1V Congresso Internacional de Estudios Fenicios y Pùnicos
Cadiz, 2-6 Octubre 1995 Sec. F: Religiôn y culto

 

THE RIDDLE OF THE PROTECTIVE CRESCENT
IN PUNIC VOTIVE ART


Léo Dubal
Virtual Laboratory for Archaeometry
Soulages / F-48500 La Canourgue
dubal (at) archaeometry.org


Abstract

A total solar eclipse took place over Carthage on April 30th, - 462. This major astral event coincided with three others events of great significance: the starting point of the period during which crescent moon was systematically engraved in the protective position above the solar disc, the promotion of the Goddess Tanit and the territorial expansion of Carthage.


This report discusses an astral event which sheds new light on
 the Riddle of the Protective Crescent in Punic Votive Art,
 as well as on the promotion of the Goddess Tanit. 
While in our recent publication [1] on Punic stelae we assumed 
the beginning of the major changes in religious beliefs in Carthage occurred 
"around - 450", we now favour a backward shift by 12 years.
It is well known that religious life may be conditioned by natural events seen
 as dedicated signs from the divinity. It is less acknowledged, though, 
that priesthood with the ability to predict natural events might 
have taken advantage of such science to launch "religious" revolutions.

The year - 462 opened in Carthage a 317 - year long period which deserves
 to be called "the protective crescent avatar" (see Fig. 1).


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Fig.1 :  The "Protective Crescent Avatar"

In the Phoenico-Punic world, prior to - 462, the "receptive crescent", 
in the representation of the "sun-moon couple" symbol, cohabits 
with the "protective crescent", while after - 462, the "disc and crescent" symbol,
 on the votive stelae of Carthage & Motya, is found to have been engraved systematically 
with the crescent in the protective position.
Indeed, Carla Del Vais [2] lists only eight stelae in Motya
which form exceptions to this rule.
The protective crescent avatar however was brutally put to an end with the Roman take-over,
 and the definitive establishment of their "ideologically correct" arrangement: 
the solar disc "dominating" the lunar crescent. A patriarchal symbol was born. 
Jules Toutain [3] gave the first comprehensive description of this astral symbol in North Africa.

The moon is the matrilineal symbol par excellence as full-moon 
provides the basic timing for the menstrual cycle. 
The moon is also an object of fascination and worship. 
Let us note that over our heads the moon-crescent does not always appear 
vertical as the letter "C", but may be seen to lie horizontally, 
at times either up or down, that is, in the protective or the receptive position. 
It is indeed in this more symbolic way that the crescent 
appears in Punic jewellery and votive art.

A puzzling collection of pre-Punic symbols carved on a Phoenician seal is shown in Fig. 2.

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Fig. 2:  "Family ties" . Seal / Coll. J. Jantzen (Hamburg) / Imprint-like, after Ref [4]

According to Eric Gubel [4], this seal, found in Sardinia, dates back to about 600 BC. 
The symbol "disc-on-crescent" sits just next to the "disc-between-the-horns" 
symbol crowning the Goddess’ head. 
This composition underlines the very strong "family ties" between these two matrilineal symbols.

Fig. 3 shows the "tactigramme" of a fragment of an anepigraphic stele
 which my great-grand father, Jean Spiro, did not take the trouble to register
 in the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum.

tactigraohy: L. Dubal

Fig. 3: The inverted "Apron of Tanit". Stele/ Coll. J. Spiro (Tactigramme #171, Ref. [6])

Fond of its astral symbol, my father used to refer to this stele
 as "the Apron of  Tanit collecting the sun" and positioned it in his practice
 with its crescent in the receptive position. Therefore, for fifty years, 
I saw this stele turned up-side-dawn ! 
It took me the same period of time to invent "tactigraphy", 
my stamping method based on advanced paper & laser-copying technologies [5], 
and hence to be able to identify on this stele the remaining bits of Tanit ’s hands and head.

In Carthage, as the use of the compass became mastered aver the years,
 the symbol of the protective crescent was engraved a votive stele with an increasing skill.
A standard solution was to take for R, the radius of the crescent,
a multiple of D, the diameter of the disc and to vary 
the position of the centre of rotation. Fig. 4a depicts the result when R is taken equal to D.

tactigraohy: L. Dubal

Fig. 4: "Compass' game...keeping  R constant". Stelae / Museum of Carthage
(Tactigrammes a: #154, b: #132, c: #129, d: #141; Ref. [6]).

