(As Word does not support Greek characters with accents, all Greek words in this text are transliterated and written in italics)


Prèstèros aulos REVISITED

En las citas sobre Anaximandro y sus doctrinas, los autores, en la mayoría de los casos, se limitan a repertirse unos a otros. (E.Góngora, “La obra astronomica de Anaximandro”, Revista de Filosofia de la Universidad de Costa Rica 38.1976, p.31)



Aëtius reports that according to Anaximander we see the light of the sun hoosper dia prèstèros aulou  and that of the moon hoion prèstèros aulon.1 Presumably, a similar mechanism also accounts for the light of the stars. The words hoosper dia prèstèros aulou are usually translated by something like “as through the nozzle (or: the mouthpiece) of a bellows”.2 This translation goes back to a suggestion by Diels in Doxographi Graeci: “immo prester est follis fabrorum”.3 In DielsVorsokratiker his translation is more or less tucked away. In a Nachtrag zum ganzen Werk, after having stipulated that the word prèster should be printed wide, indicating that he considers it as authentic, Diels says that such a ‘Blasebalgröhre’ is mentioned by Hippocrates, and in the Wortindex, edited by Kranz, the translation ‘Blasebalg’ is listed.4 However, the image of a bellows, somehow connected to a celestial wheel, tends to complicate rather than elucidate the meaning of the text. If we were to understand that every celestial body had such a bellows, the result would be hundreds of nozzles, extending from the celestial wheels towards the earth.5 The image of celestial wheels is in itself clear: it accounts for the circular orbits of the celestial bodies, it provides a visualization of a ring that conceals some substance (fire) within its rim, and it explains why these bodies do not fall to earth.6 The combination of this image with that of a bellows, however, makes everything unclear. Furthermore, a regular bellows is supposed to blow air into the fire and not the other way round, as must be the case with the would-be celestial bellows.

Since Homer’s time the usual word for bellows is phusa. The only evidence that Diels produces in Doxographi Graeci is one locus in Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BC).7 This case, however, is not  very  strong.  It  reads  as  follows: deutera d’eis Hèphaiston ebèsato, pause de tonge rimpha sidèreion tupidoon, eschonto d’aütmès aithaleoi prèstres (“In the second place, she went to Hephaestus and caused him immediately to stay his iron hammers: the sooty prèstères withheld their breath”. Fränkel denies that the meaning of prèstères here is ‘bellows’: “Nicht ‘der Blasebalg’ (…), sondern der ‘Glutwind’ der oben aus dem Felsen aufstieg.”8 If Fränkel is right, the only evidence for Diels’ translation collapses. But let us suppose that Diels was right and that prèstèr in this text of Apollonius means ‘bellows’. In that case Apollonius uses the word prèstèr within a context - Hephaestus’ forge - which would have made it evident to every Greek at the time that he meant ‘bellows’. This gives Apollonius the opportunity to exaggerate in order to stress that his story is not about an ordinary forge with normal bellows, but about the workshop of a god with its huge and impressive bellows emitting a thunderstorm’s blast. On the contrary, in the context of Anaximander’s description of the universe, it is not immediately evident that bellows would play any role in celestial mechanics. If Anaximander had meant to compare the light of the heavenly bodies with nozzles of bellows, then he would have used the ordinary word phusa and not the word prèstèr which every Greek at the time would have understood to denote a violent weather phenomenon in this context          Strangely enough, in the Vorsokratiker Diels does not mention Apollonius of Rhodes, but instead he refers to two loci in Hippocrates’ De articulatione.9 In these texts Hippocrates describes the use of a contraption that is made from a leather wineskin (askos) with a brass pipe (aulos ek chalkeou) connected to it, which is used in an unsuccessful experiment to cure a hump on the spine (47) as well as in the (also not very effective) treatment of dislocation of the hip-joint (77). The idea is that the empty wineskin is gradually filled with air blown into it through a pipe attached to one of the loose feet of the skin. There are, however, two significant differences between Hippocrates’ wineskin and Anaximander’s would-be bellows. The first is that the wineskin, which has to be inflated, has only one opening (the pipe) to let the air in, whereas a bellows has two openings, one at top for air intake and one outlet through the pipe.10 The second is that in Hippocrates’ apparatus, the air has to be blown through the pipe into the wineskin, whereas the important characteristic of the would-be celestial bellows is that it is supposed to blow the fire out through the pipe. Hippocrates does not use the word prèstèr. And the word phusa which appears in both texts, is not used here in the meaning of ‘bellows’, but indicates the wind or air, blown into the wineskin, and not the sack itself.11 So it is clear that Hippocrates did not want to describe a kind of bellows. For these reasons, it is hard to see how these texts could be put forward as an evidence for the translation of prèstèr as‘Blasebalgröhre

