ElAnt v2n4 - The Constellations on Achilles' Shield (Iliad 18. 485-489)

Volume 2, Number 4
December 1994


Robert Hannah,
Department of Classics,
University of Otago,
P.O Box 56,
New Zealand.
e-mail:  robert.hannah@stonebow.tago.ac.nz
He made the earth upon it, and the sky, and the sea's water, and the tireless sun, and the moon waxing into her fulness, and on it all the constellations that festoon the heavens, the Pleiades and the Hyades and the strength of Orion and the Bear, whom men give also the name of the Wagon, who turns about in a fixed place and looks at Orion and she alone is never plunged in the wash of the Ocean.

Iliad 18. 483-89 (translated by R. Lattimore)

In an interesting paper published in 1980, J.H. Phillips argued that the astronomical content of Homer's description of the Shield of Achilles at Iliad 18. 485-89, is essentially seasonal and, consequently, agricultural in its import ('The constellations on Achilles' shield ( Iliad 18. 485-489)', LCM 5.8 (1980), pp. 179-80). According to his analysis, the Pleiades, the Hyades and Orion signify, through 'their sequential heliacal risings and subsequent cosmical settings', the period approximately from May to November. Within this time span, the major agricultural activities of harvesting, vintaging and ploughing would take place, as we know from the farmer's calendar in Hesiod's Works and Days . These same activities are then found in the ensuing description of other parts of the Shield at lines 541-72.

The problem with this explanation is the role of the last constellation enumerated by Homer - Arktos, the Bear. Unlike the other three star groups, the Bear is circumpolar, neither rising nor setting, but continually circling the north celestial pole (as line 489 makes clear). It is apparently, therefore, 'seasonless', as Phillips points out, and this character, he argues, suits the seasonless activities of lines 573-89, the herding of cattle and sheep, which go on all year.

What I would like to argue, however, is that there is possibly a sense in which the Bear is linked to the Pleiades, the Hyades and Orion, and which therefore makes its mention equally season-specific.

Preserved calendars like Hesiod's, or the later parapegmata from the late fifth century B.C. onwards, inure us to the idea that the first visible sighting of a star's rising, or the last visible sighting of its setting, at dawn or dusk, were the principal observed phenomena of the heavenly body's apparent movements. ( 1 ) But there is nevertheless early evidence of an awareness of a third significant position in the star's visible course across the sky: the transit, or culmination, when a star reaches the peak and mid-point of its course in the heavens, crossing the north-south meridian of the observer. Hesiod explicitly mentions the culmination of both Orion and Sirius at the time of Arcturus's (heliacal / dawn) rising at vintaging time:

Then, when Orion and Seirios are come to the middle of the sky, and the rosy-fingered Dawn confronts Arcturus, then, Perses, cut off all your grapes, and bring them home with you.

Hesiod, Works and Days 609-11 (translated by R. Lattimore)

For stars or constellations that rise and set, like Orion and Sirius, there can be only one visible transit across the meridian. But for a circumpolar star, two transits are observable, an upper and a lower one.

Let us take a closer look at the position of the stars in Iliad 18. 485-89, at the moments of heliacal (= dawn) rising and cosmical (= dusk) setting, for the Pleiades, the Hyades and Orion. In the first instance (heliacal rising), we find that the Bear (Ursa Major) lies directly north at its lower transit of the viewer's meridian, just skimming the northern horizon. Then, in the second instance (cosmical setting), we find it still directly north but at its upper transit across the meridian. In other words, as the Pleiades, the Hyades and Orion rise over the eastern horizon or sink into the western horizon, the Bear lies directly north at the bottom or at the peak of its circuit around the pole. ( 2 )

No-one in the ancient literature, as far as I am aware, noted this coincidence of phenomena. So any deductions which can be derived from its discovery can be only hypothetical, made probable rather than true by the accumulation of other relevant observations. One such observation is to be drawn from noticing the nature of the agricultural activities which took place at the time of these stellar phenomena.

The time of the heliacal rising of the Pleiades, the Hyades and Orion, and of the lower transiting of the Bear, is also the time for summer harvesting (about May - June in our terms). And the time of the cosmical setting of the same constellations, and of the upper transiting of the Bear, is the time at the start of winter when the farmer should look to his ploughing and sowing (around November). It is here that we may see the appropriateness of the second name ( Amaxa , Wagon) given to the Bear by Homer in what seems otherwise to be nothing more than a formulaic phrase. Amaxa is encountered in both Homer and Hesiod as a wagon or cart, which could be used in an agricultural context for transporting goods, such as seed to or harvest from the field - the very activities of which the Pleiades, the Hyades and Orion could remind a listener (cf. A.S.F. Gow, 'Hesiod's Wagon', JP 33 (1914), pp. 145-53; M.L. West (ed.), Hesiod, Works & Days (Oxford, 1978), p. 264 at line 424, and p. 273 at line 453).

