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Barbara Warren

"The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought" by James S. Romm

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  Stoic fundamentalism and the literal, concrete reality of Homer's writings versus Aristarchus and the writings of 'Ocean'          


            I first read Mr. Romm's book "The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought" about twenty years ago.  I reread it this month. He points out the interesting disagreement between the fundamentalist Greek Stoics, who insisted all ancient poetic writings were educational discussions of the mundane, literal Earth, and other authors, such as Aristarchus, a director of the Library of Alexandria, who taught that the ancient poetic writings, such as Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" were largely myth, and meant to discuss the shared mythical landscape of the ancient world.  I side with the director of the Library. Mr. Romm points out that 'Ocean' and 'Oceanic' stories were central to this discussion, that Aristarchus mentions stories of Ocean were myth.  Mr. Romm also mentions that oi-kanos, basis of our modern English word ocean, meant 'one eye'. In myth and story, Ocean circles the world. In some Greek versions, Ocean extends from tropic to tropic. When discussing Ocean, modern astronomers discussing ancient Greek astronomy point out it seemed to be the circle of the equator, or perhaps the circle of the zodiac.    


             Ocean, in its mythic sense, did not just mean a body of salt water on Earth that we wade in in the real world. Even ancient references to wading in Ocean mention it in myth as being in the sky.  Callisto, the wood-nymph, who was transformed into constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear in the sky, was forbidden to dip her feet into the waters of Ocean. Yes, this can mean that northern constellation never sets below the earth, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. But, seen from the perspective of the sky, where the great Bear is walking, that Bear is forbidden to approach the circle of the equator, or the circle of the zodiac.   


           Today, we English speaking people use the alphabet to write, and we forget that the alphabet was based on ancient Phoenician pictographs, that each letter was originally a picture. Other languages that still existed in Classical times, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, still used picture writing, with these pictures forming sounds, words, and ideas. The pictures had not become degraded into meaningless scratches that only represented sounds. That degradation did occur in the Demotic Egyptian script and in all modern alphabets.  In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, which the Greeks were very exposed to in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, the picture of an eye, specifically the ubiquitous Eye of Osiris meant the 'green'.  Greeks at the time called it the Uraeus, which means 'he is risen', or 'the rising'.  In the sky, there is a place called 'right hand ascension', where if the sun rises in this area, it has entered into the vernal equinox. Vernal is a Latin word for 'green'. It is the vernal, 'green' or spring equinox. At this place in the sky, the sun is 'springing up', if you will, it is rising in the sky in the spring, heading further north, away from the southern winter solstice point. The Egyptian god Osiris was called the 'god of the green', and was frequently painted green, because there was a time, thousands of years ago, when the sun rose during the spring equinox in the constellation of Osiris, the constellation we draw on our star maps today as constellation Orion the Hunter. (Referencing the writings of Dr. E. C. Krupp, here, the astronomer of Griffith Observatory.)  That Eye, the 'green' place, was the place of the spring equinox in the sky.     


        What is interesting about that place in the sky, is that it moves.  The sky drifts over time, this is called the precession of the equinoxes. Today, we cite the writings of Classical Greeks as being the first to discover this idea. But if you had a bit of knowledge of ancient astronomy myths and a smattering of astronomy, you would realize that the 'green', that place of the one complete eye, the oi-kanos, moves as a circle in the sky. Over time, about 26,000 years, that Eye will drift completely across the sky map, and return again near its starting point. There is a circle of oi-kanos, or Ocean in the sky. On modern astronomy maps the place of the spring, the vernal equinox is marked as the 'first point in Aries', because the spring equinox was in constellation Aries the Ram when the ancestors of our modern sky maps were created.              


        The Egyptians said that the complete Eye was made up of several fractions, or parts. Plato said when each of the known planets (there were seven known planets in ancient times) arrived in one spot in the sky, as a new spring constellation was moving into position, this would mark the end of an Age, and the beginning of a new Age of time.  All the planets getting together is called a Grand Conjunction. An Age is defined by which constellation is the spring equinox. The Age of Taurus occurred when Taurus the Bull was the spring equinox constellation. The Age of Aries occurred when Aries the Ram was the spring equinox constellation, and so on. Currently, the spring equinox is in Pisces the Fishes, and it has been in Pisces for about 2,000 years or so.  Manilius says that constellation Pisces belongs to Neptune, lord of all the oceans.      


      If Aristarchus, living in Egypt, and having access to the great Library of Alexandria meant these ideas as ideas of Ocean, then Oceanic stories were myths of travel across the sky, myths of the constellations, and how that green, vernal point in the sky moves across them.  If I may point out, when Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" were written down, the Eye of the spring equinox was in Aries the Ram, a constellation that Manilius says belonged to Athena, goddess of Wisdom. The story of the "Odyssey" begins with Athena, goddess of Wisdom as one of the characters.           


      There is precedence for constellations and planets being treated as if they were real people, walking and talking upon the Earth. The Greek hero Herakles walked the Earth, and was born in Thebes, Greece, but Herakles is the constellation Hercules in the sky. In myth, Herakles or Hercules performs his Twelve Labours, he walked through the sky interacting with the twelve sections of the zodiac, as they were understood at that time. Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Apollo, Athena, all of these were planets or were the embodiments of constellations, and all appeared in myth, walking and talking on the Earth, eating and drinking, seducing and fighting, having children, and in story they crossed real rivers, entered real cities, walked upon real mountains, the blending of myth and reality was seamless. The same existed in other cultures, with the Egyptian god Osiris being a constellation, but appearing in myth to inhabit cities on Earth, to travel to real, mundane locations. Gilgamesh, of the Middle Eastern stories also did this, being the constellation Hercules in the sky, but in myth he fights, eats and drinks, meets wenches and friends, travels real rivers and real mountains of the Middle East, but he is traveling the twelve signs of the zodiac as understood at that time, and he interacts with Taurus the Bull of Heaven, Humbaba the Giant, called Orion the Giant on our sky maps, meets Scorpius the Scorpion-Man and his wife, and meets Utnapashtim called Deucalion by the Greeks and marked as Aquarius the Water-Bearer on our sky maps today. According to Aristarchus, these would all be 'stories of Ocean', taking us beyond the bounds of our normal, everyday lives, taking us out past the Earth, into the circle of Time, and the oi-kanos.

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