Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations


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Q: Amateur Western Constellation Studies

35: Title page of Robert Brown's translation of Aratus' Phainomena

Title page of Robert Brown Junior's book on the Phainomena of Aratus. It is considered to be a mostly faithful translation. The contents of the book are not a history of the constellations but a (poorly argued) case for the Aratean configuration of constellations being of Babylonian origin and dating to 2084 BCE. (There are several possible earlier influences for this belief of Brown's.) At the time of its publication Brown's book was critically reviewed by the philologist George Knaack and uncritically reviewed by pioneer assyriologist Archibald Sayce. (See: The Academy, Number 695, 1885, Pages 137-138.)

Robert Brown Junior (1844-1912) was a solicitor and registrar of the county court in Barton-upon-Humber. He worked for the legal firm of Brown and Son (later renamed Brown and Sons). He was born in Barton-upon-Humber and worked and died there. He is frequently confused with the American freemason and author Robert Hewitt Brown. Also, he is commonly mis-identified as an Assyriologist or Orientalist. He was educated at Cheltenham College, was a Fellow of the Antiquarian Society, a Member of the Royal Asiatic Society, and a Member of the Society of Biblical Archaeology. He was an avid amateur antiquarian and amateur philologist and a prolific writer on ancient Near Eastern mythology and astronomy. He was known (locally) as a writer on archaic religion. He was a strong supporter of the Solar mythology school and also a strong supporter of Semitic influence upon Greek mythology.

Robert Brown Junior believed that Aratus' poem embodied astronomical ideas derived from Babylon. Specifically, the constellations described by Aratus - including the zodiacal constellations - are of Babylonian origin and date circa 2000 BCE. In his lengthy article 1892 address/paper in "The Celestial Equator of Aratos." (In: Morgan, Edward. (Editor). Transactions of the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists. 2 Volumes. (Pages 445-485). [The paper is in Volume 2.]) is the address/publication in which Brown (erroneously) dates the origin of the Babylonian zodiac to 2084 BCE. This error had also been touched upon in his earlier 1885 book The Phainomena, or, 'Heavenly Display' of Aratos: Done into English Verse. Brown believed that nobody was inventing the zodiac circa 500 BCE. (By way of noting Robert Brown Junior was appointed Secretary of the Archaic Greece and the East Section (for the duration/terms of the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists?) Both William Gladstone and Brown Junior were elected officers for the Archaic Greece and the East Section of the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists.) Brown believes he has shown " ... that the statements in Aratos in reference to the principal stars near the equator, agree with the actual state of things at the vernal equinox  B.C. 2084, a date when the Euphratean formal scheme of chart of the heavens had already been completed." (Also of interest, Mrs Robert Brown Junior was also a member of the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists. Edward Delmar Morgan (1840-1909) was an English explorer, traveller, translator, and author.)

The basic problem with Brown's The Phainomena, or, ‘Heavenly Display’ of Aratos: Done into English Verse is Brown believed that nobody was inventing the zodiac circa 500 BCE. In fact we now know that the zodiac was developed by the Babylonians over circa 700 BCE to circa 400 BCE. Nobody was inventing a zodiac prior to the Babylonians in the first millennium BCE.

Brown's ideas on such have influenced multiple other persons (including modern scholars such as Mary Blomberg and G๖ran Henriksson, Uppsala University) to ascribe a very early date to the constellations in the Phainomena of Aratus. These ideas are now no longer tenable. A suitable understanding of Babylonian cuneiform sources clearly show a late origin for the zodiac (originating circa 500 BCE in Babylon). The complex set of Babylonian constellations contained in the Mul.Apin series can be dated to the latter half of the 2nd-millennium BCE.

Earlier, the theme of Brown's book was similarly taken up  by Robert Bker in Aratos Sternbilder und Wetterzeichen by Albert Schott and Robert Bker (1958). (Albert Schott was the poem translator and Robert Bker was the poem editor.) Later, Manfred Erren in his Die Phainomena des Aratos von Soloi (1967) took up Bker's ideas. The premises of both books have been soundly criticised by David Pingree (see: Gnomon, Volume 43, 1971, Pages 347-350).