An alternative was to take R equal to 1.25 D (see Fig. 4b), but the lapidary 
did not stick to the formula since the lower edge of the crescent is redrawn by hand 
with a somewhat smaller radius! Another alternative was to take R equal to 1.5 D (see Fig. 4c),
 or even R equal to 2 D (see Fig. 4d). It is interesting to watch again those tactigrammes, 
but, this time, by keeping constant the disc diameter (see Fig. 5).

tactigraohy: L. Dubal

Fig. 5 : "Protective crescent  on... D constant"

Obviously the appearance is strongly influenced
by parameters such as R and D.

To round up this selection of tactigrammes with protective crescents,
Fig. 6 shows an interesting solution with the sun disc
de-coupled from Tanit ’s head.

tactigraohy: L. Dubal

Fig. 6: "Moon-sun couple...decoupled from Tanit". Stele / Museum of Carthage
(Tactigramme #165, Ref. [6]).

I now turn to the religious roots of this astral symbol. 
The meeting of the new moon with the sun at intervals gives rise to solar eclipses, 
and I believe that such dramatic events played an exceedingly important role in past religious life. 
Bronze age tribes in Valcamonica seem already to have attempted
 to record such an event by means of rock engraving.
Much more recently, at the beginning of the XVth century, 
the city of Grandson (Switzerland) was granted its freedom, 
and it may well be that this city choose its seal with the "sun-above-moon"
 just after the nearly total solar eclipse (99 % shielding) which took place at
6 o’clock in the morning of April 7th, 1415.

What about eclipses over Carthage ? 
Twenty years ago, some participants to this Conference might remember,
 on April 29th, 1976, at 11:10, there was a sun-above-moon solar eclipse
 with a magnitude of  81% shielding.

A far more exciting one must have been the 
nearly total solar eclipse of April 30th   - 462 (Julian day 1 552432). 
With a shielding factor of 98.9 % in the sun-below-moon position, 
the shadow zone reached Carthage (N36.8°, E10.2°) at 13:35. 
Five minutes later, at 13:40, 
it reached Motya (N37.8°, E12.4°) with 100% shielding.

To be instrumental for the introduction of a new cult, 
natural events must be predicted with some accuracy. 
In the case of eclipses, some researchers believe that the Mesopotamian 
had already recognised the existence of the "Saros", 
an 18 year long eclipse cycle of 223 lunations,
or 6’585 days and 8 hours.
It is said that the Carian proto-astronomer Thales became well-known at the age of 40,
 for having predicted a solar eclipse, most probably the one, nearly total, 
of late afternoon May 28th, - 584 (Julian day 1 507900). 
This view is contested by Neugebauer [7] who denies Thales could have made such a prediction
 and even states that no solar eclipses could be predicted to be visible in Asia Minor
 until three centuries after Thales. In any case, at the age of 22, Thales had a stroke of luck: 
the shadow zone of the eclipse preceding the one of - 584
 had a nearly 20 degrees longitude overlap with this later one,
 thereby including Miletos (N37.5°, E27.3°). 
Therefore, he might have observed the barely noticeable 
morning solar eclipse (with only about 50% shielding) which took place on May l8th, - 602.

For the prediction of the solar eclipse over Carthage on April 30th, - 462,
if one assumes, in contradiction to Neugebauer, 
that the Saros cycle was known one century after Thales, 
then, one can also guess that the Punic proto-astronomers had heard about the total solar eclipse
 which occurred 223 lunation earlier over the mouth of the 
Yangtze River (Shanghai: N31.5°, E121.5°), on April 20th, - 480. 
According to Fr. Gaubil, this eclipse is the 35th one recorded 
in the Chinese Annals (started in - 708).

Furthermore, Phoenician-like polychrome glass beads found in Chinese tombs
 of this epoch tend to suggest early contacts between the Chinese and the Phoenico-Punic world.
 According to Nobuhiro Yoshida [8], even "transoceanic immigration was possible
 in prehistoric ages beyond our imagination".

