Monday, March 27, 2017


Arnaud Zucker (ed.), L'encyclopédie du ciel: mythologie, astronomie, astrologie. Bouquins. Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 2016. Pp. 1,202. ISBN 9782221097908. €30.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Philip Thibodeau, Brooklyn College (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Are the stars meaningful in any way to the lives of human beings? The answer will of course depend on who you ask. A scientific humanist might draw your attention to the fact that the elements which make up our bodies were created in the hearts of dying stars – that "we are made of starstuff," as Carl Sagan famously put it.1 He or she might also add that appreciation of the vast scale of the cosmos can reveal how fragile and precious life on earth is: to quote again from Sagan, commenting on a photo of the "pale blue dot" of earth taken from Voyager 1, "Look again at that dot; on it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives..."2 An astrologer, by contrast, while likely to agree with these sentiments, would answer that the heavens bear on our lives in a much more direct way, since the positions of the sun, moon, and planets in the signs of the zodiac shape our personalities at birth, and nudge our fates in various directions according to their daily configurations in the sky. Scientists deny the existence of any such causal link between the astral and human realms, yet their denial does not put astrologers out of business because the latter enterprise taps into a deep longing to see the contingencies of our lives grounded in some higher reality.3 Ideas about the significance of the stars thus come in two broad forms, one universalizing and secular, the other akin to religion and divination and more individual-specific. Both forms have roots in the ancient world, roots which are deeply intertwined and hard to disentangle.

The volume under review traces these two systems of knowledge back to their Greco-Roman origins, and, quite uniquely, does so without giving either one pride of place. A collaborative work by eleven distinguished scholars working under the direction of Arnaud Zucker, it resists tidy classification. While labeled an "encyclopedia," it is not organized alphabetically in the manner of a traditional encyclopedia, but instead divides its discussions of celestial matters into three broad themes—les images, les lois, and les messages—which are in turn analytically subdivided into further categories. It offers readers hundreds of translated excerpts from primary sources, together with a few complete texts, and in that regard it resembles an anthology; yet most of its pages are devoted to medium-length articles on various topics. For the most part it assumes no specialized knowledge on the reader's part either of classics, astronomy, or astrology (a biographical appendix tells us who individuals like Hesiod and the emperor Julian were), yet in places it delves rather deeply into the details concerning, e.g., the methods used to reconstruct the star- catalogue which lay behind the Farnese Atlas' constellation-globe. The book itself is quite small, barely larger than a chunky volume from the Loeb library, yet at 1,216 pages, clearly not meant to be read at one sitting. Despite its heterogeneous character, it merits consideration based on the consistently high quality of its writing and its ecumenical approach to ancient celestial science in all its different forms.

The first part of the volume is devoted primarily to lore concerning the constellations and planets. A catalogue gives a short, illustrated account of the origins and Greco-Roman iconography of each constellation, accompanied by a full translation of the relevant passages from our two surviving collections of star myths, the Catasterismoi of Eratosthenes and Hyginus' Astronomica; having complete, reliable translations of these two texts under one cover is a nice feature. Also included here is a chapter on the development of modern constellation nomenclature which outlines the respective contributions of Bayer, Plancius, Hevelius, de Lacaille, and other astral cartographers, one of the best short introductions to the subject I have come across. An essay on the iconography of the sun, moon, and planets comes next, followed by a chapter on ouranogonie which offers translations of the creation stories in Hesiod Theog. 104–38, Ovid Met. 1.1–75, and Lucretius 5.417–80, in that order, with additional references in the commentary to the creation accounts in Plato's Timaeus and Empedocles. This essay has little connection to the material that comes before it—perhaps it was intended to smooth the transition to the next section of the book?—but highlights the many family resemblances that obtain between these three texts.

The book's middle third, on celestial "Laws," contains materials that for modern readers are likely seem more scientific in nature, e.g. the cosmological systems of Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, and Ptolemy, theories of meteors and comets, and Greek and Roman calendar conventions. After treating these topics it offers a complete translation of Hipparchus' Commentary on the Phaenomena of Eudoxus and Aratus—as far as I know, the only translation into a modern language of this text besides the one provided by Manitius in his 1897 Teubner. 4 Considerable space is then devoted to a discussion of astronomical objects and instruments of various kinds: there are historical accounts of the sundial and the astrolabe, and articles on an assortment of material remains including the zodiac at Dendera, the Tower of the Winds at Athens, the Farnese Atlas, and fragmentary inscribed parapegmata or star calendars; an essay on the Antikythera device gives a very clear exposition of the workings of this fascinating yet complicated instrument. The scholarship here is generally up-to-date; the article on parapegmata takes into account Lehoux's recent edition, and it is good to see Duke's rebuttal of Schaefer's much-publicized claims about the "lost catalogue of Hipparchus" supposedly hidden in the Farnese Atlas' globe, 5 On the other hand, there is no mention of any of the important studies of the Antikythera device which have been published since 2004, and Elly Dekker's marvelous investigation of ancient and medieval star- globes seems to have escaped attention as well. 6 A short essay on Greek star catalogues follows, one which serves as an introduction to a long appendix at the end of the book where the star catalogues of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy are reconstructed in parallel columns. The articles in this section are accessibly written and judicious when dealing with controversial topics, the translations literal and reliable. This portion of the volume covers much of the same ground as James Evans' The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy,7 insofar as it deals with instrumentation and astronomical models; unlike Evans' book, however, it devotes almost no attention to methods of astronomical calculation—a feature which, depending on one's taste for mathematics, will either constitute a recommendation or a shortcoming.

