Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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S: Pioneer Western Constellation Studies

40: Guillaume Postel, Ludwig Ideler, and Philipp Buttmann

Guillaume Postel.

The French scholar Guillaume Postel (1510-1581) is described as a brilliant eccentric (perhaps more accurately lunatic) polymath and one of the most learned men of his day. He is considered to be the first true Orientalist. The science historian Deborah Warner commented on his "prodigious erudition and output." Postel is considered by historians to be one of the most unusual figures of the sixteenth century but is also frequently viewed by historians as a marginal figure. (Because of his particular religious fantasies he is also viewed by some historians as insane.) He was a linguist (considered a master of oriental languages), astronomer, diplomat, professor, theologian, traveller, Kabbalist, mapmaker, author, translator, publisher, and collector. Postel was also a prophet and mystic.

He was born to poor parents who both died of the plague leaving him an orphan when he was 8 years old. It appears that even when quite young he was obsessed with acquiring knowledge (and was a child prodigy). An early influence/inspiration was the cabalistic version of Christianity by Pico della Mirandola. To some extent he was self educated (especially with languages) but he acquired Master of Arts and Bachelor of Medicine degrees at the Collège Sainte-Barbe. (He first supported himself by working as a servant in a school in Beaucè (located south of Paris). Later, on numerous occasions he supported himself by giving public lectures.)

In 1535-1537 Postel accompanied the French ambassador to Constantinople and whilst there studied Arabic and Turkish and also collected - as he had been commissioned to do - Oriental manuscripts for the French king François I.

In 1539 he was appointed a Royal Professor (specifically Professor of Mathematics and Oriental Languages) at the Institut Royal in Paris (later becoming the Collège de France). This position was the first chair of Arabic in Paris. Postel's pupils included Franciscus Raphelengius (Frans van Ravelingen) (1539-1597) (Flemish born Dutch scholar) who was later to become an Orientalist and eminent Arabist (a Jewish convert to Christianity who was a proof-reader at the Plntin printing-house and later became Professor of Hebrew in Leiden) and Joseph Scalinger (1540-1609) who was later to become the greatest classical scholar of his time.

Between circa 1543 and 1545 Postel convinced himself that he had been commissioned by God to call 'infidels' to the Catholic faith and to assemble them under the banner of the French king François I. In 1544 Postel apparently joined the Jesuit order as a novice, was ordained as an apostolic priest, and, because of his particular religious views, dismissed from the order after 18 months. He was never admitted as a full member of the Jesuit order. Circa late 1546 he travelled to Venice to the hospital of Saints John and Paul (San Giovanni e Paolo) which became the focus of his spiritual life until his death. While working on his translations of the Zohar and the Bahir in Venice in 1547, Postel became the confessor of "Mother" Zuana (Johanna), an elderly woman who was responsible for the kitchen of the hospital. Zuana (Johanna) confessed to experiencing divine visions, which inspired Postel to believe that she was a prophet, that he was her spiritual son, and that he was destined to be the uniter of the world's religions. From 1549 he still continued to travel extensively. After Mother Johanna's death (in 1552?) Postel believed that her spiritual body had returned from heaven and taken complete possession of his body (i.e., the personality of Postel was now the personality of Mother Johanna).

Postel is considered the first true Orientalist and also the first European scholar to conduct research into the history and linguistic origins of star names. The book Signorum coelesttium vera configuratio aut asterismus containing the results of his researches into star names was published in 1553. Nick Kanas (Star Maps, 2007, Page 347) notes that the book included 4 woodcut celestial maps. On page 348 he describes them as: "Two were hemispheres centered around an ecliptic pole that were each 23 cm in diameter and used a polar stereographic projection and geocentric orientation, without figures. The other two were the northern and southern ecliptic hemispheres of Honter." (Johannes Honter [Honterus] (1498-1549) was a German humanist, cosmographer, and cartographer.) The historian of Arabic science George Saliba notes it mentions only 36 constellations.

Postel also wrote the heterodox work Cosmographicae disciplinae compendium (1561). Among his strange ideas is the identification of the north celestial pole as the literal seat of evil. According to Postel the north polar constellations of the dragon and the 2 bears are signs (not merely symbols) that the devil is imprisoned (chained) there by God at the north celestial pole. 

