The Ancient Gnomon

In the Odyssey, Homer wrote (Od.1.25-28):

Poseidon had gone to visit the Ethiopians worlds away,
Ethiopians off at the farthest limits of mankind,
A people split in two, one part where the Sungod sets
And part where the Sungod rises.

This passage describes the general progress of the Sun’s advancement throughout the day. This passage is significant because it shows us that even long before myths were being written down (c. eighth or seventh centuries BCE for Homer), geographical routes and astronomical information were being transmitted via oral tradition. It seems as though the ancient Greeks “named the directions of summer and winter Sunrise or Sunset, as distinct from the east and west directions in the spring and autumn seasons of equal days and nights” (1). Using the sun was key to determining geographical and chronological information in the Ancients’ daily lives and in travel.

ancient sundial

Above is an ancient Egyptian sundial (c. 13th century BCE). The fact that this 19th Dynasty sundial pre-dates Homer demonstrates the advancement of technologies in determining time. Dating to the 19th dynasty, this particular sundial was found on the floor of a workman’s hut, in the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs and nobles were buried during Egypt’s New Kingdom period (around 1550 B.C. to 1070 B.C.).

Eratosthenes map 194bce

The world as known and documented by Erastothenes (276-195 BCE). Besides being most famously known as a Greek mathemetician, he was also a well-known historian, astronomer and geographer. He is considered to be the first person “to reduce the problem of terrestrial position-finding to a regular system,” which he based upon the gnomon (2).

Anaximander (610-546 BCE, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived in Miletus, a city of Ionia) is credited with introducing this Babylonian instrument to the Greeks. The gnomon (γνώμων, literally “one that knows or examines”) is the part of a sundial that casts the shadow and is used for a variety of purposes in mathematics and other fields. In the fourth century BCE, Pytheas of Massalia gave much attention to the measurement of latitude by way of the gnomon (3). The “bisection of the angle between two shadows of equal length was sufficient to establish a precise meridian line, and so to divide the compass or horizon circle” (4). With the use of the gnomon, and the knowledge that the shape of the earth is spherical and “that the Sun’s annual path across the concave” is at an inclination, the ancients could then compare latitudes of places by lengths of the midday shadows of the gnomon (5).

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Link to map of Erastothenes here
Link to image of gnomon here

1. E.G.R. Taylor, The Haven-Finding Art: A History of Navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook (London: Hollis & Carter, 1956), 10.
2. Charles H. Cotter, A History of Nautical Astronomy (Toronto: Hollis & Carter, 1968), 12.
3. Ibid., 19.
4. Taylor, Haven-Finding, 44.
5. Cotter, History, 128.


Rites and Swallows


In honour of the arrival of summer, I’m dedicating this post to a little bird I now pass by whenever I walk through Nathan Philips Square in Toronto: the swallow. We know these birds for their cuteness and their uncanny ability to show up out of nowhere when eating something that could have crumbs. More relevantly (for this post), these birds did not go unnoticed by the ancient Minoans in Greece either.

Pictured above is the “Spring Fresco” in Room 2 (the “Room of the Lilies”) of Building Delta at Akrotiri, Thera (modern-day Santorini, Greece). Thera is one of the very few almost intact Aegean Bronze Age wall paintings found in situ (1). In her article, “A Flight of Swallows,” Karen Foster calls for a reinterpretation of the swallows painted on these walls, a reinterpretation that will shed new light on the room “as a cultic space in which iconography and architecture combined to create a dramatic setting for epiphanic ritual.”(2). She claims that instead of interpreting the image as peaceful and almost fun-loving, the imagery is almost bacchic, arguing the birds exhibit “classic signs of…high-intensity display, of which is possession of airborne feathers for use in nests”(3).

Foster’s is a poignant article because she demonstrates that we risk losing sight of the fact that these motifs might actually represent a very different element of Minoan religion that we do not comprehend. The swallow is an indigenous Theran motif from the Middle Cycladic period appears to have influenced the wall paintings of Late Cycladic I paintings, such as the “Spring Fresco” from Delta 2 (4).

The advent of modernity led to the creation of two fundamentally different ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand and of non-humans on the other (1). Rapid, far-reaching innovations in technology have created a wide divide between living beings (humans, animals) and non-living beings (material objects). Consequently, we no longer see animism in a rock or in the personality of a teddy bear. Representations of swallows are prominent throughout Akrotiri in frescoes found in rooms Delta 2, Xeste 3:4, Beta 6, Arvaniti 1 and West House 5. Pottery with swallow representations are found at the West House, Xeste 3 upper story, Arvaniti 2, Delta 9:1, Arvaniti 1 or 3, Bronou 2 upper room, Arvaniti 2:2, House of Ladies 1, repository 3 and West House 6 (5). Is this because swallows were simply easy and/or beautiful to paint or do they represent or play a part in a ritual that is part of Minoan religion as a whole?

1. Mary B. Hollinshead, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 93, no. 3 (Jul., 1989): 339. Online version is here. 2. Karen Polinger Foster, “A Flight of Swallows,” American Journal of Archaeology 99 (1995): 409. 3. Ibid. 4. Heather Mae Russell, “Sacred or Profane: Swallow-Painted Nippled Ewers from Akrotiri” in SOMA 2004: Symposium on the Mediterranean Archaeology: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Meeting of Postgraduate Researchers, School of Classics, Trinity College Dublin. 20 – 22 February 2004, ed. Jo Day et al. (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2006), 149, quoting from M. Mathari. 5. Foster, “A Flight of Swallows,” 424-5.

Link to image here