Archaeoastronomical Orientation of Seven Significant Ancient Hellenic Temples

Here we present selected parts of the paper titled “Archaeoastronomical Orientation of Seven Significant Ancient Hellenic Temples“, by Ioannis Liritzis & Helen Vassiliou.

Abstract: Seven significant ancient Hellenic temples chosen from a wide area in Greece were measured, and all were found to have astronomically explicable orientations: Epicurean Apollo (Peloponnese), Zeus Atavyrius (Rhodes), Apollo Erethymean and Pythean (Rhodes), Zeus Nemeius (Peloponnese), Athena Lindia (Rhodes), and Athena Alea (Peloponnese).

Measurements were carried out using a portable GPS and a magnetic compass with
an attached clinometer (Meridian), corrections being applied to take account of the local
magnetic declination, atmospheric refraction, and solar limb. In-house software was
developed for the calculation of the solar declination (STARDEC), the star attribution
(STARS), and the solar epoch (SUNDAY). Discussion of the temples’ orientations to
bright stars in constellations such as Orion, Aries, Virgo, and Centaurus on celebration
days, and to sunrise or sunset on the equinoxes, is made with due caution.


Measurements and Corrections

Orientation measurements of the foundation walls or entrance alignments, which included azimuth (Az) and angular altitude of the skyline (Alt), were made
with a magnetic compass (Meridian, MG-3101) with attached clinometer. The geographical latitude and elevation were measured by a portable GPS (Garmin GPS III). The magnetic declination correction was determined from magnetic variation maps of the Military Geographical Service (Athens) for the year 2000, additionally taking into account the World Magnetic Model, provided by the British Geological Survey, NERC (kindly provided by D. Barraclough) (Table 1). No attempt was made to check for local magnetic anomalies, but based on geological mapping, the local environments were of limestone.

Contextual arguments that support any contention that a given astronomical alignment of at least some Greek temples was in fact intentional must certainly be brought to bear. Indeed, an extensive catalog of quotations on temple orientation, or at least a significant
knowledge and practice of astronomy by the early Contextual arguments that support any contention that a given astronomical alignment of at least some Greek temples was in fact intentional must certainly be brought to bear. Indeed, an extensive catalog of quotations on temple orientation, or at least a significant knowledge and practice of astronomy by the early Greek world, is reported (Aveni and Ammer-man 2001; Shaw 1977); for example, Aeschylus Agamemnon 519–520, “. . . gods who face the rising sun . . . with gleaming eyes,” in Vitruvius De Architectura IV.5; Plutarch Numa Popmilius 14:4, regarding entering the temple with the back to the rising Sun and then facing round
due east; Diodorus of Sicily of the first century B.C.; Hesiod’s Works and Days; and Homer’s Odyssey and Orphic Hymns. The choice of a particular star of a
constellation for such an alignment is generally related to a myth in which a deity associated with the temple is involved. In Greek mythology deities, demigods, and/
or heroes, following the will of father god Zeus, became the stars or constellations bearing their names. Thus, there was a relation between sacred structures and
astronomy. Therefore, there may exist an association between the orientations of sacred places and those celestial bodies.

Nevertheless, perceptions of the sky are culturespecific, and the present mode of explanation is pertinent to the Greek tradition.


Results and Discussion

Epicurean Apollo

The declination from the northern orientation of the temple may be connected to ‚ UMa, which may have been known by the ancient Greeks as Helike or Helice but may also be connected with the aurora borealis (i.e., northern lights).

The northern orientation may be connected to the epithet “hyperborean” given to Apollo for his shift, every winter, to northern (hyperborean) lands and his return to Delphi during the spring. The occurrence of the northern lights coinciding with the cessation of the plague of 430 B.C. may have been taken as a sign of Apollo’s deliverance from this plague, probably leading local people to orient the temple toward these lights in thanksgiving.

Athena Lindia

The foresight of the entrance aligns with a sharp hilltop approximately 1.5 km distant, with a declination of –36o45’21”. This direction aligns toward the rising of the bright star δ Centauri.

Apollo Pythean

If the Sun is taken as the celestial target, then the foresight along the entrance to the temple aligns with sunrise in late October, equivalent to the ancient Rhodian month Thesmophorius, which was the first month of the Rhodian calendar. Thesmophorius coincides with the Attic month Pyanepsion (dedicated to Apollo), which name derives from the cooked beans (pyanoi) offered to the god Apollo along with wine and other foods during the Argonauts’ expedition.

The alternative interpretation is of sunrise in early March, equivalent to the Rhodian month Sminthios, related to Apollo Smintheus (mouse killer). No remarkable star target was found.

The axis opposite from the entrance points in the westward direction to sunset in late August, equated to the Rhodian month Karneios, dedicated to Karneios Apollo, or early April sunset.

Zeus Atavyrius

The sanctuary of Zeus Atavyrius is situated on the peak of Mount Atavyros. Now only the ruins of the foundation walls of a temple and an altar can be seen.

The eastern face of the monument points to sunrise in December close to the winter solstice—in fact, seven days before or after the winter solstice. December equates to the Rhodian month Theudaisios, during which Theudaisian festivities were held. Although
the Theudaisian festival was celebrated on the island of Rhodes, it was mainly celebrated on the island of Crete in honor of the god Dionysus (Callimachus Aetia III 41–42).

Regarding a solar target, the western direction relates to sunset around the end of July and beginning of August, or instead around May 9–12.

In the eastern, western, and northern directions, the corresponding star attributions are the bright stars of Sagittarius/Centaurus, Ophiuchus, and Cassiopeia, respectively.

Zeus Nemeius

For solar alignment, the calculated declination of the western backsight of the monument points to sunrise at around the end of July or May 15. July perhaps relates to the beginning of the Nemean Games, a very important festival held in the area of Nemea in honor of Zeus Nemeius. In the case of star alignment, from the above-mentioned direction two remarkable stars were found, δ and ε Orionis, which along with ζ Orionis form the three-star Orion’s Belt. Orion’s Belt was found for the orientation of two pyramids in the Argolid (Liritzis 1998).

Athena Alea

The alignment of the foresight of the principal entrance and its opposite direction points to the rising/setting Sun close to the equinoxes (between three and six days before the autumnal equinox or between three and six days after the vernal equinox). In the case of star alignment, the western and eastern faces of the temple point toward α Ori and α Vir, re-spectively (perhaps the rising of one and setting of the other).

Apollo Erethymean

The possible alternative periods of early December or early January for the sunrise correspond to around 19 days before or 16 days after the winter solstice of December 23, the shortest day of the year. ”

Research-Selection: Philaretus Homerides


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