Comet depiction in Rock Art

Comet in Rock Art

Rock Art provides us with an insight into the perspective of early artists regarding various phenomena in the world. One such example is the observation of a comet which appears as a luminous star with a tail accompanied by a translucent and radiant halo as it traverses across the sky. Its sudden and unexpected appearance in the familiar firmament has captured the human imagination for centuries, as evidenced by its depiction in rock art, coins, and other artwork. Different cultures have described comets as broom stars, long swords, spears, human heads with hair, demons, burning torches, or even a horse’s mane blown by the wind. The profound visual impact of a comet has led many people to believe its appearance was a message from their gods

Comet Description and Movement

Comets are made of frozen gases and dust, resembling a dirty snowball in appearance. Their eccentric orbits around the Sun make them infrequent visitors to Earth. Since ancient times, comets have been viewed as ominous signs, associated with disaster and death.

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Fig.1    Comet description with its orbit and tail direction

The Greek word “kometes” meaning 'long-haired star', refers to the comet’s glowing tail. Aristotle described comets as 'running like a road through the constellations' Comets have two types of tails: a straight, bluish tail made of ionized gas and a curved, white to yellowish tail made of dust compressed by radiation pressure. The comet’s tail always points away from the Sun, and its movement as seen from Earth can appear to defy gravity, sometimes appearing to move towards the tail or its nucleus.

Comets in Negev Desert Rock Art, Israel

The ancient people believed that the stars were gods and that the constellations depicted their figures. Rock art is a reflection of these ancient celestial images2. They reveal how comets were perceived by early peoples. The recurring scenes show that they imagined them as an image of a horse-riding warrior armed with a long, spear-like weapon battling an unseen opponent. The spear has a bulky nucleus and a long, tapered tail – not a typical spear shape.

Rock Art Comet depiction as a horse and rider
Fig.2    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.

Fig.2 highlights the distinction between a comet and a spear abstraction. Scene 1 displays a curved spear representing the comet’s movement path as observed from Earth due to its curvature. Observe the bulky nucleus on the right and the direction of the comet’s tail. Scene 2 exhibits the same features. For comparison, Scene 3 shows a rock art illustration of a horse and rider with a traditional spear. The sharp edge of the spear is evident in Scene 3.

Horse and rider as a comet in rock art

The scene in Fig.3 provides a unique example of a comet with multiple tails. The illustration showcases a horse rider holding a spear with a bulky head. The horse tails are depicted as diagonal dots that extend from the bulky end of the spear head and running through the horse’s tail. The tails on the right side of the horse are shorter and less developed, bearing similarity to a broom.

The depiction of the horse’s hoofs as wheels is a manifestation of the artist’s imagination of how the comet travels through the sky. This artistic representation is comparable to the Roman concept of the sun’s chariots, which were believed to move across the sky in a similar fashion.

Rock Art Horse and rider symbolises a comet with secondary tails
Fig.3    Horse and rider symbolises a comet with secondary well-developed tails (photo Razy Yahel)

The horse and rider illustration in Fig.3 symbolizes a comet in motion, galloping through the sky. The rider is shown throwing a spear in the direction of the horse’s tail, indicating the direction in which the comet is moving. This is emphasized by the rider’s turned head and feet, pointing in the direction of the comet’s trajectory. This illustration serves as a metaphor for the mechanisms of a comet’s motion and direction.

The Demon Comet

The Jewish Maccabean Revolt of 164BC occurred at the same time as the appearance of Halley’s Comet. According to Horowitz W (2018), the comet was brighter and larger than Venus. There are records that indicate that Halley’s Comet returned in 66AD, just prior to the outbreak of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-73 AD. First-century Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, describes it as 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-Demon riding a horse holding a spear
Fig.4    Demon riding a horse holding a comet, Negev rock art, passing by the moon (photo Razy Yahel)

The rock art in Fig.4, from the Negev Desert, showcases a figure with horns holding a curved spear. This depiction is a classic representation of a horned demon believed by ancient cultures to spread diseases and influence evil spirits. The curved shape of the spear in the image mimics the appearance of a comet in the sky, tracing its movement along the Earth’s curvature. The presence of the faint moon to the left of the horse suggests that the scene is a representation of the sky.

Conclusion

In these rock art images, the celestial occurrence of a comet is illustrated using earthly symbols, lending credibility to the scene. The horse, with its wheel-like hooves, serves to connect the scene to the image of a comet moving across the sky, similar to the Roman representation of the Sun Chariot.

Comets have captured the imagination of humans for centuries and are depicted in rock art as ominous signs associated with disaster and death. Ancient cultures connected the celestial with the earthly, using symbols and illustrations to explain the mysterious movements of comets. The horse and rider illustration in a rock art symbolizes a comet in motion, while the demon riding a horse with a curved spear represents the fear associated with comets.


Bibliography


Coimbra F. The sky on the Rock: Cometary images2 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.

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Yehuda Rotblum