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The Sun in Greek Astronomy


At first the Greeks believed that the sun was the god Helios, or Apollo, driving his chariot around and around the earth. In the morning he began driving up in the sky, and then in the evening he drove back down again, and that was the sunset. At night the horses rested under the earth. (Compare to the Egyptian sun god Ra.)

By the Archaic period, though, in the 600s BC, Greek scientists like Thales were beginning to understand that the sun was not a god but a round ball of fire hanging in space. Thales was able to predict when a solar eclipse would happen. Still Greek scientists thought that the sun went around the earth instead of the way it really is, that the earth goes around the sun.

In the Hellenistic period, scientists like Eratosthenes, Anaxagoras, and Aristarchus began really taking observations and making measurements, and then they did figure out that the earth went around the sun. Still very few people believed them that the earth went around the sun. Aristotle believed that the sun went around the earth. Only a few Central Asian astronomers thought Aristarchus was right, until telescopes were invented in the Renaissance and showed the moons of Jupiter going around Jupiter.

Learn by doing: the sun
More about the Sun

Bibliography and further reading about Greek astronomy and the sun:

The Librarian Who Measured the Earth, by Kathryn Lasky (1994). An account of the life and work of Eratosthenes, who figured out the circumference of the earth. Explains how he did it. Easy reading.

Greek Astronomy, by Thomas Heath (1932). A collection of what ancient Greek writers had to say about astronomy, in their own words, with a long introduction. For adults.

The History & Practice of Ancient Astronomy, by James Evans (1998). Includes both the history, and directions to actually re-do the experiments that ancient Greek astronomers used to figure out their conclusions. For adults.

More about the sun god Helios
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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Now that the weather's nice, try some of these outdoor activities! How about bicycle polo, or archery for a Medieval Islam day? Or kite flying or making a compass for a day in Medieval China? How about making a shaduf for a day in Ancient Egypt? Holding an Ancient Greek Olympic Games or a medieval European tournament? Building a Native American wickiup?