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Ancient Hyperborean Astronomers

Hyperborea was a semi-mythical place "beyond the north wind" to most of the Ancient Greeks. A number of stories of gift and culture exchange between the Hyperboreans and ancient Greeks are still extant. One of them seems to record the existence of a prehistoric calendrical system and this essay corrects a common misconception concerning its attribution. The source for this story about Hyperborea and its nineteen year calendrical cycle was not "Hecataeus of Abdera" as commonly stated but "Hecataeus of Miletus" who lived some 100 years earlier.

First consider the historical context: Meton is generally credited with the discovery in 432 BCE of the "Metonic Cycle" a period of 19 years after which the moon's phases recur on the same day of the year.

  • Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who died after 21 BCE, wrote about this event.
    Histories (XII.36. Oldfather, vol 4,447-9): Meton revealed to the public his nineteen year cycle, the beginning of which he fixed on the thirteenth day of the Athenian month of Scirophorion.
    In an appended note, we are informed that this was the summer solstice. The Metonic Cycle didn't catch on quickly either, taking quite a number of years to become widely adopted. Projecting our own calendar backwards with the aid of a computerised ephemeris, we find that in the Athens of 432 BCE, summer solstice sunrise was on the morning of June 28th. Full moon rise was on the evening of the 29th with an apparent declination of -29.04°, not a limiting value of the lunar nodal cycle.

    So, in 432 BC, Meton introduced his nineteen year cycle but was seemingly not interested in lunistices of the moon and might have been a day out in his calculation of the solstice. The Metonic cycle is supposed by historians to be the first recognition of a nineteen year lunar cycle.

  • Diodorus Siculus also wrote of the Hyperboreans and here is the famous piece in full:
    Histories (II.47. Oldfather, vol 2, 37-41): Now for our part, since we have seen fit to make mention of the regions of Asia which lie to the north, we feel that it will not be foreign to our purpose to discuss the legendary accounts of the Hyperboreans. Of those who have written about the ancient myths, Hecateus and certain others say that in the regions beyond the land of the Celts there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily. This island, the account continues, is situated in the north and is inhabited by the Hyperboreans, who are called by that name because their home is beyond the point whence the north wind (Boreas) blows; and the island is both fertile and productive of every crop, and since it has an unusually temperate climate it produces two harvests each year. Moreover, the following legend is told concerning it: Leto was born on this island, and for that reason Apollo is honoured among them above all other gods; and the inhabitants are looked upon as priests of Apollo, after a manner, since daily they praise this god continuously in song and honour him exceedingly. And there is also on the island both a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape. Furthermore, a city is there which is sacred to this god, and the majority of its inhabitants are players on the cithara; and these continually play on this instrument in the temple and sing hymns of praise to the god, glorifying his deeds. The Hyperboreans also have a language, we are informed, which is particular to them, and are most friendly disposed towards the Greeks, and especially towards the Athenians and the Delians, who have inherited this good-will from most ancient times. The myth also relates that certain Greeks visited the Hyperboreans and left behind them there costly votive offerings bearing inscriptions in Greek letters. And in the same way Abaris, a Hyperborean, came to Greece in ancient times and renewed the goodwill and kinship of his people to the Delians. They say also that the moon, as viewed from this island, appears to be but a little distance from the earth and to have upon it prominences, like those of the earth, which are visible to the naked eye. The account is also given that the god visits the island every nineteen years, the period in which the return of the stars to the same place in the heavens is accomplished; and for this reason the nineteen-year period is called by the Greeks the "year of Meton". At the time of this appearance of the god he both plays on the cithara and dances continuously the night through from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades, expressing in this manner his delight in his successes. And the kings of this city and the supervisors of the sacred precinct are called Boreades, since they are descendants of Boreas, and the succession to these positions is always kept in their family.

Hecateus, named here as the source of this information about the Hyperboreans has often been mistaken for Hecataeus of Abdera, a philosopher, c.330BCE. He was in fact Hecataeus of Miletus (586-480BCE), the historian and geographer whose two known works only survive as fragments quoted by others. His Periodos / Periegesis (World Tour) has been quoted here by Diodorus Siculus who many historians regard as unreliable because he is uncritical. However that is arguably his chief value for he includes the work of others, much of which would otherwise have been lost, even though his different sources may be contradictory.

Having established the correct attribution, we are able to understand the point raised by Graves (1948): Hecataeus of Miletus originally wrote of this Hyperborean nineteen year cycle well before Meton discovered his, at a time when Greek society was still using an eight year system for intercalating the extra months required to keep lunar and solar time in tolerable synchrony.

Other ancient writers have also refered to links between Hyperborea and the Delians but some have regarded Hyperborea as being in the Caspian region. The earliest reference to that version of geography found by this researcher is later than Hecataeus and from the pen of Herodotus (c.484 - c.425BCE) who says in his Histories (4.13) that the story comes from a poem by Aristeus of Proconnesus. He then comments that it does not agree with what the Scythians say about the same area. Not surprising really, as this version of Hyperborea supposedly lies beyond the griffins that are to be found beyond the one-eyed men who live beyond the Issedones and the Scythians. Hecataeus the Geographer's version is thus more likely to be based in reality and from his account, quoted above, Hyperborea is usually taken to be the island of Great Britain. Ireland and Iceland are the only others to qualify on grounds of size and general geographic location but Iceland must be least likely of the three. British writers tend to regard the "spherical" temple as Stonehenge though some prefer Callannish. How about Newgrange?