            Apparently, Diels was so convinced that his suggestion was right that he even changed the reading of another source: where the mss. render Hippolytus’ text as topous tina aëroodeis, Diels reads porous tinas auloodeis.12 Here obviously the wish was father to the thought. There is no need for tube-like gadgets in order to understand this text. What Hippolytus presumably wanted to say is that the inner fire of the celestial wheels is emitted from their envelopes of air at certain points. Achilles Tatius, however, also seems to understand aulos as a kind of pipe, for in the same context he speaks of a trumpet (salpinx). Now Achilles is not a very reliable ally, for in the same text he is confused about Anaximander’s image of the celestial wheels. Kahn and Guthrie omit him from their considerations, because his text is “a mere distortion” of Aëtius’.13 But even here there is no need to think that Achilles meant pipes emerging from celestial wheels. All he seems to be saying is that the celestial wheels have holes just like a salpinx. And the word prēstēr here means something like ‘stream of air’. The whole clause can be translated as: “Others say that, as in the case of a trumpet, it (viz. the sun) emits the light through a narrow hole like streams of air.”14

            After Diels’ death, Kranz apparently became suspicious of Diels’ suggestion, since in the 5th and later editions of the Vorsokratiker which he edited, prèstèros aulos is translated as ‘Glutwindröhre’ and not as ‘Blasebalgröhre’.15 Sometimes even stranger translations of prèstèros aulos have been tried. Mansfeld’s overtly anachronistic translation, for which he doesn’t offer any explanation, is ‘Lötrohr’, which means something like ‘soldering-pipe’.16  Kratzert, following Riedel, sees in the word aulos a reminiscence of the Dionysian cult, because a surname of Dionysus is phloios, another word used in Anaximander’s cosmogony.17 It is hard to see, however, what the flutes which accompanied the dithyrambs of a Dionysian trance should have to do with the way the light of the celestial bodies reaches us. Another translation of hōsper dia prēstēros aulou: “as through the funnel of a tornado”, has been proposed by Hall, and earlier by Teichmüller.18 This translation has at least the advantage of employing a meteorological image for a celestial phenomenon. Elsewhere in the doxography on Anaximander, and also in the doxography on Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Democritus, and Metrodorus of Chios, prèstèr is a meteorological  phenomenon.19 The translation ‘funnel of a tornado’, however, presents difficulties similar to those encountered with the ‘bellows’ translation: the funnel-shaped cloud of a tornado is difficult to relate to fire or light20, and the image of hundreds of these funnels emerging from the holes in the celestial wheels is decidedly odd.

