Ibex and Rockart
Ibex and Rockart
Copyright © 2018 by Yehuda Rotblum
In Near Eastern cultures, the ibex is the main motif in many scenes: on rockart, paintings on pottery, cylinder seals, and Kuduru (border stones). It is an enigmatic symbol and there is no equal to him in rockart appearance throughout the world including the Negev Desert. The prevalence and endurance of this horned animal symbol, in ancient art, suggest that it played a major role, strong enough to spread across time, many regions, and mythologies. Deciphering the ibex image, therefore, is a major challenge since it appears in many different settings so his role may be deduced from them.
Early Ibex Appearance
During the Chalcolithic period 5500BC, the appearance of Capricorn constellation marked the beginning of Autumn, it marked the time for New Year festival called Atiku. This was a New Year celebration coinciding with the season harvest showing the abundance granted by the gods, a proof of gods’ blessing. On some potteries from the Central Plateau of Iran and Sumer, the Ibex motif appears surrounded by dots (Fig.1). This unique symbol combination, the Ibex as Capricorn with the stars, marks visually the New Year festival event arrival.
Fig.1 The ibex surrounded by stars. (Haghighat A. 2010)
The Ibex in Sumer
The use of Sumerian cylinder seals began around 4000 BC they were used to sign and seal important documents and carried the administrative power behind its owner. The seal depicted dramatic scenes, usually a type of cosmic struggle with profound and inspiring religious contents that displayed the power of safeguarding the existing order. These seals provide much information about early beliefs that can help to decipher symbols of these unusual scenes.
Fig. 2 Enki with flowing streams and the young virile Ibex.
Sumerian God Enki (Ea in Acadian) is considered the god of life and replenishment. His symbol is a horned animal, usually the ibex or mountain goat, and often depicted with fish and a bird. The bird represents his control of heaven and the fish the underworld. He watches the universe from above and below, the fertilized fields, farms, flock, and herds. He is the ‘Lord of the Earth’ and his boat called ‘The Ibex of the Apsu’.
The Ibex in Canaan
The ibex’s role in Canaan, as reflected from archaeological findings, shows that it continues to play a role associated with fertility and renewal. The Canaanite goddess Asherah, identified as god EL consort was the goddess of fertility, she was the most popular goddess among people in the Canaanite pantheon. Often she is depicted with ibex, sometimes two, and the tree of life. Fig.3 is an ivory relief from Ugarit showing Ashera feeding crops to two ibexes. She is associated with the tree of life, a symbol of life, nurturing and nourishment. Hundreds of large breasted women figurines, sometimes pregnant, found in Israel, which are associated with the Ashera cult; their numbers indicate her popularity in many households.
Fig.3 Ivory relief of Ashera from Ugarit, 1200BC
The Ibex in Negev Desert Rock Art
In some Negev rock art, Orion appears as elaborate ibex Fig.4. The ibex presented here is a part of a larger scene that shows the entire winter constellations, see our Gallery.
Fig4 The Ibex as Orion. Left – The Ibex rockart, right – the same image projected on a constellation map
The left figure, in Fig.4, shows an ibex with two sets of horns. On the right, we see the same ibex projected onto the matching constellation map. We can see clearly that this composite ibex is a combination of three constellations, Orion, Taurus, and Hades, which are near each other in this sky region. The long horns, on the right, symbolize the Taurus constellation. The “V” at the base of Taurus is Hade’s constellation. The three stars on Orion’s belt, his signature, appear in the ibex head.
In Egypt, Osiris was identified with the constellation Orion (see Fertility and Rockart). The god Osiris (Orion) son of Ra, was a god of resurrection and afterlife. The hope of new life after death flourished among people and Osiris associated with renewal and in particular with fertility represented it.
In a rockart from the Negev Desert the Seasons Marker, the ibex marks the fertile winter season with the appearance of Orion constellation. This simple drawing is clever astronomy scene that is used to identify the seasons. In this case, the lack of Bootes constellation in the sky is replaced by the ibex to mark the rainy fertile winter season in Israel desert.
Fig6 The ibex as a fertile season marker, the winter.
There is a continued thread of the ibex role from Central Plateau of Iran and Sumer, Canaan, and the Negev Desert. In the examples presented its role spans a long time, from 5000BC to 150AD and in all of them the ibex is associated with fertility and renewal, see also Fertility Rockart. Therefore, it would be safe to conclude the ibex symbol is associated with fertility god as described in the Sumerian ‘Enki and the World Order’ myth: ‘Wherever Enki goes, be it in the cities, among the shepherds or cow herders, in the field or even in the desert, virility comes forth. This gives abundance to all’.
More deciphering, in a new book Rock Art in Israel, available online.