Signs and Substitutions: Decoding the Nabataean Zodiac of Petra
“By the salt, by the fire, and by Al Lat, who is greatest of all.”
Ancient Arabian Oath, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings
At its height around 100 BCE the Nabataean empire included parts of Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The heart of the kingdom was Petra, “rock” in Greek, that was known as Naqmu to the Nabataen culture. It was a fabulous city carved into living rock that poet John William Burgon described as “a rose-red city half as old as time.” Petra was established as early as 312 BCE but was unknown to the modern world until its discovery by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. When Indiana Jones was searching for the Holy Grail in the 1989 film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he rode on horseback through a thin split in the red mountains in southern Jordan. Called the Siq, the only way into Petra is a dramatic tunnel-like gorge of towering red rock, nearly a mile long, that suddenly opens onto the city.
Scholars believe the Nabataean script was developed from Aramaic during the second century BCE and was in use until around the fourth or fifth century CE. Nabataean is considered the direct precursor of Arabic script. One of the earliest inscriptions in the Arabic language was written in the Nabataean alphabet, found in Namarah, modern Syria, and dated to 328 CE.
Archeologists have been puzzled how a simple culture was transformed into a wealthy urban lifestyle in such a short time, excelling in art, architecture, engineering, and stone masonry. The answer seems to be that the Nabataeans became involved in the lucrative trade in South Arabian frankincense and myrrh, the same business that led the Queen of Sheba to visit the court of Solomon some five centuries earlier. Around 106 CE Petra was peacefully taken over by Rome’s voracious appetite for empire, and the Roman culture was overlaid on the Nabataean. That is evidenced by this enigmatic Nabataean zodiac discovered at Khirbet et-Tannur, high on a hill near Petra, at the site of a ruined goddess temple.
Worship of the heavenly bodies was central to Nabataean religion, and zodiac figures were popular in Nabataean architecture. The zodiac found at Petra has been dated to about 120 CE and is at first both familiar and puzzling. The zodiac is a sculpture composed of a round wheel containing zodiac symbols in the outer portion with an image of the Greek goddess Tyche, the Roman Fortuna, inside the wheel. This in turn is supported by the figure of Nike, the Greek winged goddess of victory. The Nabataeans tended to represent their deities in betyls, “houses of god,” that were aniconic blocks of stone–symbolic rather than literal representations. So this zodiac reflects the later Greco-Roman influence–but with a twist. It is an ingenious juxtaposition of the Greco-Roman overlay that retains unique elements of Nabataean culture.
The zodiac statue was originally built into a temple wall and was likely damaged by the earthquake of 363 CE. It was found in halves–one half is owned by the Antiquities Department in Jordan and the other by the Cincinnati Art Museum. Fortunately for history and culture the two halves were re-joined for the first time since antiquity for a stunning exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2003-2004. The Nabataean zodiac is unique in a number of interesting ways. Instead of a conventional continuous sequence, the figures proceed as mirror images in opposite directions from the top down, perhaps showing a reflection of relationship between the opposite signs rather than a linear sequential relationship. The zodiac begins with Aries at the top, moving counter clockwise down the left side in the expected direction, but the mirror image of the next six zodiac signs begins again at the top, where Libra is next to Aries, and the remaining signs move clockwise down the right side of the wheel. (Image credit Stephane Beaulieu, used with permission, from an article originally published in www.matrifocus.com)
The zodiac also uses a combination of familiar Greco-Roman figures but includes several intriguing substitutions for Aries, Sagittarius, and Capricorn, retaining Nabataean deities within the overlay of the conquering Roman symbolism. Rather than the familiar ram, Aries seems to be represented by the main, male god of Petra, Dushara, “lord of the mountain.” He was seen as the protector of the royal house. This zodiac figure wears rather strange head gear that might have been intended as stylized, curved ram’s horns. Sagittarius appears to be a jovial, youthful figure with a spear, rather than a centaur, but seems a good match for the Jupiter ruled sign. Capricorn is shown as a now-damaged bust of a human figure rather than the traditional sea-goat familiar to Greco-Roman symbolism. The figure is female and has a crescent moon over her head.
Long before Islam, the Sabeans in Arabia worshipped a moon god named Ilumquh who was married to the sun goddess Dhat Hamymand. They had three daughters: Al Uzza, Al Lat, and Al Manat, who were widely worshipped from Petra in the North to the legendary Kingdoms of Arabia Felix in the South, including Saba, the Biblical Sheba, and as far east as Iran and Palmyra. The three goddesses were very popular in Mecca at the time of Mohammed. These goddesses survived into Islam, where in the Koran they are called the daughters of Allah. They were worshipped as uncut aniconic stones, and the “idols” of Al Uzza and Al Lat were two of the three hundred plus pagan statues at the Ka’aba that were later viciously destroyed by Mohammed. They are also the source of the so-called Satanic Verses, discussed in the book of the same name by Salman Rushdie. These goddesses are related to the ancient triple goddess archetype that includes the Greek Fates and the Norns from Norse mythology.