Instead of looking elsewhere, perhaps it is more promising to look into other information from the doxography on Anaximander, in order to see whether it is possible to throw some light on the meaning of the expression prèstèros aulos. I think Lloyd has given a casual hint that may put us on the right track: “It seems better to retain a meteorological sense for prèstèr, then, e.g. (…) lightning.”21 A prèstèr is a ‘blower’ or a ‘burner’, and so it may mean ‘lightning’. Classen notes that the Arabs (10th century AD) translated the phrase hoosper dia prèstèros aulou as “like the lightning”,22 or more fully: “the fire comes out of them through a mouth-piece (in the same way) as the flashes of lightning appear”.23 My guess is that the Arabs were also on the right track. So let us see what the doxography has to tell about Anaximander’s opinion on the phenomenon of lightning. Aëtius testifies that, according to Anaximander, meteorological phenomena like prèstèr result from wind which is enclosed within a thick cloud (nephei pachei), from where it escapes. The resulting rupture, by contrast with the dark cloud, looks like a flash of light (diaugasmos).24 In the same sense Hippolytus reports that lightning originates when an attacking wind (anemos) breaks up the clouds.25 And now let us compare this with what the reports say about Anaximanders’s opinion on the light of the celestial bodies. Anaximander’s celestial wheels are made of compressed air that hides the fire within (pilèmata aeros trochoeidè, puros emplea).26 The fire of the sun shines permanently through the hole in the sun’s wheel. “It is impossible to mistake the parallel between this meteorological fire and that of the celestial rings”, Kahn rightly remarks.27 The comparison Anaximander must have been thinking of lies to hand: whereas an ordinary flash of lightning is a momentary flash of fire appearing in a rupture in a thick airy substance (a cloud), the light of the sun (and of the other celestial bodies as well) is like a permanent jet, beam, or stream (aulos) of lightning fire (prèstèr) emanating from a hole in a compressed airy substance (a celestial wheel). The meaning of ‘jet’ or ‘stream’ for aulos is attested in Homer, who somewhere uses it in the sense of a jet, squirt, or stream (of blood).28                                                              

It seems to me that Burnet expresses the same idea when he writes: “(…) lightning is explained in much the same way as the heavenly bodies. It, too, was fire breaking through condensed air, in this case storm clouds. It seems probable that this was really the origin of the theory, and that Anaximander explained the heavenly bodies on the analogy of lightning (…).”29 Nevertheless, Burnet, without any explanation, accepts the translation “as through the nozzle of a pair of bellows”. Tannery voices the same suggestion: “un astre est donc comme un  éclair  qui durerait  toujours”.30  The expression hoion prèstèros aulon, which is used in the case of the moon, seems to render this idea quite well.  So I take it that  these words are not a  shortened version of hoosper dia prèstèros aulou, as one perhaps might think, but that the former expression is closer to Anaximander’s original than the latter. The translation “like a stream of lightning fire” evokes the image of a sun-, moon,- or star-beam, emerging from the hole in the celestial wheel. So we may conclude that the words prēstēros aulos are not meant as an image, viz. the light of the celestial bodies as coming out of pipes of bellows, but as an attempt to explain that light on the analogy of the phenomenon of lightning. 

Sticking  to  this  interpretation,  one might perhaps maintain  that  the words ò hōsper dia prēstēros aulou also have to be understood as Anaximander’s own. Following a suggestion of Teichmüller, one might point out that the word dia does not necessarily have a local meaning, but can also have a causal or instrumental flavor, just like the English ‘through’.31 In that case, the translation would become: “as through a (permanent) stream of lightning fire” (reading prèstèros as a genitivus explicativus). I would like to propose, however, another explanation as more convincing. My suggestion is that Aëtius, no longer fully understanding what Anaximander had meant by hoion prēstēros aulon, tried to elucidate these words by hōsper dia prēstēros aulou, perhaps thinking that Anaximander had meant some kind of pipe which emits fire. If this assumption is right, we could say that Diels fell into the trap which Aëtius had inadvertently set. Otherwise said, these words do not reflect the picturesque style of some Hellenistic popularizer, as Kahn thought,32 but in their translation generations of scholars have been misled by the imagination of the great Diels.

            As shown, the above-mentioned interpretation of prēstēros aulos accords with Anaximander’s understanding of meteorological phenomena. It can also account for the visibility of the outer celestial bodies through the wheels of the inner ones. The problem of the visibility of the outer celestial bodies has to be distinguished from that of the strange order of the celestial bodies (stars, moon, sun) as such, which is evidently the order of increasing brightness. This last question has been treated in the foregoing chapter. The visibility of the celestial bodies, however, has to be explained given the order of the celestial rings. I think Dreyer is wrong when he says: “these matters of detail had probably not been considered by Anaximander”.33 We are tempted to imagine that the light of the brighter fire of the outer celestial bodies manages to burn through the compressed air of the wheels of the inner ones. Bodnár likewise has sought the solution of this problem in the order of the celestial bodies: the farther a celestial body is the brighter it must be, so that the light from the outer celestial bodies can pass through the inner rings.34 The image of a beam of light passing through the inner wheels is rather striking when we try to show, on a map which we suppose to be much like Anaximander’s, how the light of the celestial bodies reaches the earth, as can be seen in Figure 1.