The last third of this book is the most original in conception. More than a summary of ancient astrology along the lines of, say, Tamsyn Barton's Ancient Astrology 8, it is in fact a broad survey of efforts to interpret celestial phenomena, whether through divination, myth, philosophy, or astrology properly speaking. The first few texts that are discussed make up an eclectic mix indeed: we find here the brontoscopic calendar ascribed to Nigidius Figulus (fully translated), the Christian constellations devised by Gregory of Tours, an excerpt from Porphyry on the descent of the soul through the heavens, and Macrobius on the music of the spheres, to name just a few. A general discussion of divinatory practices follows, and serves to introduce a presentation of ancient astrology which focuses on methods and terminology, and leans rather heavily on excerpts from Manilius and Firmicus Maternus. As a piece of intellectual history, this section is somewhat confusing, switching as it does between sources that differ greatly from each other in date and intellectual outlook. Yet the specific discussions are lucid and insightful, and the confusion helpfully reminds us that in antiquity multiple forms of celestial hermeneutics were always present and competing with each other in the way they interpreted the signs given by the stars.

While nominally an encyclopedia, then, this book is in fact a rather idiosyncratic compendium which has something to offer classicists, art historians, astronomers, and astrologers alike. An autodidact who needed to brush up on some aspect of ancient astronomy or astrology will find its essays useful, particularly as they involve iconography and history; the translations of obscure texts and the sections on constellations, star maps, and star catalogues will prove useful to specialists. But this book is primarily a work to be read casually and for pleasure: open any page, and you will find some lesser-known text or concept rescued from obscurity, or more familiar items juxtaposed in ways that make them seem new and strange. The "ancient quarrel" between philosophy and poetry has no place here, and the modern quarrel that divides astronomers from astrologers is also banished from its pages.

Table of Contents

I. Les Images. Histoire et mythologie: voire et raconter
1. Les étoiles fixes
2. Les étoiles mobiles: les luminaires et les planètes
3. Ouranogonie
II. Les Lois. L'Astronomie: observer et calculer
1. Les enquêtes astronomiques
2. Le Commentaire aux Phénomènes d'Eudoxe et d'Aratos d'Hipparque
3. Instruments et objets
III. Les Messages> Signes et influences: interpréter et prédire
1. Action et messages du ciel
2. Le ciel et la philosophie
3. Structure et signification du ciel
4. La science astrologique


1.   Note the echo of Lucretius' caelesti sumus omnes semine oriundi (2.991); Sagan, who was widely read in the history of science, may well have come across the line.
2.   Again, note the echo of Cicero's description of the earth in the Somnium Scipionis: iam ipsa terra ita mihi parva visa est, ut me imperii nostri, quo quasi punctum eius attingimus, paeniteret (Resp. 6.16).
3.   Today, for instance, as I finish work on this review which I have been regrettably late in completing, my horoscope seems to speak to my procrastination: "You may feel like keeping a low profile these days, and it's no wonder—the stars heat things up to a high temperature. Don't be too surprised if something you did in the past catches up with you. There's nowhere to run once it finds you, so you may as well face it" ( How can I be sure that my resolution to finish this is not somehow connected with the presence in my birth-sign of Mercury and Pluto?
4.   K. Manitius, In Arati et Eudoxi Phaenomena commentariorum libri tres, Leipzig 1894.
5.   See D. Duke, "Analysis of the Farnese Globe", Journal for the History of Astronomy 37 (2006), 87–100, replying to B. E. Schaefer, "The Epoch of the Constellations on the Farnese Atlas and their Origin in Hipparchus' Lost Catalogue", Journal for the History of Astronomy 36 (2005) 167–96; and D. Lehoux, Astronomy, Weather and Calendars in the Ancient World: Parapegmata and Related Texts in Classical and Near-Eastern Societies, Cambridge 2007.
6.   E. Dekker, Illustrating the Phaenomena. Celestial cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Oxford 2012. While many recent Antikythera studies are admittedly rather technical, the important article by C. C. Carman and J. Evans, "On the Epoch of the Antikythera Mechanism and its Eclipse Predictor", Archive for History of Exact Sciences, 68 (2014), 693-774, which tentatively dates the device to ca. 200 BCE, should have been noted in a work of this kind.
7.   J. Evans, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, Oxford 1998.
8.   T. Barton, Ancient Astrology, Routledge 1994.

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