Such is also his guardian Dog, seen standing on its two legs below the soaring back of Orion, variegated, not bright overall, but dark in the region of the belly as it moves around.2
Why is the Dog ποικίλος? In this paper, I argue that the word ποικίλος was capable of portraying both the constellation of the Dog and an actual dog represented by the constellation.
In ancient scholia we find attempts to explain the Dog’s curious representation as ‘multicolored’, which consider two possibilities: according to the scholiasts, the word refers either to the combination of bright and dim stars in the constellation of the Dog (ποικιλίαν ἀστέρων ἐστὶν ἰδεῖν ὅταν ἄστρον τι ἔχῃ καὶ ἀµυδροὺς καὶ λαµπροὺς ἀστέρας παραλλήλους … τὸ δὲ παραλλήλους εἴποµεν ὅτι οὐ δεῖ εἶναι ὁµοῦ µόνους λαµπρούς, οὔτε τὸ ἀνάπαλιν, ἀλλὰ δεῖ κρᾶσιν εἶναί τινα—‘constellational colorfulness can be observed whenever a certain constellation has dim and bright stars side by side—if we are to speak of its having such stars side by side, it cannot have only bright stars or only dim stars, but there has to be some sort of mixture’) or rather to the imposing brilliance of Sirius, the constellation’s chief star (ἢ τὸ ποικίλος διὰ τὸν ἐπ’ ἄκρας αὐτοῦ τῆς γένυος ἀστέρα, ὃς ἰδίως Σείριος καλεῖται παρ’ ὅσον σέσηρεν αὐτοῦ τὸ φῶς, καί ἐστι πορφυρίζων ἐκ τοῦ παλµοῦ τῆς λαµπηδόνος—‘or it is colorful because of the star at the tip of its jaw, called Sirius due to grinning brightness, which is purplish because of its quivering light’). The first option is favored by Martin 2003 ad loc. and Kidd 1997 ad loc. To support his opinion, Kidd points to the constellation of the Bird analogously described as αἰόλος (275). He further notices that the verb ποικίλλω has been used on two more occasions in the poem, both times to illustrate variation. To my knowledge, an attempt to interpret the word as referring to an actual dog has not yet been made.
Although the tendency to vivify the constellations (that is, to represent them as real and living beings rather than as groups of stars) is more overwhelming in Aratus’ Latin translators, there is a fair number of cases in the original poem as well.3 For instance, Aratus describes the constellation of the Dragon as a ‘terrible monster’ (δεινοῖο πελώρου, 57), the constellation of the Kneeler as ‘suffering’ (ἐν γούνασι κάµνον, 66), etc. Just before calling the Dog ποικίλος Aratus had already used an expression to vivify the constellation—the Dog is seen as the guardian (φρουρός, 326). Later on, the Dog will also be imagined as pursuing the Hare (διώκεται, 339; διωκοµένοιο Λαγωοῦ, 384). This is an important observation as it demonstrates that Aratus was prone to vivify the Dog and that unambiguous vivifications appear just a few verses before and after the verse describing the Dog as ποικίλος.
So far we have shown that Aratus’ description of the Dog was likely, as a whole, to contain instances of vivification. Now the question remains whether the word ποικίλος itself could be used in this way and mean ‘a multicolored dog’. Even though I have not observed other instances where a dog is described by the term ποικίλος, the word is often used to denote animals with many-colored or dappled skin. For example, παρδαλέῃ… ποικίλῃ (‘a spotted panther’, Hom. Il. 10.29-30), δράκοντα ποικίλον (‘a dappled serpent’, Pi. P. 8.46), ποικίλαν ἴϋγγα (‘a dappled wryneck’, Pi. P. 4.214), ποικίλαισι νεβρίσι (‘dappled fawn skins’, E. Ba. 249), ποικίλων ὀρνίθων (‘dappled birds’, Plot. 4.4.29).4
Therefore, it is safe to posit that the word had been used for descriptions of actual animals. Nevertheless, we have additional reasons to believe that ποικίλος was especially appropriate in a description of a dog. Observe the following passage from Xenophon’s Cynegeticus. Xenophon warns his readership that unicolored dogs are to be avoided since they are not likely to be thoroughbred. Meanwhile, pedigreed hunting hounds ought to be multicolored:
τὰ δὲ χρώµατα οὐ χρὴ εἶναι τῶν κυνῶν οὔτε πυρρὰ οὔτε µέλανα οὔτε λευκὰ παντελῶς· ἔστι γὰρ οὐ γενναῖον τοῦτο, ἀλλὰ τὸ ἁπλοῦν καὶ θηριῶδες. αἱ µὲν οὖν πυρραὶ ἔχουσαι ἔστωσαν λευκὴν τρίχα ἐπανθοῦσαν περὶ τὰ µέτωπα καὶ αἱ µέλαιναι, αἱ δὲ λευκαὶ πυρράν.5
Regarding the color, dogs should be neither completely red nor completely black nor completely white, because this does not reveal a respectable pedigree, but one that is plain and wild. Red and black dogs should have a white patch over the face, while the white ones should have a red patch.6
Since Xenophon was one of the most widely read authors in Antiquity and Aratus a learned poet, it is by no means unlikely that the latter was aware of Xenophon’s instructions regarding a dog’s color. And, surely, a hound of an important mythological figure, such as Orion, will have been noble, and consequently multicolored.
