Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Johns Hopkins University Press
72 p., Hardcover $50, paperback $25

This is a fascinating little volume that may be of interest to some of you, especially if you like astronomy or have an interest in ancient science or poetry.  According to the cover copy, the Phaenomena was the most read poem in the ancient world after The Iliad and The Odyssey.  The purpose of the poem is instructive, giving information about the constellations and how to predict the weather.  In a more agrarian society, this type of information could at times be a matter of life and death.  Aratus lived during the period following the breakup of Alexander the Great's empire.

This is a thin volume.  The actual poem itself only takes up 38 pages, a little over half the book.  Extensive annotations form the bulk of the rest of the text in an appendix and are fascinating in and of themselves. 

Fans of epic fantasy or historical adventure are well aware of the importance many ancient cultures placed on poetry, especially in societies in which writing and literacy were rare.  Here's a sample:

The nearest guide
To the north Fish is on the left-hand side
Of Andromeda, on her shoulder.  Forever over
The shoulders of staunch Perseus, her lover
Her two feet circle.  As he marches forth,
Taller than the figures in the north,
His gallant right hand gestures to the seat
Of his love's mother. Staring at his feet,
He walks his father Zeus' property.  (p.10)

Some passages give detailed descriptions of certain constellations, especially those containing bright or prominent stars, and discuss the times those stars and constellations rise and set at different times of the year.

The price on this one is a little high, but that's to be expected from an academic press.  I got my copy last year when the publisher was sending out free copies to faculty as part of a promotion.  I've enjoyed the poetry and learned a bit from the appendix.  While I haven't read it cover to cover, it's been nice to dip into here and there.  It's one I'll return to on a regular basis.

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