Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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D: Early Mesopotamian Constellations

5: Elamite lion-bull iconography as constellations?

Persian lion-bull combat/contest scene decorating a wall (central panel, east stairway) of the apadana at Persepolis. (The stone figures are carved in relief (embossed, likely circa 515 BCE.) The finely chiseled detail of the figures is obvious.) The lion-bull combat/contest scene also appears on the west stairway of the central panel of the apadana. Further figures of the lion-bull combat/contest appear on the corner angles of the southern facade of the Palace of Darius at Persepolis. In all examples the lion is depicted attacking the bull from behind. The actual meaning of the lion/bull composites will likely always remain a guess. At this date the depiction is seen as a symbol of kingship and power. The depiction is variously described as a "lion devouring a bull," a "lion fighting a bull," or "the rear attack." Both figures are shown standing and both are in a rearing posture.

Colour photograph of Lion-Bull section of the central facade of the eastern stairway, Apadana, Persepolis. The Apadana Staircase, similar to the Great Staircase, was designed to allow a solemn access to the audience hall. The lion-bull combat/contest is depicted at many other places in the Apadana and other palaces. As example: It appears at the tachara (the Palace of Darius) stairway.

Willy Hartner's Astronomical Interpretation for the Lion-Bull Symplegma (Composite)

Attempts to reasonably identify animal contest scenes (such as lion-bull combat/contest scenes) have broadly varied between naturalistic and astronomical explanations. It is certainly not established, however, that the lion-bull iconography has a single intended meaning. (Two influential studies for an astronomical interpretation of lion-bull combat/contest scenes are: "The Lion and the Unicorn" by the art historian Cyril Bunt (Antiquity, Volume IV, 1930, Pages 425-437); and "The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near East and the Motif of the Lion-Bull Combat" by the science historian Willy Hartner (Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Volume XXIV, 1965, Numbers 1 and 2, Pages 1-16, and Plates 1-XVI).) Both Bunt and Hartner argued for Lion and Bull constellations being depicted. Hartner's method for relating pre-literate era lion-bull combat/contest iconography to the sky consisted of working back in time, on the basis of precession, to achieve a "matching" situation with the positions of the historical lion and bull constellations. Hartner interpreted/speculated that the Lion was the constellation Leo and that the Bull was the constellation Taurus (their earliest appearances in the sky as constellations). This method invites scepticism. (In his article "On the Origin of the Zodiacal Constellations" (Vistas in Astronomy, Volume 36, 1993, Page 181) the astronomer and historian Alexander Gurshtein credits Hartner's 1965 article as a strong stimulus for his own method of constellation reconstruction.) Hartner was actually seeking to substantiate Hezfeld's earlier conjecture.

Hartner termed the lion-bull symplegma motif the "Lion-Bull Combat." He associated this motif with the development of the Near Eastern agricultural calendar; specifically the marking of the beginning of Spring (in February, 4000 BCE) by the meridian crossing of the Lion constellation and the simultaneous setting of the Bull constellation. Hartner's 'calculations' were for the latitude of the city of Ur, for the night of February 10, 4000 BCE. Some problems with Hartner's assumption's and claims were discussed in the Bulletin (1988, Issues 13-24) of the (Canadian) Society for Mesopotamian Studies. Some kind of system for determining key times in the agricultural cycle would have been very important to the early farmers of the ancient Near East. However, calendars were not a prerequisite for the development of agriculture. In the period before the development of writing early farmers may have simply depended on knowledge of the seasons from changing seasonal temperatures, changes in vegetation, animal births, the flight of birds, onset of rains, or the flooding of rivers.

Hartner's influential interpretation of the lion-bull combat/contest motif, as evidence for fourth millennium BCE Lion and Bull constellations being used as seasonal markers (a 4-constellation zodiac), has received later endorsement by several other astronomers. However, both Assyriologists and historians of Mesopotamian art, with the exception of Ernst Herzfeld, have not done so. (Peter van der Veen has stated (2008) the Pleiades are depicted on many Mesopotamian cylinder seals by the so-called '7 dots' symbol.) As recent as 2002 the David Stronach, the British Archaeologist and expert on ancient Iran, denied the validity of Hartner's interpretation. (See: "Icons and Dominion", Iranica Antiqua, Volume 37, 2002.) (Hartner believed that by February 4000 BCE the Sumerians had originated (for agricultural purposes) a quartet of constellations (i.e., a simple proto-zodiac), comprising the Bull, the Lion, the Scorpion, and the Ibex (later to become the Water Carrier?) marking the 4 tropical points of the sky. A fundamental problem is the "internal evidence" approach to solely argue the case whilst not being able to show that there are any direct supporting statements (or even "hints") contained in any type of texts. (For support by astronomers see: "The Origin of the Zodiac" by Owen Gingerich (Sky and Telescope, Volume 67, 1984, Pages 218-220); "Mathematics and Astronomy in Mesopotamia" by Bartel van der Waerden (Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Gillispie, Volume XV, Supplement 1, 1978, Pages 667-680); "Night Gallery: The Function, Origin, and Evolution of Constellations" by Ed. Krupp (Archaeoastronomy, Volume XV, 2000, Pages 43-63); and "Moon and Megaliths" by John North (Times Literary Supplement, 1971, Pages 633-635).) For confirmation of Ernst Herzfeld's views see Note 6 of Hartner's 1965 paper. Herzfeld's own publications show his liking for astronomical interpretations of mythological themes (see his: Archaeological History of Iran (1934)). (It would appear that the archaeologist and art historian Ernst Herzfeld was the first person to draw attention to the combat/contest depictions on cylinder seals.)

