Aratus’ Phaenomena as Ekphrasis of the Sky


This paper argues that Aratus’ Phaenomena contains a sophisticated exploration of the aesthetics of stargazing, which has long gone unanalyzed. To do so, this paper focuses on Phaenomena’s ekphrases of the northern and southern hemispheres and analyzes the techniques their description. 

Although not usually considered an ekphrastic poem, this paper argues that the Phaenomena contains two distinct ekphrases, which treat each hemisphere as its own object. The passage on the northern hemisphere follows its constellations from the north pole out and then counter-clockwise around the sky. Other ekphrases of two-dimensional objects begin at center and end at the outer perimeter of the object; thus, this hemisphere is a concrete object. This paper argues the circular motion is also significant because the northern hemisphere appears to rotate counter-clockwise. Further, the ekphrasis of the southern hemisphere follows the constellations clockwise, mimicking the rotation around that pole. The poem therefore performs the experience of stargazing by altering an ekphrastic trope to demonstrate the sky’s apparent cyclical movement.

Phaenomena also utilizes the new affordances of writing as a visual medium following the rise of literacy. This has previously been established by the presence of several acrostics (Jacques 1960, Danielewicz 2005, Hanses 2014, Danielewicz 2015). In addition, however, this paper argues that the poem contains an embedded technopaegnia of the constellation Draco, which has not been previously documented. That is, body-part nouns appear in such loci within the text so as to mimic the shape of the constellation, e.g. κεφαλῇ is in the locus of the figure’s head. This embedded technopaegnia is perhaps unique in the Hellenistic corpus, as the six documented technopaegnia are all freestanding. This paper therefore argues that Phaenomena adapts two techniques to not only describe a natural phenomenon but also to recreate the experience of observing it.    

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