An alternative basis for the conjectured prediction would be the 669 lunation's cycle. 
This triple Saros cycle was certainly known by the Babylonians of the IIIrd century BCE,
 but, of course, we do not know for sure if it was already known 
in the Phoenico-Punic world at the end of the VIth century.
 On March 28th, - 516 (Julian day 1 532676), the solar eclipse was, 
with only 61 % shielding, just visible over Carthage, 
but must have been seen more clearly, half an hour later, 
over Tyre (N33.2°, E35.2°), where the shielding factor was 82 %.

The trajectories of solar eclipses were calculated by hand last century by von Oppolzer,
and published in 1887 in his famous "Canon der Finsternisse" [9]. 
In Fig. 7 we can see how, after a Saros cycle, the shadow zone shifts towards West and North.

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Fig. 7: "Oppolzer' trajectories": the total solar eclipse of -462 and the three previous ones [7]

The uncertainties in calculating ancient solar eclipses are due to the incompletely known
 changes in the rotation of the earth which tends to slow down.  
For the - 462 eclipse, it may be that the given local time of occurrence 
might be off by as much as one hour, while its maximum magnitude
 should be given as 98 % plus or minus 2 %.

Concerning moon and sun identification in Punic jewellery, 
Brigitte Quillard [10] noticed, that cold colours (e.g.: lapis) were filling the
crescent  
while warm colours (e.g.: red-orange) were filling the disc
so the association crescent = moon and disc = sun is unambiguous.

Of course, during a solar eclipse, there is a solar-crescent (see Fig. 8)

Photo : L. Dubal

Fig. 8 : "Solar crescent" observed  on skin through foliage  during a solar eclipse 

and a moon-disc, but the least one can say is that such a subtlety seems
 to have "blinded" the ancient observers.

Conclusion: The total solar eclipse over Carthage of April 30th, - 462,
is conjectured to have been predicted by the Punic proto-astronomers 
and to represent a major event in archaeoastronomy. 
This astral event might also be suspected to have been used by Carthage 
as the welcome pretext (that is it usefully conformed to the City’s founding myths) 
to justify the annexation of the hinterland [1] and to gear deep religious changes
 such as the promotion of the Goddess Tanit and her Protective Crescent.

 

Acknowledgment

I am much indebted to Jean Meeus (Erps-Kwerps, B) and Göran Hellström (Lund, S) for their most precious collaboration in calculating the detailed features of the solar eclipses reported here.

References

[1] L’énigme des stèles de la Carthage africaine - Tanit plurielle,
        L. Dubal & M. Larrey, Éd. L’Harmattan (1995) ISBN 2.7384.3069.
                click for abstract & order 
[2] La Simbologia astrale delle stele votive di Mozia,
        C. Del Vais, Sicilia Arch. 26 (1993) pp.51-73
[3] Les symboles astraux sur les monuments funéraires de l’Afrique du Nord,
        J. Toutain, Rev. Et. Anc. 12 (1911), pp. 165—175
[4] An Essay on the Axe-bearing Astarte and her Role in a Phoenician Triad,
        E. Gubel, Riv. Stu. Fen. 8 (1980), pp. 1-18
[5] Tactigraphy: a new Method for Epigraphy, Application to a Punic Terra-cotta Votive Stele,
        L. Dubal, CEDAC-Carthage 14 (1994), p.5l, ISSN 0330-2210
[6] Atlas pictographique, 243 tactigrammes inédits de stèles votives de Carthage,
        L. Dubal, M. Larrey & L.Spiro, (1993), autopublication: L. Dubal
[7] A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy,
        O. Neugebauer, Springer (1975), p.604, ISBN 3-540-06995X
[8] Semitic Inscription found in Japan,
        N. Yoshida, Survey-Boll .CeSMAP-Pinerolo 7-8 (1993), pp. 67-74
[9] Canon der Finsternisse,
       
T.R.v.Oppolzer, Ak.Wiss.Wien 52 (1887), pp.70-79
[10] Bijoux carthaginois I,
        B. Quillard, Presses Univ. Louvain-La-Neuve (1979), p. 91

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