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Ancient Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Ancient Poetry

Nature and Science in Hellenistic Poetry by M.A. Harber, R.F. Regtuit, G.C. Wakker (Hellenistica Groningana: Peeters) contains the papers of the 'Groningen Workshop on Hellenistic Poetry 8: Nature and Science' (Groningen 2006). During the workshop, a first draft of the papers was commented on by an international group of specialists in the field of Hellenistic poetry. This volume deals with the interaction between 'nature and science' and Hellenistic poetry, particularly the ways in which poets were inspired and stimulated by the results of science and incorporated them into their work. In the Hellenistic period, the fields of nature and science on the one hand and scholarship and poetry on the other hand touch and overlap to a large extent and the boundaries between science and poetry were not as straight and clear as they are today. The articles in this volume refine the general picture somewhat further. They focus on various authors and topics, e.g. Aratus, Nicander and Callimachus, medicine, astronomy, and geography.

In the articles in this volume the authors refine the general picture somewhat further. They discuss several ways in which science and related matters found their way into poetry. At first sight the treatment of scientific subjects by poets may seem to obscure the boundaries between literature and science, but when one looks closer the differences are still visible and sometimes seem to be exploited for a specific purpose.

On the one hand there is poetry in which authors like Aratus and Nicander are using scientific material and make it the main subject of their work, embedding modern material into the old tradition of archaic didactic poetry which began with Hesiod, as is shown in the papers by Helen Van Noorden for Aratus and by Floris Overduin for Nicander. Even so, there is an important difference between these poets and scientists. In authors like Aratus an ideological purpose may be detected, which transcends the mere collection and organization of the scientific material, and in other poets too literary concerns`are clearly of importance, as in Nicander, whose work, as Floris Overduin states for the Theriaca, may be regarded as a treatise in which poetic considerations are of more importance than scientific ones. Thus Nicander's work contains obscure vocabulary and details that are not really useful, but no practical information like the right quantities of the ingredients for the antidotes. Also the impression of danger and honor which is found throughout the poem may be regarded as inspired by literary considerations.

Although these poets do not address the question whether poetry was the proper medium for conveying scientific knowledge, this question still springs to mind when one reads these poems. In later times this has sometimes led to criticism, as in the case of Nicander, whose work has often been condemned, because it was of no practical value for people in an emergency, and whose reception is discussed by Myrto Hatzimichali. Scientists, like Galenus, still took the poet Nicander seriously enough to discuss him and to comment on him. In a similar way the astronomers Attalus and Hipparchus produced detailed commentaries on Aratus, discussed by Mike Tueller and Roger Macfarlane, who show that

Hipparchus in late II BC first saw that Aratus, though writing about a scientific subject, was not a scientist, because he wrote without the critical attitude of a researcher in his own right. In this respect Hipparchus went beyond Attalus, who regarded the Phaenomena as a scientific text and did not see that it was, in fact, scientific material presented in a poetic form. Hipparchus, as the first of a new generation of astronomers, was able to see clearly that poetry and science were two different things.

Another aspect of the close interaction between science and poetry may be observed when elements from the realm of nature and science become a means for poets to be used with a literary purpose in works which have no pretence of scientific contents at all. In these cases the scientific knowledge rather seems to be 'second hand', as part of the general cultural discourse of the times.

A good example of this is Callimachus, who is obviously a scholar and not a scientist and, when concerned with nature, seems to be interested primarily in its cultural aspects. Even so, he seems to have possessed enough knowledge of scientific subjects to make use of them when he wanted to. Markus Asper shows how this poet uses weather-signs, which were an object of study for scientific authors like Theophrastus, as a means to steer the reader's perception of the approaching rainstorm in the Hecale and deliberately seems to select unheroic signs, which fit in with the overall structure and atmosphere of the poem. Quite clearly the scientific knowledge is here made subordinate to the poet's literary purposes and interests and the use Callimachus makes of it is not fundamentally different from the use he makes of other kinds of knowledge. In a similar way Callimachus uses medical knowledge in his passage about the illnesses of Cydippe in the Aetia. These passage are not really `about' nature or science, but, as Asper states, help to 'create an experience of contrast and comparison'.