Postel (and also other European scholars of like calibre) was not dependent on Latin translations of Arabic scientific works. Postel could easily read the original Arabic texts and understand their content (and at times identify corrections to the texts). George Saliba is of the opinion that Postel's interest in Arabic astronomy was likely life-long. Saliba identifies that Postel played a highly important role in the transmission of Islamic scientific ideas into Latin Europe. (Likewise the distinguished orientalist Jean-Albert Widmanstadt (1506-circa1559).)

Postel was an original thinker who held many unconventional views (from those of his contemporaries). He espoused a mystical theology that was derided by his contemporaries. Postel believed that a female messiah (Mother Johanna at the Venice hospital of Saints John and Paul) had arrived on earth who would usher in a new age of political and religious harmony. He grounded this prophecy in the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, and relied extensively on its use of gender symbolism. (He also believed the second coming of Jesus would be as a female person.) His writings (as well as his great interest in the Hebrew and Arabic languages) provoked his 1555 trial for heresy before the Venetian Holy Office. (Later he served time in the Papal jail in Rome.)

The supposed miracle of Laon in 1566 and the 'new star' (supernova) of 1572 (which he had predicted) were some of the events interpreted by Postel as heralding the beginning of the new age of world unity. Circa this period Postel declared himself as Magus. (He believed that in order to achieve world peace and a utopian manner of life it was necessary for everyone to return to speaking Hebrew, which he believed was the primordial language (the Ursprache).)

Due to the religious content of his public lectures in cosmography - that he was allowed to give 1563 in Paris - he was from that year confined to the Monastery of Sainte Martin-de-Champs until his death.

See: "Arabie Science in Sixteenth-Century Europe: Guillaume Postel (1510-1581) and Arabie Astronomy." by George Saliba (Suhayl, Volume 7, 2007, Pages 115-164); and Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (2006, Pages 66-71) by Robert Irwin. Also: Bibliographie des manuscrits de Guillaume Postel by François Secret (1970). Most of his works have survived.

Ludwig Ideler.

In his popular book on star names Richard Allen mentions 2 early investigators of Western constellations and star names, and relies on one of them quite heavily. These early investigators are Ludwig Ideler and Philipp Buttmann. Allen placed heavy reliance on Ideler.

Luwig Ideler is the father of the modern study of chronology. The most complete manual on chronology is Handbuch de Mathematischen und Technischen Chronologie (2 Volumes, 1825-1826) by Ludwig Ideler. It was an epoch making book. Lehrbuch der Chronologie (1831) is an abridgment. Ueber die Zeitrechnung der Chinesen (1839) was an extension of his great work.  He also made an important contribution to the historical explanation of star names based on Arabic sources.

Christian Ludwig [sometimes Ludewig] Ideler (1766 (near Perleberg)-1846) was a German astronomer, chronologist and philologist. Ideler studied theology, philology, astronomy, and mathematics at the Universitat Halle/Saale. "In 1794 he was appointed at Berlin an astronomer for reckoning time, becoming a member of the "royal calendar deputation."" (See: Handbuch der Orientalistik: The Near and Middle East. H-M, Part 1 by Wolfgang Benn (2006, Page 142).) After holding various official posts under the Prussian government he became a Professor at the University of Berlin (Academie in Berlin) in 1821. (Professor de Astronomie und Mitglied (Professor of Astronomy and Chronology).) From 1816 to 1822 he was tutor to the young Prussian princes William and Charles. His life was largely devoted to the study of ancient systems of chronology.

His publications include the book: Untersuchungen über den Ursprung und die Bedeutung der Sternnamen [Inquiry into the Origin and Meaning of the Names of Stars] (1809, reprinted 1994). It was a major work and one of the earliest extensive studies of the history, derivations and meaning of star names that had passed into European astronomy. Much of the discussion involves star names derived from Arabic. The book incorporated his own translation of the astronomical section of Zakariya' al-Qazwini's popular 13th-century cosmography, 'Aja'ib al-Makhluqat (The Wonders of Creation), supplemented with notes from classical and other sources. Ideler was an Arabic scholar as well as being a Greek scholar. Unfortunately, Ideler did not have access to al-Sufi's book on the fixed stars, and his work is riddled with errors due to his use of unreliable and chiefly secondary Arabic sources. The book is now thoroughly dated and unreliable.