This solution presupposes that the air of the celestial wheels which are nearer to the earth is less dense, as von Fritz rightly remarks.
35 For the light of the sun is hidden within the condensed air of its wheel, whereas it can penetrate the air of the wheels of moon and stars (and the same mutatis mutundis for the moon). Although this would seem an obvious solution, as the inner wheels have to conceal a less bright fire, so that their airy envelopes can be less dense, the extant testimonies unfortunately do not mention such a phenomenon.36





1 DK 12A21[13], 12A22[21], and 12B4


2 See e.g.: Guthrie 1985, p.94.and Kahn 1960, p.86.


3 Diels 1879, p.26. See also: Diels 1897, p.229: “das Mundstück eines Blasebalges”. Liddell & Scott mention this meaning in their Dictionary, lemma prèstèr, with the two instances in the Anaximander-doxography and the locus in Apollonius of Rhodes, quoted by Diels (see n.8), as the only references.


4 Diels 19102, Band II.2, p.VI: ’prèstèros zu sperren als Wort des Anaximandros’. The reference to Hippocrates will be treated later in this chapter. The translation ‘Blasebalg’ in the Wortindex by Walter Kranz in the same volume and in Diels 19224, lemma prèstèr.


5 The idea of looking again at the prèstèros aulos came to me during a visit Robert Hahn paid me in May 2000. He had gathered all kinds of pictures of ancient Greek bellows and when we discussed them it struck me that the whole idea of celestial bellows is awkward.


6 In a sense, the stability of the celestial wheels is a counterpart of that of the earth, which, according to Anaximander, does not fall because of homoiotes. See for a discussion of this point: Bodnár 1988, p.51, and Bodnár  1992, p.339.


7 Diels 1879, p.26; Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica  lines 775-777.


8 Fränkel 1964, p.532, n. at 777. Vian 1981, Tome III, Chant IV, p.105 translates: ‘souffles’. See also Livrea 1973, p.223, note at line 777: “Asai piú giustamente invece Fränkel, Noten, p.532, ritorna al valore originario diGlutwind’ (…) Questinterpretazione è confermata dai luoghi paralleli raccolti da Livrea a Coll.52”.


9 Hippocrates, De articiculatione, sections 47 and 77; in: Kuehlewein 1902, pp.181 and 235. See Diels 19102, Nachtrag, p.VI, and Diels 19224, note at 2.21[29]. See also DK note at 12A21[13].


10 A primitive bellows might use the same opening both as inlet and outlet, but in the would-be case of celestial bellows there must be two: one to let the fire in from the celestial wheel and one to blow it out through the pipe towards the earth. For a huge ancient Greek bellows with a slit opening at top, see Graef and Langlotz, Die antiken Vasen von der Akropolis, Vol.I, p.125, Acropolis 2134. I owe this reference to Robert Hahn.


11 In 47 Hippocrates writes: (….) kai epeita aulooierk chalkeiou es ton askon ton hupokeimenon phusan enienai, and in 77: (….) epeita es hena toon podeoonoon, ton lelumenon, (i.e. one of the loose feet of the skin) enthenta aulon ek chalkiou phusan esanangkadzein es ton askon.


12 DK 84, note at 12A11(4)[10]. Conche 1991, p.192 remarks: “la correction de Diels (...) est inutile”.


13 Kahn 1960, p.25; Guthrie 1985, p.93n: “an unintelligently garbled version of what is described more clearly by Aëtius”.