One may find other examples of the incorporation of scientific material for one's own purposes in some of the other articles. Evina Sistakou explores the way in which Callimachus alludes to science by his title Aetia, which recalls the scientific use of the word aition. In this work Callimachus combines science and scholarship by embedding natural phenomena and the results of sciences, like medicine and astronomy, in a mythical framework. Callimachus' treatment of knowledge about nature is similar: Evelyne Prioux explores the connections between Callimachus' Mirabilia and his Aetia and shows that his work on natural phenomena like geography, animals, stones and plants to a certain extent is reflected in the Aetia, where the emphasis is on culture rather than nature and geographical features like the rivers of Southern Italy and Sicily acquire a cultural dimension and may be related to Ptolemaic ideology. This use of geography recurs in later Latin poets, as Piet Schrijvers shows in his analysis of the poems in honour of Messalla, where, as in Callimachus, geography also plays a part in an ideological context.

There are also areas where nature, science and scholarship are not easy to distinguish and may to a certain extent overlap. Particularly where nature is concerned, there may be overlap with scholarship and the description of natural phenomena can easily acquire a cultural and more universal dimension.

An example of this kind of overlap is discussed by Myrto Hatzimichali, when she discusses the interest of Hellenistic scholars in rare names of plants and animals and the genre of paradoxography. Here nature and scholarship seem to come very close together, but an important difference is the fact that for scholars the starting-point for their observations on nature and science was the library rather than the observable reality, so that their knowledge was as it were 'second hand'. In a similar way Maria Papadopoulou shows that Nicander's use of colour terminology reflects both artistic considerations and a wish to be as precise as possible in a scientific manner. In a comparable way astronomy can be looked at from different angles, as it combines abstract, i.e. scientific, speculation with concrete observations of the stars and mythical stories related to them, as is illustrated in the paper by Alexandra Trachsel. We have examples which show this mixture of elements in various ways in Eratosthenes' Hermes and Erigone and in Aratus. Claudia Wick draws attention to a similar combination of literature and natural phenomena in the way in which poets use knowledge about snakes and incorporate it into their stories.

In this respect one may also regard the epigrams about doctors and illnesses, discussed by Jacqueline Klooster and Andromache Karanika. There is some criticism of the doctors' financial greed and Posidippus' epigram about Medeius and his cure for the bite of the asp seems to have been part of an intertextual discourse. Here a scientific subject seems to have been incorporated into poems which have a mainly sociological and literary interest and we get the impression that poets and doctors were very much part of the same world. We also see that in Posidippus' lamatika there is a careful blend of medical terminology, poetic diction and popular belief. These poems give interesting evidence of the impact of medicine in daily life and the translation of these issues into poetry.

The results of this workshop may help to define further areas of research and formulate new questions.

Particularly the question of the seriousness of poetry on scientific subjects will demand still further exploration. Here modern scholars seem to be more critical than most scientists of antiquity and are increasingly inventive in reading other messages between the lines. On the whole this issue seems to be more complex than we perhaps want to allow and may demand some rethinking. If many scientists in antiquity took these works seriously we must think very carefully about our arguments for doing otherwise and try to avoid an anachronistic approach.

Another intriguing question is when the process of a gradual separation of poetry and science into two different and distinct fields actually began. There is evidence which suggests that in the Hellenistic period developments in this direction were starting, but were still largely implicit and obviously needed time to ripen. On the other hand the interaction between poetry and science proved fruitful and led to interesting results in Hellenistic poetry, so one should perhaps also consider the possibility that at some stage there was a deliberate 'interdisciplinary' approach rather than a lack of awareness that there were two completely different fields of knowledge.

Yet another, related, issue would be the way in which scientific subjects are adapted to treatment in poetry, where the message should be accesible to non-scientists and the result should be esthetically pleasing. One could explore the ways in which poets present the scientific contents in poetical language and embed them in mythological tales as well as the question how myth may change if science is, as it were, imposed on it. Also the grey area between 'proper' science and second hand or `bookish' scientific knowledge comes under this heading and would demand further exploration.

One could also wonder about the intended readers of this kind of poems. How much more or less specific knowledge could a Hellenistic poet expect in his readers? Sometimes the poems seem to presuppose a certain amount of knowledge, whereas elsewhere it seems as if they are meant to transmit knowledge to readers who have only a basic interest in these subjects.


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