Moreover, both hunting dogs and livestock guardians are described as spotted in contemporary and later literature as well. For instance, Callimachus thus describes the hunting dogs of the goddess Artemis:
τὶν δ᾽ ὁ γενειήτης δύο µὲν κύνας ἥµισυ πηγοὺς
τρεῖς δὲ παρουαίους ἕνα δ᾽ αἰόλον…7
And to thee the Bearded God gave two dogs black-and-white, three reddish, and one spotted …8
Theocritus also describes a flock-dog in one of his idylls as spotted (ὁ κύων ὁ φάλαρος, ‘the dog with a white spot’, Theoc. Id. 8.27).
Ovid describes one of Actaeon’s dogs, Harpalos, as dappled:
et nigram medio frontem distinctus ab albo Harpalos …9
black headed Snap, blazed with a patch of white hair from forehead to his muzzle …10
Furthermore, Βάλιος, the name of one of Actaeon’s dogs according to pseudo-Apollodorus’ Library, means ‘spotted’. Finally, the Augustan poet Grattius in his Cynegetica also mentions that certain breeds of swift dogs (dogs from Vertracha, to be precise) are not unicolored, but ‘colored with yellow spots’ (et pictam macula Vertracham delige flava, 203). Grattius’ swift dog is also described as pursuing a hare, which makes the parallel to Aratus’ dog of Orion (namely, the dog is depicted in the poem as chasing after the constellation of the Hare) all the more appropriate. Of course, Aratus will not have read Ovid, Grattius or The Library, but it is reasonable to suppose that the idea of a variegated dog as pedigreed and swift was a commonplace in ancient descriptions of dogs and therefore likely to have had an impact on Aratus.
Therefore, it can also be argued that the dog is most suitably represented by a constellation that comprises both very bright and dim stars, as is the case with the one in question. Dogs are often represented as spotted, and thus the varying brightness of the stars in the constellation in question is easily connected to the varying brightness of the dog’s spots. Any other animal, such as a bear or a horse, would hardly be as appropriate.
All this is not meant to imply that the earlier interpretations of the passage—most notably the one suggesting a connection to the constellation’s uneven brightness—are to be discarded. Aratus was more than happy to include polysemic devices in his work. It is especially appropriate to think of such cases where multiple layers of meaning in a single word allow for multiple interpretations. A famous example is Aratus’ use of the word Ζεύς. It is often hard to distinguish between the mythological Zeus, the philosophical Zeus and the Zeus as representation of the clear sky.11 In the case of ποικίλος, in a similar fashion, a single word is used to convey important observations about the brightness of the constellation and, at the same time, about the actual dog representing the constellation.
To sum up. Whereas earlier interpretations had favored exclusively the astronomical meaning for ποικίλος, this paper shows that its vivificating aspect should not be neglected either. We have drawn attention to the following facts:
the description of the constellation of the Dog certainly contains instances of vivification, making the addition of another one more likely;
the word ποικίλος had been widely used in Antiquity for depictions of multicolored, dappled animals;
hunting treatises (notably the one by Xenophon) provided Aratus with theoretical background for such a description of the dog;
multiple layers of meaning in a single word are a common Aratean device—in this case, an astronomical meaning referring to the constellation and another meaning referring to the actual animal are connected.
Therefore, it can be concluded that ποικίλος is indeed meant to be understood as a reference to an actual hunting dog as well.12
Vitas, M. (2016). The Poet’s new Clothes. A Study of Aratus’ Original Style as Reflected in the Three Roman Translations of his Φαινόµενα. Lucida intervalla 45, pp. 69-116.
Translation by Kidd 1997.
Cf. Vitas 2016, 82-105.
Additionally, see PCair.Preis. 37.9 (3rd c. BC) for an example of ποικίλος used for cattle. Also, a potentially interesting example is Hes. Th. 299-300 where ὄφιν ποικίλον (‘a dappled snake’) is transmitted by some codices, while αἰόλον is the reading of the scholia.
X. Cyn. 4.7-8.
Translation by Vitas.
Call. Art. 90-91.
Translation by Mair 1921.
Ov. Met. 3.221-222.
Translation by More 1922.
Cf. Martin 2003; Kidd 1997 ad 253; Vitas 2016, 75-78. Take, for instance, the passage where Perseus is said to hurry ἐν Διὶ πατρί (253). The expression is clearly calculated to evoke both the mythological Zeus, the father of Perseus, and, at the same time, the night sky as location of the constellation of Perseus.
I am grateful to professor Orsat Ligorio with whom I have discussed one of the previous versions of this paper.