14 DK 12A21[9]: hōs apo salpinggos ek koilou topou kai stenou ekpempein auton to phōs hōsper prēstēras. Conche 1991, p.197 n.12, translates: ‘’D’autres … disent que, comme par une trompette, le soleil, d’un lieu creux et étroit, renvoie la lumière comme des souffles émanées.’


15 DK 12B4: “Glutwindröhre”.


16 Mansfeld 1987, p.77.


17 Kratzert 1998, p.39; Riedel 1987, p.11.

18 Hall 1969, pp.57-59. This suggestion has already been discussed almost a century earlier by Teichmüller 1874, p.13n.: “Man könnte nämlich unter aulos die Röhre innerhalb des Wirbelwindes verstehen und dia local fassen, so dass der Sinn sehr einfach und der ganzen Anschauung entsprechend wäre ‘wie durch die Höhlung innerhalb des Wirbelwindes’”.


19 DK 12A23[24], 22A14, 59A84, 68A93, 70A15. The meaning of prèstèr in Heraclitus, DK 22B31, is uncertain (DK translate ‘Gluthauch’).


20 Plass 1972 points to the incidental cases of lightning within a funnel of a tornado, but although his contribution is perhaps instructive, it is not very convincing.


21 Lloyd 1966, p.314 n.1 (see also p.313 n.1).


22 Classen 1986, p.87 n.114.


23 “Das Feuer tritt aus einer Mündung von ihr (in gleicher Weise) zutage, wie die Blitze erscheinen.” (Daiber 1980, p.155, my translation).


24 DK 12A23[24], cf. 12A11(7)[19]. Seneca’s testimony of Anaximander on lightning (DK 12A23[32]) is difficult to understand: ‘fulguratio’ is a violent movement of the air tearing apart and imploding, which unveils a lazy (?) fire, incapable of escaping (‘languidum ignem nec exiturum aperiens’). A ‘fulmen’, on the other hand, is the course of a stronger and tighter wind (‘spiritus’). According to Bicknell 1968, p.184, Seneca’s account is more trustworthy than that of Aëtius. But neither he nor anyone else, as far as I know, can make sense of it.


25 DK 12A11(7)[19].


26 DK 12A18[28-29].


27 Kahn, 1960, p.102.


28 Odyssey, P18: autika d’aulos ana rinas pachus èlthen haimatos andromeoiou (‘immediately, a thick stream of human blood sprang out of his nostrils’) It is worth noticing that πρηστηρ can also  mean  ‘jet’  or  ‘stream’  (of blood),  as  in  Euripides,  Fr. 384: ommatoon d’apo haimostagè prèstère reusontai anoo  (“and from the eyes two streams of blood will flow down”).


29 Burnet 1930, p.68.


30 Tannery 1887, p.92. Perhaps Tannery borrows this interpretation from Teichmüller 1874, p.31: “(…) dass die Erzeugung der Gestirnflammen nach der Analogie des Blitzes von Anaximander erklärt wurde.” Teichmüller translates, however: “wie durch einem aus einen Blasinstrumente herausfahrenden Wirbelwind” (op.cit., p.14).


31 “Soll dia aber, wie ich vermuthe, die wirkende Ursache angeben, (…). Der Genitiv aulou ist für eine poëtische Diction statthaft.” (Teichmüller 1874, p.12 and 13 n.). It has to be observed, however, that the words hoosper dia prèstèros aulou are used as an explanation of the preceding dia toiou, where the word dia has a local sense.


32 Kahn 1960, p.87.


33 Dreyer 1953, p.15.


34 Bodnár 1988, p.50.


35 K.von Fritz in a letter to Kahn 1960, p.90 n.3.


36 Sometimes history goes in circles. This solution has already been proposed by Teichmüller in a personal letter to Tannery 1887, p.95: “Chacune des trois enveloppes feutrées serait assez épaisse pour masquer (...) le feu qui circule à son intérieur, mais assez transparente pour laisser voir les flammes plus lointaines et plus puissantes dont l’éclat fait pâlir et efface les inférieures; ainsi la sphère étoilé, où le feu est le moins vif et le moins pur, ne crée aucun obstacle pour la vision des disques de la Lune et du Soleil.”