Other persons have more recently argued that the Phainomena of Aratus can be dated to circa 3000 BCE. However, the assumption of accuracy for Aratus' reworking of Eudoxus' earlier works describing the constellations is perhaps misplaced. The Greeks were not too concerned about accuracy until after the 4th-century BCE. Also, the needs of Aratus for reworking the descriptions of Eudoxus into suitable versification could easily have introduced some looseness in accuracy of description.

Brown was highly reliant on continual assistance and guidance from professional assyriologists such as Theophilus Pinches (1856-1934) and George Bertin (1848-1891). However, he was keen for recognition and also to promote his particular ideas. More than one person has commented that if Brown was right then it was usually for the wrong reasons. In Pinches' review of Volume 1 of Brown's Researches into the Origin of the Primitive Constellations of Greeks, Phoenicians and Babylonians (1899) he states: "... it grieves me that I cannot follow him in much of what says concerning the statements of the Assyro-Babylonian tablets bearing upon the subject." In Pinches' review of Volume 2 of Brown's Researches into the Origin of the Primitive Constellations of Greeks, Phoenicians and Babylonians (1900) he states: "It is a matter of regret to me that I find myself unable to follow the author in all his conclusions, and that my readings, ... often differ greatly to his." Reading the pages of The Academy it is clearly Robert Brown Junior who Bertin is referring to for breaching trust and publishing some of Bertin's significant work unacknowledged - inferring it was Brown's own work.

Brown mistook the early circular "three stars each" texts (commonly called "planispheres" but actually functioning as star calendars) as representing the standard Mesopotamian scheme of constellations. On the basis of three small fragments of these circular "star calendars" (Sm. 162, Sm. 608, and Sm. 94) he attempted to re-establish what he believed was a complete standard Babylonian "planisphere." His speculative and erroneous reconstruction of such was based on his belief that the circular "planispheres" set out an ecliptic based scheme with the 12 stars in the Path of Ea (outer ring) marking southern constellations, the 12 stars in the Path of Enlil (inner ring) marking northern constellations, and the 12 stars in the Path of Anu (middle ring) marking the 12 zodiacal constellations along the ecliptic. On the basis of his mistaken circular "planisphere" reconstruction Brown believed the constellations, including a 12-constellation zodiac scheme, in something like their present form, originated in Mesopotamia in the late 3rd millennium BCE. He denied (quite incorrectly) that anyone in Mesopotamia was inventing the 12-constellation zodiac as late as circa 500 BCE. Brown was unaware of the star lists of the Mul.Apin series. Mul.Apin tablet 1 (BM 86378) was not published until 1912 by Leonard King (CT 33, Plates 1-8) and it was perhaps first discussed by Franz Kugler in his Supplement 1 (1913) to his Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel. The first section of Mul.Apin tablet 1 lists considerably more stars in the Paths of Enlil, Anu, and Ea than are found in the "planispheres." (He was also misled by the limited listing of stars/constellations in the Paths of Enlil, Anu, and Ea through Tablet 82-5-22 512.)

Brown corresponded with William Gladstone (on Greek literature no doubt) when Gladstone was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1880. According to the folklorist Richard Dorson (History of British Folklore (1999)) Brown claimed to have converted Prime Minister Gladstone from an old-fashioned interpretation of Homer to his own viewpoint (involving Semitic influences). There is little doubt of the accuracy of Brown's claim (see: Homeric Synchronism: An Enquiry into the Time and Place of Homer by William Gladstone (1876)). Brown's wife was apparently a keen cyclist and she was also connected with - or a member of - the Society for Psychical Research (London). It is possible that Mary-Helen Brown, daughter of Robert Brown, Barton-on-Humber, (who married William Spry in 1852) was his sister.

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