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Huxley, Margaret (1985) The signs of the zodiac in the art of the Near and Middle East up to and including the earlier Islamic period. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25501/SOAS.00029029

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Abstract

The scientific importance of the zodiac to the astronomers and astrologers of antiquity can be gauged from Babylonian cuneiform sources and Greek and Latin technical treatises. Less accessible is the history of the signs, and their meanings and allusions in extant works of art, as on these subjects the ancients themselves were ambivalent. This study, by an analysis of the iconographic evidence, seeks to uncover the origins of the twelve images that make up the zodiac cycle and to trace something of their subsequent history in the Graeco-Roman world and the Middle East, up to the earlier Islamic period. On the pictorial evidence of the seals, boundary stones, and other works of art, the thesis will contend, despite a few dissenting voices, that priority in the recognition of the zodiac, and the development of its characteristic images belongs to Mesopotamian civilization. Several of the constellation figures had already been identified by the early second millennium B.C., and the remainder are attested before the beginning of the first millennium. The fully-formed zodiac was in use in Mesopotamia by c. 500 B.C. and was diffused from that area. Literary evidence establishes that the zodiacal constellations were known in the Greek world before the time of Alexander, though following his visit to Babylon the popularity of the topic was greatly enhanced. Thus, in the Hellenistic period the zodiac was adopted into the iconography of kingship, a role that it maintained in the courts of Imperial Rome. An extensive investigation of the zodiac's assimilation into the religious iconography of the Roman empire is undertaken, especially in those cults where the deity was identified with a celestial body, or linked with the abstract concept of Time, for example, of Mithras, Sarapis, Artemis and Aion. The large number of extant zodiac monuments indicates its importance as an icon, while minor variations between one cycle and another suggest changing nuances of meaning in different contexts. The zodiac's power over human destiny was a concept so well-entrenched in popular imagination that the rise of the great monotheistic religions, Judaeism, Christianity and Islam, may have changed its status but hardly diminished its prevalence. In Levantine synagogues, and even in the Qur'an itself, the constellations and planets, though no longer deities in their own right, were still regarded as legitimate powers under God. Sasanian imperial iconography also employed the zodiac, a fact which probably had an effect on the symbols of kingship in Islam, and influenced the choice of iconography of at least one Umayyad prince. The sustained link between the zodiac and royalty is one important theme that has emerged from this study. A second is that the zodiac, though composed of twelve standard signs, could be varied in small ways to express religious or astrological doctrines, and that these variations can sometimes provide information about the monument or its background. Though little discussed by classical archaeologists, the zodiac has a more important part in Roman art than is generally admitted. Over a very long period of time the zodiac proved to be a remarkably versatile symbol. Its imagery represented an important scientific innovation whose evolution in the Middle East is demonstrated by the iconographic evidence, here comprehensively assembled for the first time. Afterwards, the zodiac was universally accepted, both in European and Oriental civilizations.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses > Proquest
DOI (Digital Object Identifier): https://doi.org/10.25501/SOAS.00029029
Date Deposited: 16 Oct 2018 15:05
URI: https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/id/eprint/29029

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