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by Archaeology Newsroom

The Celestial Bodies in the Philosophy and Art of the 6th and 5th Century BC

The first attempts of the Greek mind to understand the nature of the universe date back to the 7th century BC. Ionian philosophers in the 6th century put these ideas into words. These Greeks of the coast of Asia Minor travelled to mainland Greece where they spread their theories. Not only did they become well-known but also they influenced contemporary art, as we will attempt to show. The column or the pillar, are known as cosmic symbols and at the same time serve as aniconic representations of the deity in the Minoan and Mycenaean world as well as in the East and in later civilizations. The philosopher Anaximander considers the earth a column with its flat top inhabited by humans. A kylix in the Vatican Museum, dating from around 550 BC, serves as a good example of the influence of Anaximander’ s theory on the pictures that decorate Laconic pottery; the composition of the cylix stands on a Doric column and Atlas carries the heavens on his shoulders; the mythical figures symbolize the two ends of the world. The pre-Socratic philosophers also gave consideration to the other celestial bodies. Thus, the stars are described as fiery cycles (Anaximander), as nails stuck in the heavens or as shoes painted on the sky. Archelaos describes the stars as flaming masses of stone or metals, while Parmenides calls them a compressed mass of fire. The sun is described by Anaximander as a shining circle, while Democritus considers it to be a flaming mass of stone or metal. In the pottery of the 6th and the early 5th centuries the representation of the celestial bodies are very popular; the sun and the moon are indicated with a disc and a crescent respectively. From the same group of cosmic symbols the Archaic disc-shaped mirrors must also originate, most of which were found in sanctuaries and were dedicated to the gods. It is highly possible that in concept and use they originally were religious sidereal symbols. What has been so far mentioned proves the strong effect the ideas of the pre-Socratic philosophers had on the Greek world of the 6th and 5th centuries BC and especially on artists of the time. The philosophic concept and description of celestial bodies changes in the 5th century, but the depiction of such things in art remains more or less popular. Anaxagoras conceives the earth as something flat and wide, while other philosophers, like Democritus, describe it as an elongated or elliptical disc with a recess in the middle, or like a drum, as Leucippus does. The idea of a globular earth prevails in Plato’s times, but it seems that it was a notion developed by the Pythagoreans. It is then that the conception of the spherical universe and of the motion and revolving of the earth are finally formulated.