BMCR 1998.06.28

98.6.28, Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook

, Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Phanes Press, 1997. Pp. 287. $35.00.

This book had its origin in the author’s PhD dissertation: “The Katasterismoi of the [ sic ] Pseudo-Eratosthenes: A Mythological Commentary and English Translation”, Univ. of S Cal., 1970. In this revised and expanded version, C. has added to the Katasterismoi (a slim Greek text occupying fifty-two pages in Olivieri’s 1897 Teubner ed., dating from perhaps the first/second cent. AD) a translation of book 2 and parts of book 3 of a similar but longer Latin treatise by Hyginus, whom C. identifies with the freedman scholar of the Augustan age C. Julius Hyginus (fl. ca. 10 BC)[[1]] Since a good many readers of Star Myths will be unlikely to be familiar with the Latin text of Hyginus but will depend upon C.’s translation for their knowledge of the work, it is unfortunate that she has chosen to refer to this prose treatise nearly everywhere by the title Poetic Astronomy, suggesting falsely, as it does, that Hyginus composed in verse.[[2]] This title rests not on the authority of any of the MSS, which give variously De astrologia, De astronomia, Astronomicon libri, etc., but it is the invention of the Renaissance editors, who were struck by the poetic quality of the material (esp. the myths in book 2).

Taken together, Ps-Eratosthenes and Hyginus provide a rich treasury of Greek myths associated with the creation of the constellations: chs. 1-42 of Ps-Eratosthenes treating forty-three of the forty-eight constellations known to Ptolemy (second cent. AD),[[3]] with chs. 43-44 given over to the five planets and the Milky Way respectively, while Hyginus in book 2 covers the same ground in forty-three chapters since he does not devote a separate section to the Pleiades, as Ps-Eratosthenes does, but includes it under Taurus. Clearly both works are independent of each other and yet almost certainly are descended from a common Greek source (so C. Robert, Eratosthenes Catast. Reliq. 1878). Since the arrangement of the constellations in the two works is quite different (Ps-Eratosthenes following roughly the order adopted by Aratus, starting with the Bears at the Pole and proceeding south to the Zodiac, then going back north from the Zodiac, working from E to W, while Hyginus, by contrast, follows the Roman practice of grouping together the signs of the Zodiac midway between his treatment of the constellations of the northern and southern hemispheres), C. sensibly arranges the constellations alphabetically by name. This new structure inevitably produces a radical reordering of the chapters of the two ancient works, and C.’s book should ideally have included a table of correspondences. A single page listing the name of the relevant constellation next to each of the forty-three chapters of Hyginus and the forty-four chapters of Ps-Eratosthenes would have permitted the reader to turn with ease to Hyg. 2.13, for instance, which is cited on p. 72 under Capricorn, and to Ps-Eratosthenes 38, cited on p. 161 under Pisces, without any indication that the first of these references will be found under Auriga and the second under Piscis Austinus. There are countless cross references taking this form scattered throughout the book, and since C. does not provide a concordance, it is both difficult and time-consuming to look up in C.’s translation a passage of Ps-Eratosthenes or Hyginus which C. herself or some other authority cites according to the standard divisions of a modern printed edition.

For each constellation C. has included reproductions (only slightly reduced in size) of the woodcuts found in the first illustrated edition of Hyginus by Erhard Ratdolt (Venice 1482).[[4]] Omitted are the illustrations of the Sun, Moon, and five planets. To supplement these representations of the constellations, which C. rightly cautions “do not accurately depict the location or number of the stars described in the Greek and Latin texts translated below” (p. 11), the book offers in Appendix 3 reproductions (greatly reduced in size) of the two star maps (one for the northern and one for the southern hemisphere) that were printed in the edition of Ps-Eratosthenes by J. C. Schaubach (Goettingen 1795). Neither of these resources, however, is sufficient to enable the user of this book to locate the stars identified by C. in her translation of Ps-Eratosthenes by their modern designations. What is required for each constellation is a proper modern chart with the stars labeled. Room for these additional illustrations could readily have been found without adding significantly to the length of the book because, as presently printed, there are a great many blank half and full pages.

