37th DPS Meeting, 4-9 September 2005
Session 9 From Arago and Aratus to Zeiss
HAD Invited, Monday, September 5, 2005, 4:00-5:30pm, Umney Theatre, Robinson College

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[9.02] A New Synthesis for the Origin of the Greek Constellations

B. E. Schaefer (Louisiana S. U.)

The Greek constellations constitute one of the longest enduring intellectual properties of humanity. While various papers attribute the origin of the constellations to many diverse possibilities, main stream historians view the origin as largely being in Mesopotamia after around 1350 BC with transmission to the Greeks around 500 BC or so. The evidence for this synthesis is cuneiform and iconographic records that first mention constellations from roughly 1350-500 BC. My recent research on precessional dating has added much detail to this old synthesis.

The earliest surviving written description of the Greek constellations is Aratus' Phaenomenon, which is a copy of Eudoxus' lost book of the same name. Hipparchus' Commentary also extensively quotes from Eudoxus. With 172 observations from Eudoxus, I derive a precessional date of 1130 ±80 BC and a latitude of 36.0 ±0.9 degrees north. Further, the positioning of the southern void amongst the Greek constellations yields a date of 690 BC (with an uncertainty of 2-4 centuries) and a latitude of 33 degrees (with an uncertainty of 1-3 degrees) for the six southernmost constellations. The earliest surviving description of the Mesopotamian constellations is the MUL.APIN tablet series, with the oldest dated example from the 8th century BC. My precessional calculation gives a date of 1100 BC and a latitude of 33 north. I also see that Eudoxus and MUL.APIN share a substantial number of observations. In all, some Assyrian observer(s) between 33-36 degrees north latitude around the time of 1300-1000 BC apparently invented many of the constellations adopted by the Greeks and made a database of observations later repeated by MUL.APIN, Eudoxus, Aratus, and Hipparchus.

But this is not the whole story, as this only accounts for 19 Greek constellations which are identical in stars and representation with the Mesopotamian sky. An additional 12 Greek constellations have the same star groups as the Babylonians yet have completely different mythology/names; and so these representations must have been added by the Greeks. In addition, the Bear constellations must have originated with Paleolithic hunters in northern Eurasia sometime before 11,000 BC, as shown by the widespread distribution of essentially identical myths for the asterism across Eurasia and North America. This leaves about a dozen old constellations which have no Mesopotamian roots and for which the first reference anywhere is from early Greek sources and which have characteristically Greek flavor. Thus it appears that a substantial fraction of the old Greek constellations are actually Greek in origin, with the majority being older asterisms adopted from Mesopotamia, while the Bear originates at least 13,000 years ago.

This research was supported in part by the Herbert C. Pollack Award of the Dudley Observatory.

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 37 #3
© 2004. The American Astronomical Soceity.