You are here

Signs and Patterns in Aratus' Myth of Ages

Kathryn Wilson

The most famous passage of Aratus’ Phaenomena is his description of the catasterism of Dike, which includes a re-telling of Hesiod’s Myth of Ages.  This passage has been analyzed through literary, philosophical, and political lenses, and the myriad different interpretations demonstrate that it is programmatic and highly polysemous, but in all of these it is treated largely as a digression from the main focus of the poem.  In this paper, I will offer a new way of viewing this passage, in the context of Aratus’ interest in signs throughout the Phaenomena.  The Dike catasterism represents a crucial aspect of Aratus’ semiology: the role of patterns in making signs reliable.  It is not a digression from the poem at all, but rather, an important demonstration of the running theme of the work as a whole.

Aratus’ poem is marked throughout by its attention to organization and the creation of patterns.  Patterns are also a central feature of the Dike catasterism story.  The most evident is the stream-lined version of the progression of races that Aratus offers.  Whereas Hesiod’s races vary between good and evil, Aratus’ generations decline in an orderly progression; each generation is worse than the next.  In addition, within the specific details of each generation, Aratus incorporates small details that signal other patterns: spatial, chronological, and kinetic.  The patterns of the entire poem are writ small in this passage.

Aratus’ interest in signs is marked out in the proem and is repeated throughout the Phaenomena, but his explanation of their causation is limited to Zeus’ beneficence.  Instead of using an aitiology of the signs to explain why we can trust them, he underscores the importance of the orderly motion of the constellations as an explanation of why signs work.  Signs are merely links in the patterns of the universe that, once we recognize them, we can use to predict future occurrences.  This allows us to use one constellation to predict the path of another that is obscured, or to recognize impending weather.  Patterns offer the security necessary for the reader to trust in the signs Aratus recounts throughout the poem.

The Dike passage encapsulates this central importance of patterns offering a clear   example of how we can use them.  Dike has the only speech in the entire poem, and she uses it to lambast the Silver Age for being worse than the previous generation and to predict that the next generation will be even worse.  That is, she uses her only speech to highlight the chief pattern in the passage and to use it to predict the future.  The orderly progression of the generations allows Dike to recognize the signs.   She therefore figures as the role model for the student of the poem.  With this reading, the Dike catasterism story no longer seems to be a digression from the main point of the poem, but an object lesson is how the reader should understand the signs that Aratus is teaching. 

Session/Panel Title:

Prophecy

Session/Paper Number

11.3

Share This Page

© 2019, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy