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An Astral Bowl

A colleague recently informed me of what she thought was a very early zodiac. The object it is on, an Aramaic ritual bowl, is ancient but not prehistoric. It is not a zodiac or any type of accurate star map but a symbolic scheme of recognisable constellation shapes and figures. This undeniably exquisite item has been dated to 8-7th centuries BC is made of bronze and depicts the sun, moon, planets and possibly comets within seven concentrically arranged circles of stars from the outer to inner ring. The imagery is divided into eight zones.

At the centre is an Orion-type figure wielding a staff and wearing either an Egyptian or Anatolian/storm-god (Hadad) crown. He stands upon an ibex which might represent Capricornus. On his right are what have been identified as the Plough portion of Ursa Major, Aquila, and the Pleiades. The bull’s head on the left appears to correspond with Taurus with a sign possibly indicating Corona Borealis below it. The identity of the astral Baboon figure with a scroll has been suggested as Thoth. Another Plough/Bear occupies in the inner circle and the hero-hunter figure is surrounded by seven stars.

The most recent discussion of the item is K. Lawson Younger Jr. “Another Look at an Aramaic Astral Bowl.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 71, No. 2 (October 2012), pp. 209-23 which is available on jstor and from which all images are sourced. Concerning its likely use as an astral divination bowl he writes the following:

Two Mesopotamian hymns are especially helpful in understanding the use and function of a bowl to portray an astral scene. First, in a hymn to Šamaš there is a reference to the bowl shape of the heavens and earth:

The heavens are as small as the metal bowl (kappu) into which you (Šamaš) gaze; the sum of all the lands is as small as the saucer of the diviner (mākaltu bārûtu).

Earlier in the hymn, it states: [In] the saucer of the diviner (mākaltu bārûtu), with the arrangement of cedar, [you, i.e., Šamaš] inform (?) the interpreters (šāʾilu) who interpret dreams.

The saucer of the diviner (mākaltu bārûtu) is a reference to a bowl or shallow saucer often used in lecanomancy, divination by means of pouring oil onto water and deriving oracles from the shapes which the oil assumed on the surface of the water; or vice versa, the water on oil. This inscribed bowl has sufficient depth to have been used in this way. Second, in a hymn to Marduk (manifesting henotheistic tendencies by representing the other gods as aspects of Marduk) it is declared:

The one who goes at your side is the Pleiades (zappu), O judge of truth and justice of the gods and goddesses; Your greatness is the Igigi (great gods of heaven), your leadership is the valiant Irnini (Ištar); Your (plural) basin (ḫamû) is the deep (apsû), your (plural) incense bowl (nignakku) is the heaven of Anu (šamê ša Anu).

The “heaven of Anu” is metaphorically identified with a nignakku-censer. Such censers were bowls that could be used in libanomancy, the practice of divination through observing and interpreting the behavior of smoke from incense sprinkled into a censer. For example, one libanomancy omen reads: “If when you sprinkle the incense (the smoke) goes to its right and does not go to its left, you will prevail over your adversary.”

Regarding possible pictorial allusions to solar and lunar eclipses, the author emphasises the deep connection between astral cults and royalty in the Near East and the royal nature of this special bowl. In that the sun, moon and stars were the visible appearance of divine power and eternity in which royalty wished to participate, what might have counted as witchcraft for ordinary folk in Mesopotamian saucer divination, such as bringing celestial bodies down to earth, was probably how this instrument was used.  

Although the bowl’s use in astral divination seems fairly clear the author suggests the star designs were too conceived to have been created ad hoc and that they source from an older, presently unverified stellar tradition which may or may not have implicated a zodiac or sky chart in a more conventional sense.