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The Life Cycle of a Sign in Aratus' Phaenomena

Kathryn Wilson

Washington University in Saint Louis

Aratus’ Phaenomena is commonly read as a poem about the constellations, but it has in fact a much broader scope: the signs in the universe and our ability to read them.  Although recent scholarship (such as Volk 2012) has argued for this re-orientation of our understanding of the poem, the theory of signs advanced in the poem have garnered little attention.  This paper will describe Aratus’ semiology in detail, as explained in key passages in the poem.  It will then show how this theory changes and enhances our understanding of two major issues raised in the scholarship on the poem: the bipartite structure and the relationship with Eudoxus’ prose Phaenomena

Aratus’ ideas about signs are advanced in a series of programmatic passages that interrupt the catalogic structure of the poem. These passages contain verbal echoes that they should be read together, and together they provide a full ‘life cycle’ for a sign, from its creation by Zeus in the prologue to its utilization by the recipient in the epilogue.  Of especial import is the passage describing the creation of the constellations by an unnamed human, who recognized the patterns in the night sky and created shapes out of clusters of stars in order to help himself remember them.  This passage reveals Aratus’ main concerns: the instinctual human ability to detect patterns in the universe, and the usefulness of signs as mnemonic devices to help us comprehend unwieldy amounts of information.  Unlike other semiological theories in the Hellenistic period, the Phaenomena is not very concerned with defining signs, understanding their origin, or explaining their predictive power.  Instead, the poem focuses on the human ability to find, recognize, and utilize signs. 

By reading the poem in this way, many of the problems of Aratean scholarship are diminished.  This theory demonstrates a much more cohesive and unified poem than is generally assumed.  The theory is articulated in passages that run the entire length of the poem, from the prologue to the epilogue, and must be strung together, like stars in a constellation, to understand the poet’s ideas.   Even though the catalogs divide into astronomical and meteorological signs, the thematic underpinning of the poem remains the same throughout.  Moreover, these passages definitely do not come from Eudoxus’ prose astronomical texts, and their focus on sign recognition helps us understand how Aratus read his predecessor.  The poem demonstrates a much higher interest in the brightness and visibility of constellations than the fragments of Eudoxus show, as befits the themes described above.  Aratus is not passively versifying lines directly excerpted from Eudoxus, but actively shaping the astronomical material to his own interests. 

In the late Hellenistic period, the two halves of the poem became separated, and Vergil and his contemporaries knew two distinct works by Aratus.  Modern scholars have now accepted that this was originally one poem, but have not changed our approach.   By reading it as one poem, focused on sign recognition, our understanding of Aratus is much enhanced.  Many of the criticisms directed at the poem, such as its lack of unity and its uncreative dependence on prose sources are lessened or eliminated when we treat it seriously as a semiological poem. 

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Hellenistic Poetry in its Cultural Context

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