Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Sidereus Angelicus

Sidereus Nuncius. The title of Galileo's famous treatise is 'usually translated into English as Sidereal Messenger, although Starry Messenger and Sidereal Message are also seen.' It's not the 'starry' part that interests me, though: it's the 'messenger'.

Now, 'nuncius' does indeed mean 'messenger', although it's more usually spelled 'nuntius' (it may be fanciful of me to think that Galileo prefers the former because it more literally includes the 'nunc', the now, of his 'news'. Lewis and Short define 'nuntius' as 'a bearer of news, one who brings intelligence, a reporter, messenger, courier.' Galileo's title depends upon the startling linkage of this mundane postman/newscaster figure with the stars. But that also contains the title's sly irony: for another word for messenger, and one more conventionally associated with the heavens, is 'angelus'. This of course is the Latin version of the Greek word ἄγγελος, and can be found both in the mundane postman/newscaster sense (Seneca's Epistles 20) but also in medieval Latin as 'angel'. This, I think, is what Galileo's title flirts with: the idea that his telescope is replacing the Biblical angels as the bearer of heavenly news ...

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