Draco.
  • Tropic of summer: Boötes, Corona, Hercules (Engonasin), Lyra, Cassiopeia, Auriga, Cygnus, Perseus.
  • Tropic of winter: Eridanus, Argo, Centaurus, Lupus, Ara, Piscis Austrinus.
  • Pegasus, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Hydrus, Crater, Corvus, Procyon, Aquila, Delphinus, Orion, Sagitta, Triangulum, Andromeda, Lepus, Cetus, Canis Major.

As I study the ancient traditions about these constellations more closely, expect revisions and expansions to this section (gods willing).

5 On constellations in general

In English, the distinction between a star and a constellation is fairly obvious: a star is a single luminous celestial body, whereas a constellation consists of multiple stars (stellae) taken together (con-). In Greek and Latin, however, although the same distinction was made, the terminology was considerably more ambiguous.

In ancient Greek, one had to make do with astron (pl. astra) and astēr (pl. asteres), words which not only happen to sound almost the same, but were also often used as synonyms. So, grammarians tell us that “astron is an image (zōdion) shaped of many asteres, such as Orion or the Bear (Ursa Major); an astēr is a single one” (Ptolemy, On the Distinction Between Words, s.v.), or that “an astron is a shape consisting of many asteres, while an astēr is the thing that shines” (Herennius Philo, On Different Meanings, s.v.). But actual usage does not entirely conform to this. The same is true of Latin stella (pl. stellae) and sidus (pl. sidera), supposed to mean ‘star’ and ‘constellation’, respectively. Although they are more clearly distinct words, their meaning still overlaps.

Besides, not everyone agreed about what was correct usage. For instance, the Stoic “Posidonius says that an astron is a divine body composed of ether, luminous and fiery, which never remains at rest, but is always carried around in a circle. And in the proper sense, the Sun and Moon are called astra, whereas an astēr differs from an astron, since if something is an astēr, it is necessarily also called an astron, but not the reverse” (Arius Didymus, as quoted by John Stobaeus, Anthology 1.24.5). By this logic, then, there is a general category astron (‘star, constellation’), and under that umbrella, the word astēr means ‘constellation’, but there is no designated word for constellations.

I dwell on this question of terminology because it is analogous to a difference in metaphysics. By one way of thinking, constellations are simply shapes designated by human convention. As the Peripatetic philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias writes, “we count the Pleiad thus, and form a constellation (katasterizomen) out of seven stars (asteres), or the Bear out of twelve, […] but the Chaldaeans and Babylonians have made a different arrangement of constellations (katasterismoi)” (Alexander, On the Metaphysics, ed. Hayduck, p. 832).

Some, on the other hand, viewed single stars and constellations as essentially similar kinds of beings. While the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus, for instance, would certainly not deny that there are differing astronomical traditions, still for him the Pleiad is not an arbitrary collection of stars at all, but seven “archangelic powers presiding over the archangels of the seven (planetary) spheres: Celaeno over those of the Kronian sphere, Sterope of Zeus, Merope of Ares, Electra of the Sun, Alcyone of Aphrodite, Maia of Hermes, and Taÿgete of the Moon. […] And at the same time, there is one grouping of these seven arranged in the fixed (sphere) like a celestial statue (agalma epouranion), which they call the Pleiad, an astron visible even to laypeople that is fixed within Taurus” (Proclus, On the Works and Days 383). The word used for statue here, agalma, is a technical term which Proclus uses for something that aptly imitates higher principles, and thereby has some share in it. In other words, the number and names of the Pleiades, their connection to the planets, and their integration into a single constellation, the Pleiad, are a visible expression of incorporeal divine principles.

This is even more explicit in another passage (preserved by the Byzantine polymath Michael Psellus), where Proclus refers to the incorporeal “fount, that is, the cause of the lion-shaped (leontoeidēs) composition of stars”, which has its own name, Leontoukhos or ‘lion-holding’. (He also may or may not be referring to Leo in his commentary On the Parmenides, p. 874, when he writes that “the celestial lion is intellective, while the sublunary lion”, i.e., the species of lions on Earth, “is irrational, because the former is closer to the Form of Lion”.)

6 Catasterism and Apotheosis

What ties Peripatetics like Alexander and Neoplatonists like Proclus together is their shared belief that the arrangement of the stars on the fixed sphere is eternal.

comets and such

reading list


list gods

theein; Platonism

Worship: Apollon, Porphyry

Comets, decans, etc.

Decans (or decadarchs), hôronomoi, krataioi

Plutarch talks about ameib- morph- of Sun and Moon

7 Some …

spheres‘ intelligences; milky way (Damascius; Proclus?; Martianus)
domains of Athena in Proclus In Tim. 1.97+98+141(!);
Simpl. In Phys. 9.633 zodiac procession (643?); De caelo 7.462: anastros
Proclus on zodia? Zodia in PGM?
Proclus Hypoptosis or Hypotyposis or whatever 1.26 procession?