Comets and Rock Art

comet rock art negev desert

Comets in Negev Desert Rock Art

To an earthbound observer, a comet appears as a large star surrounded by a bright transparent cloud with a tail that travels through the sky. Comets infrequent appearances in a relatively “known” sky, captivated people and their interpretation has been found on rock art, coins, and art. Different cultures describe it as a sparkling star, broom star, long sword, spear, a human head with hair, a burning torch, and even as a horse’s mane blown by air.

Comet Description and Movement

Comets are icy bodies, made from frozen gases and dust that reminds dirty snowball. Their eccentric orbit,  around the Sun, made them infrequent visitors to earth. And, from the earliest days until the 16th-century, people thought that they were harbingers of doom, bad omens, catastrophes, and deaths.

comet description

Fig. 1 Comet orbit and tail direction                                           Fig. 2 – Comet components

The Greeks originated the word kometes, which translates to “long-haired star” because of their glowing long tails. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, phrased them as “running like a road through the constellations”. Comets often have two types of luminous tails: a straight one made of ionized gas (typically bluish) and a curved tail (white to yellowish) made up of tiny particles of dust compressed by radiation pressure. The comet tail doesn’t indicate its movement direction – it always pointing away from the Sun and sometimes its travel direction appears to defy gravity. In other words, the comet movement, as seen from the earth, can be either toward the tail or its nucleus.

Comets in Negev Desert Rock Art, Israel

Numerous rock art engravings show us how people interpreted comets sky appearance. These repeated scenes display a horse rider holding a very long spear fighting an invisible enemy, see Fig.5.  On one end the comet appears with the thick burning nucleus and a sliver of a long tail that gets thinner on the other. In scene1 the curved spear signifies the comet movement as seen from earth curvature. Notice the comet bulky nucleus on the right and the comet flight direction as indicated by its tail, scene1 Fig.5. As opposed to a real spear, in scene3, engraved with a sharp edge and the rider follows the spearhead direction.

Fig.5 Comet depiction as a horse and rider.  Scenes 1,2 represents a comet and scene3 depicts a real spear illustrating the difference in the comet abstraction.

A convincing comet abstraction illustrated in Fig.6. In this rock art the horse gallops to the right and the rider throws the spear to the left. The comet nucleus, seen on the right top, and the two well-developed tails are pointing to the left. This reveals the artist’s interpretation of a comet with the second tail engraved as diagonal dots running through the horsetail. The other two tails, on the horse right side, are shorter and less developed. The horse-hoofs, in Fig.6, drawn as wheels reveals the artist’s comet abstraction imitating the Roman Sun chariot.

comet rock art

Fig. 6 Horse and rider symbolizes Comet with second well-developed tails (photo Razy Yahel)

The imaginative horse, pictured in these scenes, metaphorically carries the comet through the sky like a Roman sun chariot. The rider throws the spear toward the horsetail, the comet moving direction, as his turned head and feet indicate.

Textual testimonies of comets’ appearance in Israel are documented. The Jewish the Maccabean Revolt 164 BC (Horwowitz W 2018) coincided with Halley’s Comet appearance. Halley’s Comet returned in 66AD, just months before the outbreak of the Jewish revolt against Rome, in 66-73 AD, Josephus a first-century Romano-Jewish historian described it: “And so it was that a star resembling a sword stood over the city (Jerusalem); a comet persisted for a very long time”.

comet rock art Negev Desert

Fig. 7 Demon riding a horse passing through the moon holding a comet, Negev rock art (photo Razy Yahel)

Fig.7 a rock art from the Negev Desert illustrates a comet held by a horned demon riding a horse. The comet nucleus pointing down and its shape curved. A moon sliver appears, on the horse left side, setting the whole scene in the night sky.

This astral phenomenon explained by earthly symbols made it believable. The horse with wheel hoofs adapts this scene to a comet moving through the sky the same way the Roman sun carriage rides the sky.



Coimbra F.          The sky on the Rock: Cometary images on Rock Art
Gardner S. 2016     The sun, moon, and stars of the southern Levant at Gezer 
Horowitz W 2018     Halley’s Comet and Judean Revolts Revisited
Aksoy O.,           A combat Archeology viewpoint on weapon representation in Arabia  Rock Art 

More deciphering, in a new book Rock Art in Israel, available online.

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