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    Re: Should I question Pliny?
    From: George Huxtable
    Date: 2009 Sep 6, 11:47 +0100

    John Huth wrote-
    
    | Thanks for the tip on the navigational birds paper.   I read the Hornell
    | reference and picked up a reference from that to Pliny's Historia 
    Naturalis,
    | where he mentions the Ceylonese use of shore sighting birds for
    | navigation.   Here's the original from Pliny:
    |
    | *siderum in navigando nulla observatio; septentrio non cernitur. volucres
    | secum vehunt emittentes saepius meatumque earum terram petentium 
    comitantur.
    | nec plus quaternis mensibus anno navigant. cavent a solstitio maxime 
    centum
    | dies, tunc illo mari hiberno*
    |
    | The translation I dug up was this:
    |
    | *[In making sea-voyages, the Taprobane mariners] make no observation of 
    the
    | stars, and indeed the greater bear is not visible to them, but they take
    | birds out to sea with them which they let loose from time to time and 
    follow
    | the direction of their flight as they make for land.  The season for
    | navigation is limited to four months, and they particularly shun the sea
    | during the hundred days which succeed the summer solstice, for it is then
    | winter in those seas*
    |
    | A few items,   "septentrio" was the ancient roman name for Ursa major
    | (thought this was the 'latin name', huh?).   The name Taprobane is
    | associated with the inhabitants of what is now Sri Lanka.   I puzzled over
    | this - let's see, if Sri Lanka is 7 degrees north, and the big dipper is
    | somewhere between 55 and 62 in declination, shouldn't it be visible
    | relatively high from time to time in Sri Lanka - like up to 35 degrees. 
    I
    | agree that's it's not an ideal navigational situation, but heck, I check 
    out
    | Antares all the time, and it's pretty low in the sky from Boston.
    |
    | So, I am I correct in believing that Pliny made an error in his
    | statement????   Am I crazy?
    
    ==========================
    
    I'm not familiar with that passage in Pliny. But John should certainly take 
    Pliny's writings, in his Natural History, with a pinch of salt. He was a 
    good observer and reporter, but he could be no more accurate than his source 
    material was, and he was somewhat credulous about what he was told.
    
    The phrase "travellers' tales" has become a euphemism for unlikely stories, 
    for good reasons. One likely difficulty, in this case, is in problems of 
    language; in the difficulties of understanding answers, in an unfamiliar 
    tongue, to questions which may themselves have been misunderstood. And then 
    those reports may get passed, in verbal form, between many ears and tongues 
    before arriving at a pen such as Pliny's.
    
    And not just unfamiliar language, but unfamiliar concepts too. In the 
    tropical climate of Ceylon, the notion of "winter" would be just as 
    unfamiliar as that of "monsoon", to Pliny, but it seems likely that it was 
    in monsoon terms that the travellers were describing their "off-season" for 
    sailing.
    
    Add to that what may be our imperfect understand of what Pliny wrote. I'm no 
    Latin scholar, having been kicked out of Latin class for incompetence all of 
    60 years back. However, I've always understood "septentrio" to simply 
    indicate Northern, though my Latin dictionary, in addition to North, adds 
    North wind and also both Great Bear and Little Bear. Remember, these 
    constellations were then 10� closer to the Pole then than now. They may have 
    acquired that "Northern stars" label long before that, when they were even 
    more polar. So, was Pliny referring specifically to the Great Bear, as John 
    suggests, or perhaps just as likely to "the Northern stars" in general?
    
    There's no seeing of stars nearer than about 5� to the horizon, so the pole 
    itself (if it been marked by a Pole Stat, which in those days it wasn't) 
    would be just on the verge of being invisible from Southern Ceylon. But I 
    agree with John, the Great Bear itself, even though 10� lower in the sky 
    than now, should have been quite visible from all of Ceylon, at the right 
    time of year. But then, there's another possible misunderstanding, if their 
    society grouped their stars differently into constellations: if they made 
    different sky-pictures of them, than we do, and the Romans did. I have no 
    idea whether that may have been the case, but there's plenty of room for 
    misunderstanding any statements about those sky-patterns.
    
    So there's no need to fantasise about fraudulence. There are plenty of other 
    reasons why Pliny may have misunderstood the Ceylonese, or we may 
    misunderstand Pliny's intentions, without falling back on deception.
    
    ==============================
    
    As for the ravens, I have another possible explanation. Those navigators 
    whose ravens happened to disappear towards land survived, to tell us the 
    tale. Those whose ravens flew off in another direction, didn't. So we have 
    heard only one side of the story.
    
    George.
    
    contact George Huxtable, at  george@hux.me.uk
    or at +44 1865 820222 (from UK, 01865 820222)
    or at 1 Sandy Lane, Southmoor, Abingdon, Oxon OX13 5HX, UK. 
    
    
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