The Appearance of the Lion-Bull Symplegma at Persepolis

The Archaemenid Empire is dated 550 to 330 BCE. Persepolis, the dynastic national shrine of Archaemenid Persia, was constructed from circa 520 to 450 BCE, to the commands of the great Archaemenid kings. It was a monumental architectural complex that was occupied for nearly two centuries before being burnt by Alexander the Great. The lion-bull combat/contest was an important symbol at Persepolis and is commonly asserted to be symbolically related to the spring equinox and thus is one of the reliefs connected with the depiction of the New Year's festival (i.e., the spring festival Norouz). However, the assertion that the lion-bull combat/contest reliefs at Persepolis depict the New Year's festival (i.e., the spring festival Norouz) is not firmly established.

A number of academics (Cyril Bunt (1930), Ernst Herzfeld (1941), and Willy Hartner (1965)) held the view that the lion-bull combat/contest scenes depicted on earlier Mesopotamian cylinder seals and other items also have an astronomical significance. Willy Hartner in particular argued for an interpretation involving the establishment of Mesopotamian Lion and Bull constellations circa 4000 BCE. However, the earliest depiction of a lion-bull combat/contest is on a pitcher from Uruk dated circa 3300 BCE.

A recent and different interpretation has been offered by the young historian Francisco Prado-Vilar in his article "Circular Visions of Fertility and Punishment: Caliphal Ivory Caskets from al-Andalus." (In: Gülru Necipoglu (Editor). Muqamas XIV: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World (1997). Pages 19-41.): "The lion-bull combat is common motif used for the glorification of royal power; it has a long tradition in political iconography, with well-known occurrences in artistic enterprises related to strong monarchic territorial structures like the Assyrian and Persian empires." Perhaps a correct interpretation has been offered by Elspeth Dusinberre, an art historian and expert on the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire, in her book Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis (2002). Page 278 has an illustration of a recently recovered seal from Sardis which depicts the lion-bull combat/contest with sun and moon motifs placed above them. The seal supports the conclusion that the Achaemenid lion-bull iconography represented the perpetual day-night revolutions. The lion stood for the sun and the bull stood for the night.

Objections to an astronomical origin and significance of the lion-bull combat/contest iconography are grounded in the complete absence of any type of supportive archaeological evidence.

The perceived problems with Hartner's Mesopotamian Lion-Bull constellation theory are:

(1) It is not established that the lion-bull iconography has a single intended meaning.

(2) The lion-bull combat/contest depictions are not consistent - in some of the earliest depictions both animals are depicted as achieving supremacy over each other.

(3) There is a complete lack of any type of supportive evidence for an astronomical interpretation i.e., from written sources such as mythological themes.

(4) The stylized lion-bull "symplegma" on an Elamite seal from circa 4000 BCE seems hardly convincing - the figures are barely touching and hardly make a convincing combat/contest scene.

(5) Hartner's earliest convincing lion-bull iconographic evidence (on a pitcher from Uruk) originated some 700 years later than the 4000 BCE seasonal marker date he identified.

(6) The earliest depiction of the eight-petaled rosette as a shoulder ornament on lions (circa 2500 BCE on a statue depicting lions supporting the throne of Innina) does not necessarily have an astral meaning.

(7) The sheer variety of animal combatants/contestants depicted in iconography makes an astronomical interpretation difficult.

(8) No one has attempted to show that changes in iconographic animals depicted in combat/contest scenes match constellation changes/additions due to the requirement for new seasonal markers to deal with the effect of precession.

(9) Splitting the lion-bull symplegma to interpret it is controversial and is not a requirement supported by recent interpreters of animal combat/contest scenes.

