Friday, February 24, 2017


Jordi Pàmias (ed.), Eratosthenes' Catasterisms: Receptions and Translations. Mering: Utopica Verlag, 2016. Pp. x, 179. ISBN 9783944735047. €18.00.

Reviewed by Paul Ojennus, Whitworth University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Pàmias presents fifteen essays on the reception and recent translations of Eratosthenes' Catasterisms, originally presented at the conference, "Eratòstenes, Catasterismes. 20 anys d'edicions i traduccions," (June 12-13, 2014, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). The first eight papers focus on receptions of the Catasterisms, particularly but not exclusively in the twentieth century, and the remaining seven essays are by the authors of recent translations of the Catasterisms into various European languages. Generally, each author provided one chapter for each of the two sections. Topics in the section on reception include the history of scholarship, Eratosthenes as a source for mythology, Eratosthenes and the history of science, Eratosthenes and Greek identity, and Eratosthenes as a model for modern epic. Topics in the section on translation are similarly varied, including approaches to different audiences, the role of illustrations, dealing with Eratosthenes' problematic textual tradition, and replicating Eratosthenes' prose technique in modern languages. The contributors include many of the most important scholars working with the Catasterisms, and the collection as a whole well represents the scope of current research on that writing. The reception of Eratosthenes' Catasterims is a narrow topic, and the form of the volume as a collection of conference proceedings imposes some limits on its usability.

Consideration of space prevents discussing all fifteen contributions in detail; I have selected five by different contributors for commentary, three from the section on reception, and two from the section on translation.

In the first chapter Pàmias examines the interest in the texts of the Catasterisms in late nineteenth and early twentieth century German scholarship. He explains the strictly philological approach taken by this group of scholars as reflecting the ascendancy of rationalist and positivist approaches to the study of mythology in late nineteenth-century Germany over earlier romantic or symbolic approaches. At the same time, a sense of crisis among German Hellenists over precisely this rationalist approach led scholars to examine more marginal texts, especially ones that focused on less rational topics such as myth or religion, including the Catasterisms. That these trends contributed to a period of interest in Eratosthenes is broadly convincing, though they also suggest further questions, such as why the late nineteenth-century crisis over positivism resulted in a rationalist approach to a counter-rationalist topic rather than the reverse, that are outside the scope of what the author describes as a short outline of the topic. A timeline and bibliography of the scholarship in question concludes the chapter.

Geus, in chapter three, examines the principles according to which the constellations and the stars within the constellations in the Catasterisms are ordered. Geus first considers the question why the heavens should be divided into constellations. From a scientific point of view, he finds, although Hipparchus' coordinate system was more precise, it was not practical, and from a cultural point of view the fate of Eratosthenes' Catasterisms (and later the excerpt of the mythological portions) as a handbook of star myths secured the place of the constellation system. Next Geus compares the Epitome with the Fragmenta Vaticana as independent summaries of the Catasterisms, using the third catasterism (Draco) as an illustration of their typical organization. Given that only 13 of the 42 descriptions locate the constellation in relation to other constellations, Geus concludes that the original must have been accompanied by a star-chart or a celestial globe, a conclusion echoed in several other contributions in the volume. Further, compressed descriptions, common use of anatomy to locate individual stars, and rare usage of geometrical figures to describe the constellations suggest such illustrations represented idealized mythic figures. As to the ordering of individual stars within constellations, Geus finds this is varied among a few common patterns: from top to bottom or from front to back of the figures. Similarly orientation between constellations or parts of constellations can be from the point of view of the figure (e.g., right/left) or relatively within sky (e.g., north/south), with few exceptions. Absolute points of reference in the sky (Polaris, the celestial equator, the Zodiac) are not used at all. The most interesting argument, however, is that two graphic depictions of constellations were available in antiquity, a star-chart, in which the constellation appeared in the orientation as observed from the earth, and a celestial globe, where left-to-right orientation is reversed. This multiplicity of depictions accounts for errors in the text of the Catasterisms, where errors of right-to-left orientation appear, which were presumably introduced once the text had been divorced from its original graphic component and "corrected" by a copyist referencing the alternative representation.

The seventh chapter, by Papadopoulou, looks at the reception of the Catasterisms in nineteenth-century Greece, or as the case primarily was, its lack of reception. Papadopoulou contrasts the social function of Classical scholarship in nineteenth century Greece with that of nineteenth century Germany, as discussed by Pàmias in chapter one. For the Germans, marginal texts like the Catasterisms were territory to be colonized, but for the Greeks, Papdopoulou argues, the influence of Greek nationalism on the conception of the literary canon led the latter to marginalize the Hellenistic period in general and Ptolemaic Alexandria in particular. For example, Adamantios Korais, editor of the "Greek Library" series emphasized the literature of Classical Athens as promoting ideals of freedom and self-determination which resonated with the incipient nation-state in a way that Alexandrian court poetry did not. Other topics Papdopoulou relates to the development of the canon in nineteenth century Greece are the language question (katharevousa vs. demotic), debate over preferred words for Greek identity (e.g., Hellenes, Hellenism, Hellenistic), the places of the Byzantine Empire and Alexander in Greek history, and Droysen's recognition of a Hellenistic period. Papadopoulou's treatment of these themes is somewhat impressionistic, presumably due to the origins of the chapter as a conference presentation, but what emerges is a more complex picture than simply the influence of nationalism, that the fortunes of Hellenistic authors such as Eratosthenes were subject to a variety of forces throughout the nineteenth century, but they were eventually overshadowed particularly by Classical Athens, so that, by the turn of the century the Hellenistic period was virtually universally seen as a period of decline.

