Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.12.28

Daryn Lehoux, Astronomy, Weather, and Calendars in the Ancient World: Parapegmata and Related Texts in Classical and Near Eastern Societies.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. xiv, 566.  ISBN 9780521851817.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Y. Tzvi Langermann, Bar Ilan University (
Word count: 1550 words

Parapegmata are devices for tracking temporal cycles. They refer both to instruments, in which a movable peg was employed to track certain phenomena, and by extension also to written texts in which the different sorts of cycles are recorded and correlated. Most usually, the temporal cycles are fixed lunar and stellar events, most especially heliacal risings of selected stars, which are tagged to the more fickle cycles of weather patterns; but they are by no means limited to these events. Calendars of this sort survive to this day in the form of "farmer's almanacs". Lehoux's book presents the ancient sources of this science, which take two forms: archaeological artifacts and written texts. His book is in two parts. Part one comprises a far-reaching attempt to define the subject, combining theory, close examination of selected examples, and frequent appeals to illustrations from our own (western, especially Canadian) culture. The first four chapters describe the written and other forms that parapegmata may take, the relationship between agricultural seasons and stellar phenomena, the place of astrology (by which Lehoux appears to mean, predictions based on computed configurations, that are claimed to be based upon observed correlations between stellar positions and terrestrial events), and the different calendars and calendric cycles that were in use in Greece and Rome, as well as the way meteorological phenomena were indexed to these. Lehoux wishes to distinguish as clearly as possible between 'astrometerology' on the one hand, and astrology and time-keeping in general, on the other, though all three have a place in parapegmata. He needlessly belabors the allegations that astrology is a pseudo-science; no one today excludes astrology from the history of science or the history of ideas, even though, at least so I think, hardly anyone would doubt its falsity. On the other hand, Lehoux's refutations of the intimate connections between developments in the calendar and in astronomy are well-founded and long overdue in the discipline.

Chapters five and six treat sources from Babylon and Egypt. Though there are sections of MUL.APIN and some Egyptian texts that are reminiscent of Greek and Latin parapegmata, Lehoux argues that these are due to similar concerns for tracking and predicting weather, agriculture seasons, and the like, shared by all of these civilizations. The classical sources were not influenced by Babylon or Egypt. In these chapters, Lehoux bucks the trend to emphasize the debt owed by Greek civilization to the East (most notably in Walter Burkert's Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis), but not in a sweeping fashion. He does not deny the evidence for the influence of Babylonian astronomy upon the Hellenes, but, with regard to parapegmata, Lehoux asserts that there is no evidence for the sharing of information. In the case of Egypt, he leans heavily upon Otto Neugebauer's famous claim that there was no Egyptian astronomy to speak of; so how could it have influenced the Greeks? Nonetheless, that assertion has been modified recently, on the basis of some of the same primary sources examined by Lehoux.1 Moreover, one should never forget that Ptolemy himself worked in Alexandria, and that the risings and settings, weather patterns and agriculture in his life were very much Egyptian. In the particular case of astrometeorology it seems inappropriate to look for any deep influence. Babylon and Greece have very little in common in agriculture, heliacal risings, or ritual and civic calendars; what use would it be to share information? Indeed, parapegmata are cultural phenomena, which found expression across the ancient world from China to Rome, and their study calls for a different sort of comparison, including but not limited to possible exchanges of data.

Part Two, "Sources", comprises a catalogue of extant parapegmata (pp. 147-216) and texts and translations (pp. 217-491). This is the "meat" of Lehoux's book, and its real contribution. Over sixty sources are included. The classification is different from that employed in the previous attempt at a full listing, published by E. Rehm in Paulys Realencyclopaedie (vol. xviii.4, 1949, pp. 1295-1366), who grouped parapegmata by the form in which they survive: as artifacts or documents. Lehoux instead groups the sources by their applications, using these rubrics: A. astrometerology; B. astrology; C. astronomy; D. "other"; E. reports of parapegmata; F. related texts and instruments; and G. dubia. Lehoux goes through the entire set twice, first in the catalogue, in which each entry includes a description, illustrations where available, and a discussion of the accompanying scholarship and problematics. He then goes through the whole list again (with the exception of the final section, dubia), displaying the full texts. The original text is usually given, except for those cases where Lehoux could safely assume that the text would be easily accessible. New translations are provided for Greek and Latin materials. The originals are not edited anew, but Lehoux does when appropriate engage problematic words or passages on the basis of published apparati or notes by an editor.

