Comets and Rock Art

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Comets in Negev Desert Rock Art

Comets’ infrequent and sudden appearance equated them to a harbinger of a bad omen. To an earthbound observer, a comet appears as a large star surrounded by a bright transparent cloud with a long tail that travels through the sky. Comets sudden appearances in a relatively “known” sky, captivated people’s minds and their interpretation of comets 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 demon, a burning torch, and even as a horse’s mane blown by air. Comets had a strong influence on people and they considered them to be messages from their gods. A quote by the Roman historian Pliny after Julius Caesar’s death that coincided with the comet’s appearance over Rome illustrates such feelings  ”…a comet was visible for seven days… The common people believed it was the soul of Caesar received among the immortal gods…’

Comet Description and Movement

Comets are icy bodies, made from frozen gases and dust that reminded in their outer composition a dirty snowball. Their eccentric orbit,  around the Sun, made them infrequent visitors to earth. Therefore, their appearance from the earliest days until the 16th-century ignited people’s imagination and they thought of them as harbingers of doom, bad omens, catastrophes, and deaths.

comet descripition
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 as expected– it always points 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

The saying like above so below originated in Sumer expresses the people’s desire to create on earth a similar reality that exists in heaven. For the ancients, the stars represented the mighty gods, and the constellation’s outline created earthly images of man/women and animals living in heaven. The earthly scenes we see in rock art are copies from the star’s outline or the constellations.

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. The “spear” has an odd shape with a bulky nucleus that ends with a long tail that gets thinner. This is not a spear!. The scenes in Fig.5 illustrate the difference between a comet and a spear abstraction. In scene1 the curved spear signifies the comet movement as seen from earth curvature. Notice the comet’s bulky nucleus on the right and the comet flight direction as indicated by its tail, the same for scene2. For comparison, a rock art with a horse and rider with a real spear, notice the spear sharp edge as illustrated in scene3.

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

Horse and rider as a comet in rock art

In ancient times a comet would be identified as a star with tails.   Fig.6 illustrates a creative example of comet abstraction with multiple tails. This scene shows a rider holding a long object with a bulky end, not sharp, and a long, thin tail. Multiple tails, which extend from the bulky end, are drawn as diagonal dots running through the horsetail. On the right side of the horse are engraved the tails, which are shorter and less developed, resembling a broom, which is an abstraction of a comet. In Fig. 6, the horse-foot depicted as wheels represents the artist’s imagination regarding the comet’s ability to travel through the sky, similar to the Roman Sun chariot idea.

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

The horse and rider form a metaphorical comet that gallops through the sky, much like a Roman sun chariot. In this scene, the rider throws the spear toward the horsetail, which indicates the direction the comet is moving in, as attested by his turned head and feet.

The Demon Comet

The Jewish Maccabean Revolt 164 BC (Horwowitz W 2018) coincided with Halley’s Comet appearance, which was brighter and larger than Venus.  Records show that 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”.

Rock Art research news, 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 rock art from the Negev Desert depicts a comet held by a horned demon, a common historical interpretation of a comet. The comet nucleus points down and with a curved shape. A moon sliver appears, on the horse’s left side, setting the whole scene high in the night sky.   The comet resembled a demon riding a horse while holding a burning spear.

In this rock art piece, the astral phenomenon of a comet is explained by earthly symbols, which made this scene believable. The horse with the wheel hoofs adapts this scene to that of a comet transiting through the sky similarly to the Roman Sun Chariot.



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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