Ideler was a member of the Akademie der Wissenschaften from 1810. Circa 1839 he became a foreign member of the Institute of France. In 1825-1826 he published his great work, Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie (2 Volumes), which still remains useful and highly regarded. Many still consider it the best specialist work on the theory and history of chronology and still unsurpassed as a manual of historical chronology. (This original edition is now extremely scarce. However, there have been several (revised) reprints. The 2nd edition was published in 1883.) A supplementary volume, Die Zeitrechnung der Chinesen, appeared in 1839. His Lehrbuch der Chronologie, published in 1831, is a smaller handbook upon the same subject. His researches into the construction of the calendars used by all the different nations of antiquity still remain a mine of useful information. Most of his life was spent studying ancient systems of calendars.

His son Julius Ideler (1809(1800?)-1842) was born in Berlin and was educated in the medical department of the University of Berlin. Julius Ideler was an historian of ancient (classical) meteorology. His major work, Meteorologia Veterum Græcorum et Romanorum was published in 1832.


Philipp Buttmann.

Philipp Carl Buttmann (1764-1829) was a famous German classical philologist and mythologer. He was very highly regarded and considered an excellent etymologer. (Ludwig Ideler in his Untersuchungen über den Ursprung und die Bedeutung der Sternnamen made use of Philipp Buttmann's knowledge of Greek etymology. Franz Boll in his book Sphaera (1903) made use of Buttman's essay Über die Entstehung der Sternbilder auf der griechischen Stäre.)

Buttmann was descended from the French Protestants who took refuge in Germany from the persecution of Louis XIV; and the name Buttmann is a German representative of the French Boudemont. His father, Jacob Buttman (spelled with a single n) was a 'respectable stationer.'

He was educated in his native town of Frankfurt am Main (Frankfort-on-the-Main) and at the University of Göttingen. In Frankfurt am Main he attended the gymnasium (College), the rector of which was Purman. It was here that he acquired his interest in philology and the Greek language. In 1782 he went to the University of Göttingen to pursue classical studies under the superintendance of Christian-Gottlob Heyne. Heyne (1729-1812) was a German classical scholar, archaeologist, and long-time director of the Göttingen State and University Library. Circa 1787 he was appointed geographical teacher to the young Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, and remained in this position for about 8 months. In 1788 he went to Berlin.

In 1789 he was appointed Director of the Royal Prussian Library in Berlin. For several years he was the editor of Spener's Journal (a prominent multi-topic journal). In order to supplement his low salary he turned to teaching and writing for the booksellers. (In 1796 Buttmann was appointed Secretary to the Royal Library.) Beginning in 1796 [1800?] he was Professor of Philology at the Joachimsthal [Joachimthalsche] Gymnasium in Berlin, for 12 [8?] years. He was then appointed one of the original professors of the new university in Berlin. In 1806 he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Sciences (elected a member). In 1811 he was made Secretary of the Historico-Philological section of the (Berlin) Academy of Sciences.

In 1821 he was appointed head librarian to the king. In 1824 he was made a Knight of the Prussian Red Eagle of the 3rd class.

He wrote 3 excellent grammars on the Greek language  which were universally used in Germany. His several books and other writings were a major impetus for the scientific study of the Greek language. His concern with the inadequacy of Greek grammars then in use prompted him to write his own. His book Griechische Grammatik (a short Greek grammar first published 1792) immediately became widely used in schools in Germany. It went through multiple editions (and remained in use in German school for over half a century), and was translated into English. His book Lexilogus (first published in 1818-1825) was also translated into English. It was written as a help for understanding difficult Greek words occurring mainly in the works of Homer and Hesiod. His book Mythologus, oder gesammelte Abhandlungen uber die Sagen des Alterthums (2 Volumes) was first published 1828-29. It is a collection of his mythological and historical essays.

Circa 1800 he was the pre-eminent authority on classical star names. His publications include the lengthy paper: Über die Entstehung der Sternbilder auf der griechischen Stäre. (Presented in 1826 and published 1829 in Abhandlungen der historisch-philologischn Klasse der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Pages 19-63. Reprinted 1929.) The paper is now thoroughly dated.

In 1800 Buttmann married the eldest daughter of Doctor Selle, the king's physician. His son Augustus established himself as an excellent scholar. From 1824 until his death Buttmann was afflicted with repeated attacks of apoplexy. As a person Buttmann abhorred complicated responsibilities and also had an aversion to formalities.

For a detailed biography see: Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Volume 6, pages 68-69, published 1836 by Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain). Buttmann wrote his own biography, up to the time of his becoming a member of the Berlin academy, in the 3rd part of Löwes collection (Bildnisse jetzlebender Berliner Gelehrter mit Selbstbiographien).


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