The fourth chapter in the section on translation, by Torres, surveys a range of issues the author encountered in producing his recent translation of the Catasterisms into Spanish. First, what is the audience of the series or volume in which the translation was to be included? Particular to countries like Spain where an academy governs correct usage, what is the proper form of the title of Eratosthenes' work in the target language, in this case Castellan Spanish? Since catasterismos is not recognized as correct Spanish, Torres opted for Astronomía mitológica. Geus also addresses this problem briefly in an earlier chapter, and had opted to use Sternsagen for his German translation. Next Torres surveys a set of issues around the inclusion of a Greek text with the translation, whether it is appropriate to the press or series, which text to use, whether to include an apparatus criticus or specialized bibliography on textual criticism. Finally, Torres opted for the form of authorial attribution as "nuevo Eratóstenes" to help communicate the distinction between the text translated here and the earlier editions associated with "Pseudo-Eratóstenes". If no individual point here breaks new ground, altogether they do communicate the important point that producing a translation is just as much about situating it within the texts and traditions of the target language as being faithful to the original.

In the last chapter, Fonseca examines various approaches to representing the verbal texture of Eratosthenes' text in translations into modern languages, particularly focusing on the poetic devices of assonance and alliteration. Aside from the issue of translation, this essay fills an important gap in the literature on the Catasterisms, which are approached primarily from the points of view of the history of science and mythology, or if studied for its literary qualities from the point of view of imagery, while Eratosthenes' prose technique is relatively neglected. Fonseca catalogs the instances of alliteration (or assonance) in the work and identifies various patterns (noun-adjective groups, other syntactical groups, alliterative sequences across syntactical breaks, and epic-style formulas). He also notes related stylistic patterns: interweaving of two patterns of assonance (e.g., Cat. 14 ἐστιν ἀστέρας ἔχουσα ἑπτά) and use of alliteration at the moment of the catasterism in the myth to recall the name of the constellation (e.g., Cat. 8 ἄστροις ἀνήγαγεν recalls Ἀρκοφύλακος). Fonseca finishes the chapter by looking at some examples of how different translators have attempted (or not) to reproduce these stylistic effects in their target languages. Not every example is equally compelling; would εἰσελθεῖν εἰς stand out as assonance, or suggest an epic-style formula? Perhaps. As a whole, though, Fonseca makes a compelling case that Eratosthenes did strive for effects of this kind and that they are worth trying to capture in translation.

Overall the volume presents a picture of the state of the scholarship on the reception of Eratosthenes' Catasterisms as approaching maturity: some core lines of research are well-developed, such as the relationship of the original text to star charts or celestial globes, or how varying nineteenth-century conceptions of the nature of Hellenism resulted in different receptions of Eratosthenes. On the other hand, some lines of research appear to be incipient: Fonseca argues for the use of imagery from the Catasterisms being used in the Portuguese epics of Camôes, Casto, and Macedo; but does not situate these usages within a larger tradition of the poetic reception of Eratosthenes. Translation of the Catasterisms appears particularly to be in a period of development, where only recently have good editions of the reconstructed text have become available to be used as the basis for translation, and a lack of a tradition of translations makes itself felt in the poverty of vocabulary to represent Eratosthenes' words, especially the titular καταστερισμοί. The individual chapters most commonly reproduce very closely the texts of the papers read at the original conference, keeping footnotes and bibliography to a minimum, though some seem to have been expanded somewhat (e.g., the chapters by Geus and Papadopoulou discussed above). While an understandable editorial choice, this does mean that the reader is sometimes presented with an elliptical reference to a larger argument the author has developed or is still developing elsewhere.

Authors and Titles

Jordi Pàmias, "Eratosthenes' Catasterisms and fin de siècle German Scholarship (1878-1907)"
José Ramón del Canto Nieto, "La contemplación de las estrellas como Fuente de la mitología astra y de la ciencia (a propósito de los Catasterisms de Eratóstenes) "
Klaus Geus, "Sternbild und Standpunkt: Zu einem Ordnungs- und Beschreibungsprinzip in der astronomischen Literatur der Griechen (Die Anordnung der Sternbilder in den Katasterismen des Eratosthenes) "
Anna Santoni, "Mitologia celeste e conoscenza del cielo. Qualche osservazione"
José B. Torres, "Recepción y receptors en los Catasterismos de Eratóstenes"
Arnaud Zucker, "Le 'livret' lacunaire d'Eratosthène: de l'image au texte"
Maria Papadopoulou, "What the Greek "National Myth" Did (not) Include: The Fate of Eratosthenes' Catasterisms in 19th Century Greece"
Rui Carlos Fonseca, "A memória dos heróis gravida nas estrelas: Eratóstenes e a épica portuguesa"
Jordi Pàmias, "Dues traduccions catalanes dels Catasterismes d'Eratòstenes"
Klaus Geus, "Eratosthenes, Sternsagen (2007): A German Edition of the Catasterismi"
Anna Santoni, "I Catasterismi: Traduzione e illustrazione"
José B. Torres, "La traducción castellana del Nuevo Eratóstenes"
Arnaud Zucker, "Le 'livret' lacunaire d'Eratosthène: une traduction en réseau"
Maria Papadopoulou, "Eratosthenes' Catasterisms and the Life of Astral Myths in Contemporary Greece"
Rui Carlos Fonseca, "A sonoridade das estrelas gravida nos Catasterismos de Eratóstenes"

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