The bulk of the book (pp. 27-207) comprises translation and commentary, and the commentary, which ranges from less than one page to as many as two or three pages on each constellation, is interspersed with the translation, being printed at the end of the description of each constellation. In addition to a general introduction which sets the two ancient works in their context (pp. 15-25), the book is rounded out by three appendices (1. correspondences between Greek and Latin names of twenty-two deities and mythological figures; 2. constellation names and their abbreviations; 3. the two above mentioned star charts from Schaubach’s edition), end notes supplementing the commentary (pp. 217-63), bibliography subdivided into primary sources (pp. 265-70) and secondary sources (pp. 271-77), and two indices (1. Greek and Latin authors cited by Ps-Eratosthenes and Hyginus [pp. 279-80] and 2. a general index [pp. 281-87]). One nice feature of the endnotes is the ease with which they can be consulted thanks to headers showing the pages of the commentary to which the notes correspond, while within the notes themselves there are subdivisions indicated by the names of the constellations. On the other hand, some of these notes could have been rendered much more useful if they had been broken up into smaller parts instead of trying to include so many disparate topics in a continuous discussion. To give just two examples, the first paragraph of n. 3 on p. 42 might better have stood on its own and been attached to the reference to the Symplegades on p. 41, and n. 2 on p. 110 should ideally have been divided three ways, the second and third paragraphs changing places since the topics are respectively the myth of Hera’s milk, the change in the Sun’s path, and the myth of Phaethon. In its present form, this note is very confusing.

The bibliography manages to include the standard editions of most ancient authors referred to in the translation and commentary, a good feature since presumably many users of this book will be unfamiliar with these sources. Also included are a good many relevant works of modern scholarship on Ps-Eratosthenes and Hyginus, but there are, however, some glaring omissions—e.g., the important Bude/ edition (1983) of Hyginus by Le Boeuffle, to which C. alludes (p. 20) in her discussion of the probable date of Hyginus’ work,[[5]] and the significant 1946 Zuerich dissertation of Gottfried Keller on Eratosthenes. Furthermore, the bibliography is not consistent in the way it lists reprints of older works, sometimes giving only the date of reissue (e.g., 1976 as the date of Mair’s 1921 Loeb ed. of Aratus, 1963 as the date of C. Robert’s 1878 Eratosthenes Catast. Reliq.), sometimes including the date of the original edition as well (e.g., for the 1964 repr. of Berger’s 1880 Teubner of the geographical fragments of Eratosthenes and for the 1968 repr. of Bernhardy’s 1822 Eratosthenica).[[6]]

It is, however, the translation itself and the commentary that are the most flawed, and this is a great pity because apart from the Latin translation of Ps-Eratosthenes in Schaubach’s 1795 ed. and the French translation by Halma (Paris 1821), neither one of which is readily accessible, the Katasterismoi has been neglected by translators, and although Hyginus has received more attention of late from translators,[[7]] C.’s translation is the only one in English that is easy to obtain. C., however, lets the reader down because, for starters, she fails to follow consistently the editions of the Greek and Latin texts that she identifies (p. 11) as the basis for her translation of Ps-Eratosthenes (Olivieri’s 1897 Teubner) and of Hyginus (Vire/’s 1992 Teubner). For instance, on p. 55, C. departs without warning from Olivieri’s text and translates instead the text as emended by Merkelbach-West (Hesiod fr. 163), including Merkelbach’s supplement. More serious still, C. fails to indicate that her translations of the selections from book 3 of Hyginus are almost invariably based upon the text as radically emended by C. Robert so as to bring it in line with what he regarded as the Urtext of Eratosthenes (e.g., pp. 72 Capricorn, 76 Cassiopeia, 94 Cygnus, 99 Delphinus, 112 Gemini, and 117 Hercules). These passages contain supplements, ellipses, and significant emendations for which there is no manuscript authority. By adopting Robert’s text, as opposed to following the manuscript tradition for the text of Hyginus, C. gives the impression that Hyginus is in much closer agreement with Ps-Eratosthenes than is in fact the case concerning the number and positions of the stars in the various constellations. This misleading feature of the translation spoils the usefulness of C.’s book for anyone who wishes to treat it as a sourcebook for reconstructing how ancient astronomers assigned stars to the constellations.

