Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sappho and the Origins of Ancient Greek Astronomy

Terracotta head from a statue
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1922 (www.metmuseum.org)
Today's guest blogger is Stuart Dean. Stuart has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.
Until now you could not find the name of the ancient Greek poet Sappho in any discussion in print or online regarding ancient Greek astronomy.  Such a discussion is long overdue and I think it is best to let Sappho herself begin it: 
“As when down goes the sun/the rosyfingered moon”
Line final ‘sun’ followed by line final ‘moon’ is in effect a ‘visual rhyme,’ implying a scan of the evening sky, looking west then east, with the knowledge that the moon reflects the sun’s light.  Her characterization of the moon as ‘rosyfingered,’ a word otherwise frequently used to describe the sun at dawn, further buttresses the ‘moonlight reflecting sunlight’ reading.
Evening Star/Morning Star
“Evening Star, carrying all that was scattered by the dazzling Dawn Star”
Here again, word position is key, only in this case within a single line.  Line initial ‘evening star’ and line final ‘dawn star’ implies an underlying unity.  It is thus possible that what Sappho evinces here is her recognition that the two stars are the same celestial object (Venus) and that she is referring to the 584-day cycle of Venus.  

Why Should These Two Observations Matter?
Much has been made of the ‘discovery’ by ancient Greeks of the fact that the moon reflects sunlight.  In the standard narratives of the history of astronomy only men are cited as possibly discovering this fact, yet all are at least a half century or more after Sappho.  The same applies to the ‘discovery’ of the identity of the evening and morning stars.  
Why Have These Observations Not Been Noticed By Historians of Astronomy?
There are two parts to the answer to this question.  
The first relates specifically to how to interpret and hence translate Sappho’s Greek.   
The lines about the ‘rosyfingered’ moon come from a fragmentary poem where the beauty of an unnamed woman is being compared to the moon.  It seems some scholars have been so preoccupied with the issue of who that woman might have been and whether the poem is about a lesbian relationship that they have not bothered to look up from their books to the evening sky.  Questions have been raised about whether Sappho really meant to refer to a moon with a reddish or pink hue, as if the moon never has such a color.
The line about the evening and morning stars has regularly been interpreted to refer to a roughly 12 hour time period rather than the cycle of Venus.  That is a possible reading, as the Greek words Sappho uses can simply mean ‘evening’ and ‘morning.’  Yet with poetry it is inappropriate to insist on any one meaning, especially where it is possible the poet is deliberately ambiguous in order to play upon multiple meanings.  
The second part of the answer relates not to what Sappho said but when.  She lived at a time when the ‘information technology’ that is writing was just beginning to be adopted.  Quite apart from the implications of the fact that men had almost exclusive control over such technology from not long after Sappho’s time until well into the 20th century, writing itself is not a neutral technology.  It has inherent limitations, the implications of which for understanding Sappho and her culture can perhaps only now be appreciated.  Modern information technology, which is increasingly displacing writing by the facility with which audio and visual data can be produced and transmitted, in some respects marks a return to a mode of communication far more akin to that of Sappho’s culture than anything since her time.
I therefore want to emphasize that while I have so far been discussing only Sappho’s words and what they mean, there is much more to her than that.  Sappho was as much a musical composer and choreographer as she was what we think of today as a ‘poet.’  That is to say, poetry, song and dance for her constituted a single art form, encoded into which was a wealth of cultural information that could not and cannot be reduced to writing.  
Dancing With The Stars
“Full shone the moon/as around the altar stood the women.”
Though the context of these two lines is otherwise unknown, their sense can be supplemented by another fragment attributed to Sappho as well as sources roughly contemporaneous with her.  Therefore, while it may seem a bit of a stretch to take the altar to be symbolic of the world, the moon or the cosmos generally (as with poetry, with dance it is inappropriate to insist on any one interpretation), and to infer that the women have taken their cue to dance from the fullness of the moon and their choreography of what was likely a circular dance from one or more constellations, that is in fact exactly what can be concluded is going on here.  Thus, while it may have taken until after the midway point of the 20th century for men to launch anything, including themselves, into orbit, Sappho and her companions appear to have been symbolically orbiting the cosmos 2600 years ago.
If, as it seems, women engaged in such a dance at least on a monthly basis, then it clearly would be wrong to say they merely ‘believed’ in the harmony of the celestial and terrestrial spheres.  Their dance was a manifestation of their experience.  The legacy of such dancing is arguably detectable in the fact that the Greek word Sappho uses for ‘around’ (peri) is etymologically related to English ‘period,’ a word that itself derives from ancient Greek.  Though its primary meaning was spatial (to move in a circle), ‘period’ also signified any temporally cyclical event, physiological or cosmological.  
Consistent with what is implicit in Sappho’s dance description is how the cosmos is characterized in a poem composed only about a century after Sappho, a poem possibly even influenced by her.  The cosmos is imagined to be governed by a goddess at its center, orbited by fiery garlands (i.e., stars), one of which is the ‘milk of the heavens.’  Though in what survives of this poem the goddess is not named, a likely candidate is the goddess of love, Aphrodite (Venus).   Given the powers attributed to that goddess, implicit in this image is the recognition of something like a law of attraction underlying all phenomena.

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