(10) Hartner did not track the (origin of the) lion-bull symbol to Elam - we do not know the culture responsible for originating the lion-bull symbolism.

(11) It has not been demonstrated that the lion-bull iconography at Persepolis has an astronomical/seasonal significance.

(12) It has not been demonstrated that the lion-bull iconography at Persepolis formed part of the depiction of a New Year's festival and it has not been demonstrated that a New Year's festival was held at Persepolis circa 500 BCE.

(13) A seal from Achaemenid Sardis supports the conclusion that the Achaemenid lion-bull combat/contest represented the perpetual day-night revolutions with the lion representing the sun and the bull representing the night.

(14) The lion-bull pairing ("symplegma" or otherwise) is not attested in later Mesopotamian cuneiform astronomical and astrological texts.

The lion-bull is not clearly astronomical. Even Hartner conceded there is no literary evidence for his astronomical interpretation.

Appendix 1: Information Note at Lion-Bull Symplegma on display at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Appendix 2: Lion Behaviour in the Wild

"Lion and Bull: I usually hesitate to read books about art. Art historians always seem to directly start with the interpretation of the paintings or sculptures. Somehow, they often appear to ignore that beautiful things can also be made to be precisely that: beautiful things. Art is meant primarily to be enjoyed, not studied. Take the fight of the bull and the lion that is shown so very often in Achemenid art. I once read that it represented the eternal cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil; I also read that they represent two constellations, Taurus and Leo; and I also read that these two theories are not mutually exclusive. But the truth is that we don't know what it symbolizes. Actually, we do not even know what it represents. I once believed that the struggle was equal, until I showed one of these reliefs to a man who worked at a zoo. He told me that the lion had already lost the fight, because this animal kills its prey by attacking its victim's head. Obviously, that's not what we see: the lion has leaped and has landed on the wrong place – the bull will escape. I recently told this to someone who had lived in Tanzania. She said that she had once witnessed this very type of fight, and added that the lion always leaps to the lower part of an animal’s back. He will remain hanging over there, until his prey is tired. It is only then that the lion kills its victim. … So, next time I have to explain this relief, I will do what I always do: explain why we don't know. Meanwhile, I learned one thing else. The astronomical explanation is almost certainly incorrect. The next example of an animal representing a celestial sign is the horoscope at Nemrud Daği, which is four centuries younger. Under the Roman Empire, this type of picture rapidly spread, which is why we're accustomed to it, but it simply had not yet been invented when Persepolis was built. (Blog maintained by Jona Lendering and Bill Thayer. http://rambambashi.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/lion-and-bull/)"

Appendix 3: Possible Early Lecture by Willy Hartner

It is indicated by a single source that circa 1949, Willy Hartner presented a lecture on the connection of art and astronomy entitled, "Early Traces of the Zodiac in the Near East," that was published in 1949 by the University of Chicago. The reference is given by Dr Ida Bobula (a controversial linguist) in her paper, "The Great Stag, A Sumerian Divinity and its Affiliation." in Yearbook of Ancient and Medieval History (1953, University of Buenos Aires). Ida Bobula, who resided for most of her life in the USA, was also regarded as a Sumerologist. I have not been able to reasonably establish that the reference is mistaken/erroneous. The list of Hartner's publications compiled by Matthias Schramm and published in 1982 does not mention such a publication. The only Hartner paper published by the University of Chicago Press in 1949 was titled "Goethe and the Natural Sciences." A search of the catalogue of both the University of Chicago library, and the Library of Congress, has also failed to locate any mention of a publication by Hartner in 1949. Perhaps the article "The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near East and the Motif of the Lion-Bull Combat" (1965) is the written version of a 1949 lecture by Hartner. The only 2 publications by Hartner on the subject that are mention by Schramm in his bibliography are: (1) The Conquering Lion, the Life Cycle of a Symbol" and (2) "The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near East and the Motif of the Lion-Bull Combat." This latter paper does mention (page 2?/4?) that Hartner once (year not specified) gave a lecture in Boston on the astronomical aspects of the Lion-Bull Combat motif to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Possibly this is the lecture alluded to by Ida Bobula. Somehow she was familiar with the material comprising Hartner's 1949 lecture. (Perhaps she asked for and obtained a copy of the lecture from Hartner. It seems rather odd that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences would leave the lecture unpublished.) Her single reference to Hartner's lecture concerned his reference to disc or bird solar symbolism between the horns of the ibex. On pages 12 to 14 of his 1965 paper, Hartner discusses the solar symbols between the horns of the ibex. In the late 1940s Hartner was associated with the University of Chicago but in late 1949 it would appear he had returned to Germany.


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