Leto / Latona was a goddess of the night sky and mother of both Apollo (=apple i.e. golden apple, a sun god) and Artemis (=Diana, a moon goddess). Leto was worshipped in Greece along with her children and the attribution of Hyperborea as her birthplace may be seen as an indication of links between the countries and their religions. In this context she could be seen to represent the Moon who governs the timing of the solar festival. In other words, in a calendrical sense, the Sun has returned to harmony with the Moon. Not the other way round, as we would see it today if we thought about it at all.

This idea of the sun being obliged to fit in with lunar time may also be found in the labours of that classical solar hero Heracles / Hercules. Completion of these labours took him 8 years 1 month (100 lunations) and, curiously enough, he had to go to Hyperborea for his labour of stealing Golden Apples from the Hesperides. These Hyperborean gardens where the apples grew were said to have been gifted by Gaea to Hera on her marriage to Zeus. Property of the Great Mother, clearly. The Hesperides who kept the gardens were a triad of "Western Maidens", daughters of Hesperus the Evening Star. According to Hesiod (c.700BCE) they lived "across the bright ocean". So again, in this older version of the myth, Hyperborea is not just in the north but to the west and across the sea.

Hecataeus of Miletus is thought to have died some 48 years before Meton announced his calendrical discovery. Thus the naming of the nineteen year cycle as the "year of Meton" cannot be a quotation from Hecataeus but is from the pen of Diodorus himself, writing in the 1st century BCE - well after Meton's cycle was publicly adopted. It follows then, that this knowledge of a nineteen year cycle must have come from beyond Greece and its colonies.

Hecataeus, our geographer from the city of Miletus, wrote during the mid 6th century BCE about Hyperboreans celebrating a nineteen year cycle and having a hereditary priesthood acquainted with the Greeks in "most ancient times". A very vague phrase that might be taken to imply a sense of "some unknown time before my grandparents were born". In this context that would be some unknown time before about 600BCE. Do not forget though that he was said to have been writing of "legendary accounts" and "ancient myths". Not just him but "certain others" as well and they must have agreed with the story or they would not have been mentioned.

Now consider the reference to dancing "continuously the night through from the vernal Equinox until the rising of the Pleiades". This cannot mean dancing for a few hours on one night between sunset and the appearance of those particular stars unless it refers to a time before c.3500BCE. Therefore it must mean the Heliacal Rising of the Pleiades, which is the day when these stars rise shortly before sunrise and are briefly visible above the eastern horizon before vanishing as the sky brightens with the rising sun. It is known from historical records that early astronomers made a point of observing heliacal rises.

As an annual phenomenon, a star is eaten up as it follows the sun into the western horizon. There comes a day when a star that is setting in the west appears only very briefly in the darkening sky after sunset before vanishing for a period. This event is that star's Heliacal Set. It is then not visible at all for a month or so before being reborn. Regurgitated by the sun, it reappears briefly above the eastern horizon before fading from sight in the brightening morning sky and this is its Heliacal Rise. Night by night, the star then rises progressively earlier until it is setting in the west just before the sun rises in the east. This is known as its Cosmical Set. For a month or so before that, the star could have been seen at both ends of the night, as it would have begun to rise just after sunset as well. The first time it does this is called its Acronychal Rise and from then on the star is progressively further round the sky at sunset until it is eaten again. These four events bracket two short periods - one of non-visibility and one of both morning and evening visibility - that are centred close to half a year apart [1].

The interval between the Spring Equinox and the Heliacal Rising of the Pleiades has changed over the years due to precession. An exact day of the year for a heliacal rise cannot be given either because observing conditions are variable. Precision is thus not possible and we are stuck with a very broad brush. Nonetheless: The Heliacal Rise of the Pleiades would have been before Spring Equinox until about 3500BCE. At that time it would have begun to be possible to see the heliacal rise on the same morning as Equinox sunrise but this is still too soon for all night dancing. The Heliacal Set would have been about five weeks earlier. By about 900BCE the Heliacal Set of the Pleiades could have been seen on the Spring Equinox with the Heliacal Rise about five weeks after that, just ten days or so before the Cross-Quarter. Therefore, a religious festival that involved dancing "continuously the night through from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades" must have been held sometime after 3500BCE but probably before 900BCE. One or two nights of dancing early in this period would have extended to more than a month of them by the end of it with an extra night needed roughly every seventy years. So, "most ancient times" indeed.

Notes:

  1. The above is a generalised description, based on the stars discussed. The exact relationship between a star's heliacal rises and sets depends on:
    • Observer Latitude.
    • The declination of the star - because stars further from the equator spend more time above the horizon than stars nearer to the equator.
    • The time of year they occur - because of the annual variation of day / night hours,
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© Michael Wilson.