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’s minds and their interpretation of comets has been found on rock art, coins, and art. Many times the comet irregular appearance was equated with a bad omen. 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.

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

The ancients reflected the life on earth into the skies. For them, the stars represented mighty gods but they resembled earthly images of man/women and animals that lived in an upper heavenly parallel world. The gods were equipped with magical powers that commanded life on earth. They could create storms, earthquakes, fires, drought, or floods and they could also stop them. Every celestial phenomenon translated to a potent scene with images copied from earthly life. 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 one thick end symbolizing the bulky nucleus and 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 bulky nucleus on the right and the comet flight direction as indicated by its tail. The same bulky head illustrated in scene2 as opposed to a real spear engraving, illustrated in scene3, that has a sharp edge.

rock art comet

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 good example of comet abstraction with multiple tails exemplified in Fig.6. In this scene, the rider holds a long object with a bulky end, not sharp, with a thin tail. You can see other fainter tail that begins at the bulky end formed by the diagonal dots running through the horsetail. Even more, tails appear drawn on the horse right side, they are shorter and less developed. The horse-hoofs, in Fig.6, drawn as wheels reveals the artist’s comet abstraction that equates the comet to 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 with its rider metaphorically forms a comet that gallops 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; one of the common historical interpretations of a comet, riding a horse. The comet nucleus pointing down and its shape curved. A moon sliver appears, on the horse’s left side, setting the whole scene high in the night sky.

In these rock art, the astral phenomenon of a comet explained by earthly symbols that made this scene believable. The horse with wheel hoofs adapts this scene to a comet moving through the sky in a similiar thinking as the Roman Sun Chariot that 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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