Al-Uzza, “most mighty,” was seen as the planet Venus, a virgin warrior riding astride a camel, and youngest of the three. Al Uzza is mentioned on many aniconic betyls. She was considered a goddess of the city of Petra as noted by Epiphanius of Salamis and was the consort of Dushara. She had a sanctuary at Nakhlah in a valley on the road from Mecca, with acacia trees into which she was said to descend. Some scholars believe she may even have been the patron deity of Mecca itself. Isaac of Antioch, a writer of the 5th century CE, called her Beltis, “Lady,” and Kaukabta, “the Star.” Al Uzza was associated with water and springs, and a votive fountain in the form of a lion carved into a rock face has been associated with her. She also guarded ships on ocean voyages. Although Arabia is a land of deserts and nomads, they did make ocean voyages to trade. In this aspect Al Uzza was symbolized as a dolphin, whose habit of swimming alongside ships made them guardians and protectors. This connects her to Atargatis, a mermaid goddess, who was a chief deity of ancient Syria. Large felines were also sacred to her, and the Temple of the Winged Lions at Petra is thought to be hers. This links her to the Semitic and Akkadian goddess Asherah, who is shown on the back of a lion.
Meteorites have been venerated as sacred objects by different cultures and ancient civilizations. Al Uzza was worshipped in the form of a black meteorite stone, which was inscribed with a mark or indentation called the “impression of Aphrodite.” It has been suggested by several researches and scholars that this same stone is the sacred Black Stone of Islam that was placed on the Ka’aba, the shrine in Mecca.
Al Lat, whose name means “goddess,” as Al Lah means “god,” was the mother figure and symbolized by the Sun. In Arabia the Sun was called Shams and considered feminine. Al Lat had a sanctuary in the town of Ta’if, east of Mecca, and was known from Arabia to Iran. Her symbol was a sun disk resting in a crescent, similar to the crowns of Isis and Hathor in Egypt. She wore a gold necklace, the solar metal, and sometimes she held a sheaf of wheat and a small lump of frankincense. Her emblem has been found carved on many incense holders.
Al Menat, “time,” was the grandmother goddess of fate who was often shown holding a cup with a waning crescent moon above her head. Her name derives from the Arabic maniya, “fate, death,” or menata, “part, portion, that which is allotted.” She is similar to the Greek Atropos, one of the three Fates, who determined the length of life. She is known from inscriptions, and tombs were placed under her protection. Maniya is mentioned in poetry as bringing a person to the grave, holding out the cup of death. Al Menat is a very ancient deity, and her cult may have preceded both Al Uzza’s and Al Lat’s. Her worship was widespread, though she was particularly worshipped as a black stone at Quidaid, near Mecca and was connected with the great pilgrimage. Her sanctuary was the starting point for several tribes.
In 629 CE Mohammed sent twenty armed horsemen to destroy the statue of Al Manat at Qudayd, on the road between Mecca and Medina. For eight years he had tolerated the coexistence of the pagan deities. Al Uzza was the favorite goddess of the Quraysh, the tribe to which Mohammad belonged, but Al Manat was the most popular in the region, and was idolized by three key Meccan tribes that Mohammad had been desperately trying to win over to his new monotheistic religion. The destruction of the goddesses’ shrines, likely all on the same day, was bloody and final. Veneration of the divine feminine went underground until modern times.
The unique Nabataean zodiac of Petra makes the symbolism personal and specific to the site and culture of the period. This stone monument has survived for twenty centuries, silently expressing the voices and beliefs of a culture that was destroyed by conquest and religious persecution. Archeologists have discovered two main festivals that were celebrated at Petra each year: the “birthing of the lambs” festival at spring equinox and the harvest grain festival at autumn equinox. The arrangement of the Petra zodiac emphasizes the six opposite pairs of the twelve signs rather than the traditional sequence of individual expression. The unusual mirror image arrangement of the zodiac figures suggests that these two significant religious/seasonal festivals celebrated at the equinoxes were represented by the two figures at the top of the wheel. The zodiac of Petra was likely a festival calendar, showing the importance of the two main events in the sacred calendar. The temple where the zodiac was found would have been the location of the celebrations.
Dushara, substituting for Aries the ram, would hold the place at the top of the zodiac representing the spring festival. I believe it would be Al Uzza, goddess of Petra and consort of Dushara, who would be beside him, holding the place of Libra, autumn, and the harvest or grain festival. As consort of Dushara her rightful place would be at his side at the top of the wheel. Placing the mated pair of deities next to each other, and beginning the seasonal cycle of each, gives them equal rank.
Although some sources believe it is Al Uzza at the center of the wheel, I believe the Greek goddess of good fortune, Tyche, is instead a representation of Al Lat, the Sun. This shows the role of the Sun at the center of the zodiac wheel. Also, in Nabataean myth, Dushara was sometimes seen as the son of Al Lat, so his mother, rather than his mate, seems better placed inside the wheel.
Al Menat, goddess of time and fate, with the waning crescent moon above her head, is the elder goddess placed in the space of Capricorn. This also links her to the ancient pre-Hellenic Titan goddess Rhea, who wielded the sickle and was “Mother Time” long before Saturn dethroned her. With Nike holding up the wheel of fortune to assure victory, and the Sun in the middle represented by Tyche, goddess of good fortune, the Nabataean zodiac of Petra could have acted like a talisman, casting a magic spell to ensure good fortune through the year. Although it lay buried for centuries, that magic seems to have protected Petra, unlike Palmyra, which has been desecrated in our time by militant zealots.
As Atlantis Rising readers know, ancient knowledge and forgotten wisdom that has lain buried for aeons is re-emerging in our time thanks to the tireless efforts of alternative scholars. As we work to bring this knowledge to light we should also labor to use that light to banish the darkness of ignorance.
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