Constellation Myths, with Aratus’s Phaenomena by Eratosthenes, Gaius Julius Hyginus (Translation by Robin Hard)

ERATOSTHENES of Cyrene (c. 285 – c. 194 BC) was a leading scholar, scientist, and poet of the Hellenistic era, who became the third director of the great library at Alexandria, and achieved notable distinction as a geographer. He compiled a comprehensive handbook of astral mythology, the ‘Catasterisms’, by collecting constellation myths from the previous tradition, altering and improving them as he thought fit, and devising new myths where it was necessary or desirable. This genre of myth, in which stories were put forward to explain how persons, creatures, and things had come to be set in the sky as constellations, was developed at a relatively late period, mainly from the fifth century onward, and the canon became largely fixed after Eratosthenes established his synthesis in the third century. Although his compendium has not survived, much is recorded of its contents in the later summaries translated in this volume, and it was the main source, directly or indirectly, for the astral myths recounted by Hyginus.

GAIUS JULIUS HYGINUS (c.64 BC – AD 17) was appointed by Augustus to be director of the Palatine library, and a prolific author who wrote about a wide variety of subjects. Two surviving works are ascribed to him, the Fabulae, a collection of tales from Greek myth, and the ‘Astronomy’, an elementary guide to astronomy which contains the fullest surviving collection of constellation myths. Whether or not the ‘Astronomy’ was actually written by Hyginus, it is invaluable for what it records of the astral myths in the Eratosthenian tradition.

ARATUS of SOLOI (c. 310 – c. 240 BC) was born in Asia Minor, studied at Athens under the Stoic philosopher Zeno, among others, and received an invitation in 276 to come to the Macedonian court, where he wrote his astronomical poem, the ‘Phaenomena’, which is his only surviving work. It contains, among other things, a full account of the Greek picture of the sky, in which all the constellations are described in due succession.

The constellations we recognize today were first mapped by the ancient Greeks, who arranged the stars into patterns for that purpose. In the third century BC Eratosthenes compiled a handbook of astral mythology in which the constellations were associated with figures from legend, and myths were provided to explain how each person, creature, or object came to be placed in the sky. Thus we can see Heracles killing the Dragon, and Perseus slaying the sea-monster to save Andromeda; Orion chases the seven maidens transformed by Zeus into the Pleiades, and Aries, the golden ram, is identified flying up to the heavens.

This translation brings together the later summaries from Eratosthenes’ lost handbook with a guide to astronomy compiled by Hyginus, librarian to Augustus. Together with Aratus’s astronomical poem the Phaenomena, these texts provide a complete collection of Greek astral myths; imaginative and picturesque, they also offer an intriguing insight into ancient science and culture.

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