Congresso Internacional de Estudios Fenicios y
Cadiz, 2-6 Octubre 1995 Sec. F: Religiôn y culto
THE RIDDLE OF
THE PROTECTIVE CRESCENT
IN PUNIC VOTIVE ART
Virtual Laboratory for Archaeometry
Soulages / F-48500 Massegros Causses Gorges
dubal (at) archaeometry.org
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  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).
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  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  gave the first comprehensive description of this astral symbol in North Africa.
The moon is the
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
symbols carved on a Phoenician seal is shown in Fig. 2.
Fig. 2: "Family ties" . Seal / Coll. J. Jantzen (Hamburg) / Imprint-like, after Ref 
According to Eric
Gubel , 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
which my great-grand father, Jean Spiro, did not take the trouble to register
in the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum.
Fig. 3: The inverted "Apron of Tanit". Stele/ Coll. J. Spiro/ (Tactigramme #171, Ref. )
Fond of its astral
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 ,
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.
Fig. 4: "Compass' game...keeping R constant". Stelae / Museum of Carthage
(Tactigrammes a: #154, b: #132, c: #129, d: #141; Ref. ).
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).
Fig. 5 : "Protective crescent on... D constant"
by parameters such as R and D.
To round up this
tactigrammes with protective crescents,
Fig. 6 shows an interesting solution with the sun disc
de-coupled from Tanit ’s head.
Fig. 6: "Moon-sun couple...decoupled from Tanit". Stele / Museum of Carthage
(Tactigramme #165, Ref. ).
I now turn to the
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
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
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  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
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).
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 , even "transoceanic immigration was possible
in prehistoric ages beyond our imagination".
An alternative basis
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
were calculated by hand last century by von Oppolzer,
and published in 1887 in his famous "Canon der Finsternisse" .
In Fig. 7 we can see how, after a Saros cycle, the shadow zone shifts towards West and North.
Fig. 7: "Oppolzer' trajectories": the total solar eclipse of -462 and the three previous ones 
The uncertainties in
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
identification in Punic jewellery,
Brigitte Quillard  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)
Fig. 8 : "Solar crescent" observed on skin through foliage during a solar eclipse
and a moon-disc, but
least one can say is that such a subtlety seems
to have "blinded" the ancient observers.
total solar eclipse over Carthage of April 30th,
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  and to gear deep religious changes
such as the promotion of the Goddess Tanit and her Protective Crescent.
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.
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
 La Simbologia astrale delle stele votive di Mozia,
C. Del Vais, Sicilia Arch. 26 (1993) pp.51-73
 Les symboles astraux sur les monuments funéraires de l’Afrique du Nord,
J. Toutain, Rev. Et. Anc. 12 (1911), pp. 165—175
 An Essay on the Axe-bearing Astarte and her Role in a Phoenician Triad,
E. Gubel, Riv. Stu. Fen. 8 (1980), pp. 1-18
 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
 Atlas pictographique, 243 tactigrammes inédits de stèles votives de Carthage,
L. Dubal, M. Larrey & L.Spiro, (1993), autopublication: L. Dubal
 A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy,
O. Neugebauer, Springer (1975), p.604, ISBN 3-540-06995X
 Semitic Inscription found in Japan,
N. Yoshida, Survey-Boll .CeSMAP-Pinerolo 7-8 (1993), pp. 67-74
 Canon der Finsternisse,
T.R.v.Oppolzer, Ak.Wiss.Wien 52 (1887), pp.70-79
 Bijoux carthaginois I,
B. Quillard, Presses Univ. Louvain-La-Neuve (1979), p. 91
for the latest related paper
click to view the collection of stelae "SPIRO"