A first appendix exhibits brief biographies of the authorities cited in the parapegmata, and a second one correlates between the catalogues of Lehoux, Rehm, and A. Degrassi's Inscriptiones italiae. There is an extensive bibliography, a separate astrometeorological index (mostly stars, but listing also types of weather and authorities), and a general index. Lehoux has gone deeply into a topic that attracts few scholars; he freely admits that reading texts of this sort over and over again can be boring. His catalogue and texts are a very useful contribution.

I would like to take up the issue of the cultural sweep of the book. If we consider parapegmata in their "most basic" form, as Lehoux defines them, namely instruments that track cyclical phenomena by means of moveable pegs, then they are strictly a product of Greek and Latin culture, which are not found elsewhere. However, Lehoux, and, indeed, everyone else who studies the topic (see, e.g., Liba Taub, Ancient Meteorology, Routledge 2003, along with the review essay by Harry Hine, Classical Philology, January 2005, pp. 83-88, and the section at the end of J. Evans and L. Berggren's edition and translation of Geminos's Introduction to the Phenomena, Princeton 2006) give equal consideration to written documents, very often in the form of tables or lists. Quantitatively, these are by far the largest group of parapegmata, and their interpretation as a rule is far clearer than archaeological finds. Written parapegmata, weather calendars, or whatever we wish to name them, are found in many cultures; some interacted with Greece and Rome, others did not (though they did with each other, e.g. pre-Islamic Arabs and India). Lehoux's desire for "completeness" leads him to wander into yet other cultures, where he is unfamiliar with the scholarly literature. For example, he mentions briefly (p. 114) a "Hebrew agricultural calendar", relying mainly upon one recent secondary source. In fact, this document is none other than the Gezer calendar, an artifact that has spawned many publications and discussions on issues of civic and cultic calendars.2 Yet overall his focus is upon Greece and Rome, and his interest in other cultures mainly centers on their possible interaction with those two civilizations.

Lehoux includes two very extensive citations from the work of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, an eleventh century polymath. Once again, it is the connection to Greek science that justifies this. In his chapter on anwa' Al-Biruni reproduces the calendar of Sinan bin Thabit, otherwise lost, which in turn draws from Ptolemy's Phaseis.3 Now Edward Sachau, upon whose translation Lehoux relies completely, renders the Arabic anwâ' as parapegmata. We have no evidence that the pre-Islamic Arabs used devices with moveable pegs, and the etymology of anwâ' is certainly very different from that of parapegmata.4 The translation is nonetheless very apt if we take parapegmata in the broad sense of weather calendar (a term that Sachau also uses). But if that is so, then why shouldn't a full survey of texts from the ancient world include the full sweep of the very rich genre of anwâ' texts? Any discussion of the anwâ' literature must take note of the Hindu naksastras, and these are not mentioned even once. A century ago scholars debated the relation and possible cross-fertilization of Chinese, Indian, and Arabic traditions in these matters. In short, Lehoux's tilt towards Greece and Rome leads to a certain unevenness in the book: precise, top-notch philology on Greek texts, superficial summations of secondary literature for others.

Moreover, his explanation of parapegmata as a cultural phenomenon is unsatisfactory. Sinan, and his father Thabit before him, considered the anwâ' of the Arabs to be part and parcel of the same science that Ptolemy expounded in Greek, and the same one which the Egyptians produced for Egypt, and other nations for their locales. According to Sinan, anwâ' are a system of prognostications for secular concerns, mainly the weather, and there is room for two and only two theories: the events may be indexed to days and months (of a fixed solar calendar, such as that employed by the Greeks and the Syrians), or to the rising and settings of the lunar stations. Thus, pace Lehoux, the Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, and others were all practicing the same science; one should not expect the sharing of information, since the science is so localized. The rain in Attica may fall mainly under Sagitta; what use is this datum to the people of Harran or the Hijaz?


1.   See Gregg DeYoung, "Astronomy in Ancient Egypt," in Helaine Selin, ed., Astronomy Across Cultures, Dordrecht, 2000, pp. 475-508.
2.   See S. Talmon, "The Gezer Calendar and the Seasonal Cycle of Ancient Canaan," Journal of the American Oriental Society (1963), 177-187, and the considerable literature cited there, some 45 years ago.
3.   Lehoux cites Neugebauer's note but is unaware of the two extensive articles on the topic published by Julio Samso in al-Andalus, 41 (1976), 15-48 and 471-479. No one has yet studied the Hebrew Geminos parapegma, though the Hebrew translations were noted by M. Steinschneider in his monumental Die hebraeischen Uebersetzungen des Mittelalters (1893), pp. 539-540. Writing this review has spurred me to undertake the task.
4.   Daniel Martin Varisco, "The origin of the anwa' in Arab tradition. On the distinction between science and folklore," Journal for the History of Arabic Science 9 (1991), 69-100.

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