Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book Review: Astronomy, Weather, and Calendars in the Ancient World

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Daryn Lehoux, Astronomy, Weather, and Calendars in the Ancient World: Parapegmata and Related Texts in Classical and Near Eastern Societies. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Reviewed by Y. Tzvi Langermann, Bar Ilan University

Parapegmata are devices for tracking temporal cycles. They refer both to instruments, in which a movable peg was employed to track certain phenomena, and by extension also to written texts in which the different sorts of cycles are recorded and correlated. Most usually, the temporal cycles are fixed lunar and stellar events, most especially heliacal risings of selected stars, which are tagged to the more fickle cycles of weather patterns; but they are by no means limited to these events. Calendars of this sort survive to this day in the form of "farmer's almanacs". Lehoux's book presents the ancient sources of this science, which take two forms: archaeological artifacts and written texts. His book is in two parts. Part one comprises a far-reaching attempt to define the subject, combining theory, close examination of selected examples, and frequent appeals to illustrations from our own (western, especially Canadian) culture. The first four chapters describe the written and other forms that parapegmata may take, the relationship between agricultural seasons and stellar phenomena, the place of astrology (by which Lehoux appears to mean, predictions based on computed configurations, that are claimed to be based upon observed correlations between stellar positions and terrestrial events), and the different calendars and calendric cycles that were in use in Greece and Rome, as well as the way meteorological phenomena were indexed to these. Lehoux wishes to distinguish as clearly as possible between 'astrometerology' on the one hand, and astrology and time-keeping in general, on the other, though all three have a place in parapegmata. He needlessly belabors the allegations that astrology is a pseudo-science; no one today excludes astrology from the history of science or the history of ideas, even though, at least so I think, hardly anyone would doubt its falsity. On the other hand, Lehoux's refutations of the intimate connections between developments in the calendar and in astronomy are well-founded and long overdue in the discipline.

Chapters five and six treat sources from Babylon and Egypt. Though there are sections of MUL.APIN and some Egyptian texts that are reminiscent of Greek and Latin parapegmata, Lehoux argues that these are due to similar concerns for tracking and predicting weather, agriculture seasons, and the like, shared by all of these civilizations. The classical sources were not influenced by Babylon or Egypt. In these chapters, Lehoux bucks the trend to emphasize the debt owed by Greek civilization to the East (most notably in Walter Burkert's Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis), but not in a sweeping fashion. He does not deny the evidence for the influence of Babylonian astronomy upon the Hellenes, but, with regard to parapegmata, Lehoux asserts that there is no evidence for the sharing of information. In the case of Egypt, he leans heavily upon Otto Neugebauer's famous claim that there was no Egyptian astronomy to speak of; so how could it have influenced the Greeks? Nonetheless, that assertion has been modified recently, on the basis of some of the same primary sources examined by Lehoux.1 Moreover, one should never forget that Ptolemy himself worked in Alexandria, and that the risings and settings, weather patterns and agriculture in his life were very much Egyptian. In the particular case of astrometeorology it seems inappropriate to look for any deep influence. Babylon and Greece have very little in common in agriculture, heliacal risings, or ritual and civic calendars; what use would it be to share information? Indeed, parapegmata are cultural phenomena, which found expression across the ancient world from China to Rome, and their study calls for a different sort of comparison, including but not limited to possible exchanges of data.

See the above page for the full story.

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