The failure to adhere to guidelines that are set out in the Introduction may also be observed in C.’s attempt to indicate within her translation of Ps-Eratosthenes where she is following the somewhat fuller text of one manuscript R (Venetus Marcianus 444) that preserves nine excerpts from the Katasterismoi. C. (p. 11) states that she will use pointed brackets to signify where she is translating the text of R (as opposed to δ, the consensus of another branch of the manuscript tradition), and yet time and again these brackets are either missing where they belong (e.g., brackets should enclose on p. 37 “The altar . . . [Cronos]”, and twice on p. 119 “which was considered . . . invented” and “Archelaus . . . Things”), or brackets mistakenly set off text that is D rather than R (e.g., brackets should be deleted on p. 55 “in disgust . . . inhumanity” and twice on p. 141 “most recently . . . Asclepius” and “The constellation . . . distinguished”). On occasion, this confusion over which text is being followed leads to a less satisfactory translation: e.g., on p. 87 where C.’s translation “beneath the tail of the Lion” suits the reading of ρ although the absence of brackets should have resulted in the translation “near the tail of the Lion” (ἐπί of δ which more accurately states the position of the Lock of Ariadne with respect to Leo’s tail.[[8]]

In translating the two texts, C. fares better with Ps-Eratosthenes than she does with Hyginus, which is not surprising since the translation of the former must have been vetted by the director of her dissertation and examining committee. Still, it is surprising that C. makes so many grave mistakes in translating Hyginus when she could easily have consulted the prior translations (and notes) of Grant or Le Boeuffle wherever she experienced doubt. This lack of self-correction suggests that C. may not have realized the extent of her deficiencies on the Latin side. A few examples will suffice to illustrate the relatively venial (and not so venial) errors in the translation of Ps-Eratosthenes: On p. 55 line 1, the subject of “lived” is Arcas, not Callisto (so C.). On p. 65 line 2, C. fails to translate the words ἔλαβε καί, which are needed to explain the transfer in ownership of the dog and spear from Europa to Minos, who presented them to Procris. On p. 87 line 13, the crown was a symbol not “of the couple’s success” (so C.) but rather of their “choice” (αἵρεσεως, i.e., “love for each other”, as we can tell from signum amoris in a comparable passage of the Schol. Germ.). On p. 93 line 1, “is believed to be a swan” (so C.) does not capture the sense of the Greek: “is represented by the likeness of a swan”. On p. 119 bottom, Crater is not a “Water-Cup” (so C., or a “wine-jar” p. 121) but rather a “(mixing) Bowl”. On p. 120 line 10, insert “separated by a coil” between “The Water-Cup” and “lies”. Lastly, on p. 157 line 6, Hephaestus gave Perseus not“a diamond wallet” (so C.) but the “Harpe (sickle-sword) made of adamant”.[[9]]

Though this last error is admittedly a monumental schnitzer, it is fortunately atypical of C.’s rendering of Ps-Eratosthenes, which on the whole is reasonably satisfactory. By contrast, serious problems present themselves in the translation of Hyginus, which may be illustrated by these few select examples. On p. 51 line 4 (“fled from the place”), C. totally misrepresents Minerva’s act of kicking loose dirt with her foot to cover up the spilled semen of Vulcan. “As one connected” (p. 94 line 10) scarcely conveys the meaning of the Latin which concerns sexual intercourse. “Another” (p. 112 line 16) is inappropriate and confusing as a translation of alter, which refers to “the other” of the twins (Gemini). On p. 158 (line 11), Hyginus is explaining how the cap of invisibility worn by Perseus came to be confused by some misinformed authorities with the “helmet of Orcus” (god of the Underworld) because the Greeks referred to it as the “helmet of the Hades” (meaning the “Invisible One”, not Hades god of the Underworld). C.’s translation utterly fails to capture the sense of this passage. Lastly, on p. 192 (lines 21-22) C.’s “as many will have realized” misses by a mile the gist of Hyginus’ explanation for the origin of the name Pleiades, so called, he says, “because the majority ( plures) arrived at the same decision (to commit suicide).”

Lapses such as these are, unfortunately, no less frequent in the commentary. For instance, twice (p. 63 and n. 227) C. refers to “the crab sent by Hera”, and yet neither Ps-Eratosthenes nor Hyginus credit Hera with sending the crab; the creature simply emerges from the swamp to bite Heracles. Elsewhere, it is highly misleading to write (p. 102) “Beginning with Ps-Eratosthenes, a number of authors, including Hyginus”, when C. (p. 11) holds the view that Hyginus was writing a least a century or two earlier than Ps-Eratosthenes Contra C. (p. 131), only one of the texts (Ps-Eratosthenes), not both, state that “the Hare [Lepus] was placed among the stars by Hermes on account of its swiftness.” C. makes a similar error in n. 1 on p. 227, claiming that both authors cite Panyassis, whereas only Ps-Eratosthenes does so. By contrast, in n. 1 on p. 218, C. commits the opposite error, asserting that “The Constellations is the only source to recount that Andromeda spurned her parents’ plea to return to them”; in fact, Hyginus gives the same account. To take one final example, the literary tradition identifying the constellation Hippos with a winged horse did not begin with Ptolemy in the mid-second century AD (so C. p. 153), but wings are already attested more than a century and a half earlier both in Ovid ( Fasti 3.450-58) and in Germanicus ( Arat. 207-23).[[10]]

