Ibex and Rock Art

Rockart and Ibex

Ibex 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, 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 image represents a major challenge since it appears in many different settings that can unravel his role to ease the deciphering task.

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.1). This unique symbol combination, the Ibex as Capricorn with the stars,  marks visually the New Year arrival. The tree in the center further emphasized the abundant fertile year.

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 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. These seals provide much visual 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) 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 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.3 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.3 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.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 rock art, 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. These constellations appear in the winter the fertile desert season.

In Egypt, Osiris 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.

In a rock art from the Negev Desert, Fig.6,  see Seasons Marker, the ibex position in the sky marks the fertile winter season coinciding with the appearance of Orion constellation. This simple drawing is clever astronomy scene that is used to identify the seasons by observing Bootes constellation posture.  In winter time Bootes disappears and the ibex appears,  announcing the fertile season in Israel desert.

rockart Bootes Seasons

Fig6 The ibex as a fertile season marker, the winter, Negev Desert rock art.


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, see also Fertility Rockart. 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’.

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

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One Comment to Ibex and Rock Art

  1. admin says:

    More information in the book Rock Art in Israel, available online.

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