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Ibex role in Rock Art

Rock art and the Ibex

Ibex role in Rock Art

In Near Eastern cultures, the ibex appears in many scenes: on rock art, paintings, pottery, cylinder seals, and Kuduru (border stones). This enigmatic symbol, a major celebrity in the Near East, has no equal in rock art representation 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 into many regions, and mythologies. Deciphering the ibex (Dibon-Smith R.) image represents a major challenge since it appears in many different settings that help the rock art deciphering task.

ibex and the sun rock art negev desert

Fig. 1 Ibex rock art  from Negev Desert rock art

The early text and engraved rock art decisively prove that the ibex is associated with symbols of fertility, and the ibex itself, as a whole symbol, represents a fertility god.  The following is a historical summary of the ibex role in the Near East that shows its consistent association with fertility.

Early Ibex Appearance

During the Chalcolithic period 5500BC, the appearance of Capricorn constellation, the inspiration for the ibex figure,  marked the beginning of Autumn, the time for the New Year festival called Atiku. This most important celebration coincided with the season harvest glorifying the abundance granted by the gods. On some potteries from the Central Plateau of Iran and Sumer, the Ibex motif appears surrounded by dots (Fig.2). This unique symbol combination, the Ibex as Capricorn with the stars,  marks visually the New Year arrival. The tree of life in the center further emphasized the abundant fertile year.

ibex with fertilty

Fig.2 Pottery ibex with fertility symbols. (Haghighat A. 2010)

The Ibex in Sumer

The use of Sumerian cylinder seals began around 4000 BC they utilized to seal important documents that 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.

Fig. 3Enki with flowing streams and the young virile Ibex.

Sumerian God Enki (Ea in Acadian) considered as 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 in 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, the goddess of fertility, identified as god EL consort was the most popular goddess among people in the Canaanite pantheon. Ashera often depicted with an ibex, sometimes two, and the tree of life. Fig.4 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 associated with the Ashera cult; their numbers indicate her popularity in many households.

Fig.4 Ivory relief of Ashera from Ugarit, 1200BC

The Ibex in Negev Desert Rock Art

In some Negev rock art, Orion constellation appears as elaborate ibex Fig.5. The ibex presented here is a part of a larger scene that shows the entire winter constellations, see our Gallery. The left figure, in Fig.5,  shows an ibex with two sets of horns represents Orion, Taurus, and Hades constellations. On the right, we see the same ibex projected onto the matching constellation map. This composite ibex is a combination of three constellations, Orion, Taurus, and Hades, which are near each other in this sky region. The longhorns, 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. These constellations appear in the wintertime considered the fertile desert season.

orion as an ibex rock art

Fig.5 The Ibex as Orion. Left – The Ibex rock art – the same image projected on a constellation map. On the right Orion constellation view with his representation in Egypt

In Egypt, Osiris identified with the constellation Orion (see Fertility and Rock Art) was a god of resurrection and afterlife associated with renewal and in particular with fertility. In Fig.6 we can see that Orion constellation depicted in rock art explicitly associating his role with the ibex.  Orion constellation, see Fig.5, can be identified by the appearance of the 3 dots (Orion belt stars) and the connected horns from constellation Taurus and Orion. Sometimes a small V appears in the ibex tail symbolizing the constellation Hades. There are many examples of the ibex representing Orion as can be seen in Fig.6.

orion as ibex negev desert rock art

Fig.6 The ibex as Orion: 3 dots symbolizing his belt, the V-shaped tail addition of Hades constellation in the ibex figure shows its association with the Orion constellation.

In a rock art from the Negev Desert, Fig.7,  see Seasons Marker, the ibex position in the sky marks the fertile winter season coinciding with the appearance of the Orion constellation. This simple drawing displays clever astronomy that identifies the seasons by observing Bootes constellation posture throughout the whole year.  In wintertime, Bootes disappears and the ibex Orion constellation appears, announcing the fertile season in Israel desert. This Boote’s replacement with the Ibex clearly states the desert people’s understood the ibex role. For them, he was the fertility God!

Bootes constellation indicating seasons rock art Negev Desert

Fig7 The ibex as a fertile season marker, the winter, Negev Desert rock art.

Conclusion

The ibex continued role spanning through the Central Plateau of Iran and Sumer, Canaan, and the Negev Desert, from 5000BC to 150AD, shows a decisive association with fertility and renewal. Its role described best 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’.

 

Bibliography

Haghighat, A.      2010   Totegenism: towards the definition of missing phase in ancient metaphysics.
Dibon-Smith R.  2015    The Ibex as an Iconographic Symbol in the ancient Near East

 

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

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