Typos are relatively infrequent (e.g., p. 18 line 13 insert “of” after “one”, p. 127 bottom “Euergetes” mistakenly for “Euergetis”, which is correctly spelled on p. 125 bottom, and p. 268 “Ratdott” mistakenly for “Ratdolt”), but carelessness in proofreading has resulted in the omission of text references for the selections translated from book 3 of Hyginus for 9 of the 43 constellations: pp. 34, 72, 94, 99, 102, 117, 164, 178, and 199. On two further occasions (pp. 69 and 196), not only the references but the texts as well have been left out.

To conclude, what the author has set out to accomplish is admirable in its conception. Students and scholars of astronomy and Greek mythology will obviously welcome C.’s translation of Ps-Eratosthenes and Hyginus since no other book brings together these two works in English. The trouble is, in its present form Star Myths cannot be relied upon to convey accurately the content of the original texts, and the commentary is littered with misinformation. The goal is laudable, but the book will require extensive revision and correction before it can serve as a “sourcebook” in keeping with the book’s subtitle. Pending a revised edition, or a fresh effort by some other translator, Star Myths will have to suffice as the “best available”, but it falls far short, alas, of what is required by readers who cannot consult these Greek and Latin texts in the original.


[[1]] For this view, C. (p. 20) refers to the convincing arguments of “a recent editor” without naming him (Andre/ Le Boeuffle) or specifying his edition (Bude/ 1983), which is likewise missing from her bibliography.

[[2]] “Hyginus’ Roman astronomical poem” is how the work is characterized by the Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich in his blurb on Star Myths at B. might better have called the treatise simply Hyginus’Astronomy in keeping with the title ( De astronomia) adopted by Vire/ in his recent Teubner ed. (1992), the text on which C. bases her translation. We can, however, be reasonably certain that the term “astronomy” played no part in the title adopted by Hyginus himself because he nowhere writes astronomia, preferring instead as a synonym astrologia, which he employs on ten occasions.

[[3]] Missing are the Serpent, Equuleus, Libra, the Southern Crown, and Lupus (Therium).

[[4]] Mistakenly described by C. (p. 11) as the “first edition”. The editio princeps was the Ferrara ed. of 1475.

[[5]] Analogous to C.’s failure to name Le Boeuffle, identifying him simply as “a recent editor”, are the words (p. 23) “according to one scholar” in reference to G. P. Goold’s 1959 article on the Perseus-Andromeda story, and yet C. includes Goold’s article in her bibliography where its relevance to the earlier discussion of so-called astral myths is likely to remain obscure thanks to the failure to name Goold on p. 23.

[[6]] Needless to say, this inconsistency detracts from the usefulness of the bibliography and is especially unfortunate in view of the fact that C.’s book is bound to be consulted by scholars in a variety of fields besides Classics.

[[7]] Besides the recent French translation of the whole of Hyginus (with excellent notes) by Le Boeuffle (Bude/ 1983) and a privately printed English translation by Mark Livingston (limited to 140 copies: Greenbrae CA, 1985), which I have not seen, book 2 was translated into English by Mary Grant in 1960 (Univ. of Kansas Pr.).

[[8]] Typical of the shortcomings of the commentary is C.’s failure to inform the reader on this occasion (under the Corona Borealis) that the Lock of Ariadne is identical with the Coma Berenices. Much later, when she points out in her commentary on Leo (p. 128) that Ps-Eratosthenes employs both names, she fails to tell the reader where the constellation is called the Lock of Ariadne.

[[9]] C. seems to have confused ἅρπη (Perseus’ well-known curved sword) with πήρα (“wallet”).

[[10]] Ptolemy’s contribution is that he was the first to assign stars to the wings ( Synt. 7.5).