Indeed, I would be tempted to go further than Phillips, and argue that the mention of these star groups by Homer could signify just two specific times of the agricultural year - about our November for ploughing and sowing, and our May / June for harvesting - rather than the whole period continuously from May to November. The period between May and November also includes the time of the grape harvest in September. But the timing of the vintage is indicated by Hesiod through a quite different set of stellar observations, as we have already noted: the culmination of Orion and Sirius, and the heliacal rising of Arcturus. (See H.A.T. Reiche, 'Fail-safe stellar dating: forgotten phases', TAPA 119 (1989), pp. 37-53, for a discussion of the usefulness of these star-sightings in a farmer's calendar of activities.)

Phillips' argument that the activities of herding cattle and sheep are 'seasonless', just as the circumpolar movement of Arktos renders it 'seasonless', is itself open to question. The archaeological evidence is potentially on his side, since integration of crop and livestock husbandry appears to be more likely for ancient Greece, than their separation by such practices as transhumance and bare fallowing. (P. Halstead, 'Traditional and ancient rural economy in Mediterranean Europe: plus a change?' JHS 107 (1987), pp. 81 and 83; M.W. Edwards, The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. V, books 17-20 (Cambridge, 1991), p. 212.) In other words, there is currently no archaeological evidence for seasonal movements of herds. But this is contradicted by literary evidence for such practices: the scholia on Iliad 18. 587- 88 state explicitly that herding of sheep is a springtime operation only. ( 3 ) On balance, one might argue that the argument from archaeology is the weaker, since new excavations or more sophisticated techniques of physical analysis could overturn the current position.

My argument strengthens the association between the four star groups in the Shield of Achilles, keeping them as a unit. At the same time, however, it undermines Phillips' case for a link between the constellations and all the agricultural activities on the Shield in the ensuing lines. Of those activities, only ploughing and harvesting would appear to be foreshadowed by the mention of the stars at Iliad 18. 485- 89.


1. On parapegmata see G. Schiaparelli, Scritti sulla Storia della Astronomia Antica (Bologna, 1926), vol. I. 2, pp. 237 -85; O. Neugebauer, A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy (New York, 1975), vol. II, pp. 587 - 89 (with earlier bibliography); B.L. van der Waerden, Die Astronomie der Griechen: eine Einführung (Darmstadt, 1988), pp. 76 - 92.

2. W. Leaf and M.A. Bayfield, The Iliad of Homer (London, 1901), vol. II, p. 455, suggested, 'In Northern Greece the Bear, when at its lowest, just touches the northern horizon; and this happens at the time when Orion is rising in the east. As the Bear at once begins to ascend, the idea arose that the great hunter has scared it from taking its bath.' I can find no evidence of this interpretation in the ancient literature, although the scholia on Iliad 488 display an awareness of the hunted - hunter relationship between the Bear and Orion (see H. Erbse, Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem (Scholia Vetera) (Berlin, 1975), vol. IV, p. 532). Cf. F. Boll and W. Gundel, 'Sternbilder', in Ausfuehrliches Lexicon der griechischen und roemischen Mythologie ed. W.H. Roscher , vol. 6 (Leipzig, 1937), p. 987, where it is suggested that the constellation Orion must already have been given the character of a hunter for Homer's description of the Bear's look towards it to have any meaning.

3. H. Erbse, Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem (Scholia Vetera) (Berlin, 1975), vol. IV, p. 563. Oliver Taplin has said that since the preceding rural scenes 'clearly represent spring, summer, and autumn, I take it that 573ff. shows winter.' (O. Taplin, 'The Shield of Achilles within the Iliad ', GR 27 (1980), pp. 7-8). But he perhaps ignores the possibility that we should be looking for five , rather than four, seasons, such as both Hesiod and the fifth century parapegmatist Euktemon are credited with having allowed for: see B.L. van der Waerden, Science Awakening (Leyden / New York, 1974) vol. II, p. 12; W.K. Pritchett and B.L. van der Waerden, 'Thucydidean Time-Reckoning and Euctemon's Seasonal Calendar', BCH 85 (1961), pp. 38-39.

Robert Hannah
e-mail: robert.hannah@stonebow.otago.ac.nz

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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 4 - December 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606