Montag, 2. Juli 2018

Report on the AKAN Conference, June 16th 2018, Mainz

Blog entry by Mari Yamasaki.


For the 29th year, on June 16th the University of Mainz hosted the AKAN Conference (AKAN-Tagung, Arbeitskreis antike Naturwissenschaft und ihre Rezeption), organized by Prof. Dr. Jochen Althoff, to discuss issues on ancient scientific knowledge and its understanding.

A number of interesting papers were presented during this 29th edition. Among these, I would like to point the readers’ attention to the outstanding work of two of our colleagues from the #GRK1876: Aleksandar Milenković and Shahrzad Irannejad.

With his talk, “The curious case of χλωρὸν δάκρυ in Greek poetry,” Aleksandar Milenković opened the first session of the day discussing the conceptual metaphor underlying the concept of crying through the analysis of the expression chlōrón dakry. The paper explored the meaning of the term and its fate. 


Figure 1: Aleksandar Milenković presenting his paper (Photo by Mari Yamasaki)

Concerning the meaning, chlōrós is variably translated with the colours green or yellow, or pale, or again green in the sense of fresh and unripe. What emerged from Milenković’s analysis of the variety of translations is that chlōrós is more than a simple adjective but rather expresses a concept of “freshness, moisture and sap” and it was used in relation to wine, cheese, honey, but also fear and, eventually, tears. In the Homeric poems, chlōrós was used in the description of fear, possibly in relation to sweat. Whilst there appears to be a relation between fear and bile in Sophocles and Euripides, in the V century tragedies, chlōrós describes tears rather than fear. In both Homeric and tragic contexts, it is possible to trace the close association of the term to moisture (sweat and tears respectively) and to the vegetal world. Therefore, the term chlōrós underlies the conceptual metaphor that the human body is a plant: where plants have sap, humans have bile, and while sap comes out of plants following a disturbance, human emotions cause moisture in the form of sweat (in Homer) and tears (in Euripides). The “human body is a plant” metaphor, however, was bound to become a dead metaphor as a consequence of an obsolete use of chlōrós describing fear in Homer. The later authors possibly did not understand the original usage and the term chlōrós came to acquire the meaning of pallor in relation to grief and fear, and the connection with sap and moisture was forgotten.

The human-plant metaphor was also analysed by Marcel Humar (Berlin) in his talk “Pflanzen sind Menschen – zu einer konzeptionellen Metapher bei Theophrast.” While in Milenković’s talk the poetic metaphor was “humans are plants,” in Humar’s work the metaphor individuated in Theophrastus’s scientific literature showed the opposite perspective, that “plants are humans.” In other words, whilst source and target domains in these different types of texts appear inverted, the mappings are still the same: both humans and plants in fact have seed, grow, contain moisture, produce fruits and die.

Shahrzad Irannejad’s paper moved the focus from V century BCE Greece to early XI century CE Persia with her research on the transmission of Greek medical knowledge within the Arabic tradition. Her talk, “Making sense of Aristotle’s appearance in Avicenna’s anatomy of the brain,” analysed one particular chapter in Avicenna’s Canon concerned with the description of the brain and its functions. Most of the source material for the three pages that cover the anatomy of the brain comes from Galen. However, in between the Galenic description, Avicenna curiously inserts a passage of clear Aristotelian echo in the explanation as to why the brain is made like it is, and stating that its function is to cool down the heart. According to Irannejad, while displaying a general loyalty to Galenic anatomy, Avicenna was devoted to an overarching Aristolelian agenda and with his work attempted at the reconciliation between Galenic and Aristotelian positions, between encephalocentric and cardiocentric views. 
 
Figure 2: Shahrzad Irannejad presenting her paper (Photo by Mari Yamasaki)

Further talks during the conference investigated the scientific aspects of the astronomical knowledge contained in Synesios “Ad Peonium de Dono” (Helmut Seng, Frankfurt). A sociological perspective was proposed by Leonid Zhmud (St. Petersburg) in individuating the variability in the population of scientists and their distribution within ancient Greece, thus highlighting which city was at what time the effective centre of knowledge.

In conclusion, once again the AKAN conference renovated the interest on ancient science and raised questions about our understanding of ancient scientific knowledge and its reception and last but not least, provided a great chance to exchange feedback and ideas.

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