In ancient times, there existed a wide-ranging prehistoric cult and well-known mythology of Sacred Ram.
5th c. BC, Archaemenid, silver ram rhyton, from Iran (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The ram loomed large as a religious icon across a great many cultures and was a part of the core of mythologies, of Pharoanic Egypt, pre-Christian Europe, Classical Greece, West Africa, and the Judeo-Christian tradition and it is often associated with celebrations of the “solar return” or return of spring and fertility after the hiatus of winter. For a survey of the cult, see the writings of Deborah Houlding, “HEAVENLY IMPRINTS: Development of the Zodiac and the early origins of Aries & Taurus“.
“Aries is known to originate from Egyptian symbolism argues that their perception of the sign is closest to its original meaning. Aries was incorporated into the Mesopotamian zodiac after the conquest of Egypt by the Assyrians in 671 BC. In ancient Egypt the ram was revered as an emblem of the Sun and held inviolate except during the New Year ceremonies when lambs were offered to the Sun in sacrifice. This was a time of great spiritual significance; the re-emergence of the Sun, the resurrection of the light, the resurrection of God. the Great Temple of Amon-Ra at Karnak, built in 1480 BC. This includes an impressive avenue of ram-headed sphinxes and is oriented to the summer solstice at sunset. The temple is designed around a long passage, arranged to permit a beam of light from the Sun to reach down to a darkened sanctuary at the end.
Like the mythical phoenix, which arose in its own ashes, the ram was chosen as a natural symbol of resurrection because of its ability, when shorn, to replenish its stock of wool. “The Ram, who is rich with an abundance of wool and, when shorn of this, with a fresh supply, will ever cherish hopes”, writes Manilius in the first century BC.”
The iconography of the Aries ram was noted to have replaced the Sacred Bull or the Bull of heaven Taurus as the predominant iconography in Egypt from the the 2nd millennium BC onwards. This was thought to have signified a historical shift of kingdom power, with some scholars dating the story of Moses overturning the Golden Calf to this same period.
The trend of antagonism towards the bull may have been a euphemism for the complete subjugation of lunar-earth-goddess-cultic peoples by followers of solar cults, since the bull was associated with Mesopotamian lunar cult (the horns of the bull represented the crescent moon) and the sacred bull of the Hattians found on elaborate standards at Alaca Höyük alongside those of the sacred stag, represented Seri, Day, the companion of Hurri, Night, in Hurrian and Hittite mythologies.
In “The Goddess and the Bull: A Survey of the Archetype“, Helen Benigni writes,
“In the Paleolithic Era, The Goddess holds a bison horn which marks the cycles of precession. In the Neolithic Era, The Goddess has many symbols of regeneration to accompany her Bucrania or bull’s horns, and The Horns of the Bull become consecrated in the Neolithic temples of The Goddess. The emerging archetype of the Bronze Age Goddess and the Bull, which is measured on the Bucrania or The Horns of Consecration of the Mediterranean peoples, is paramount to the Minoan-Mycenaean culture. In the Knossos temple-complex of the Mother Goddess of Crete as well as in the temple-complexes of the Minoan-Mycenaean culture on the mainland in Greece, The Goddess and the Bull reach heights of importance and dominate the iconography. In the Bronze Age at this time in Europe and the British Isles, The Goddess and the Bull are prevalent in the iconography but relatively less important than the celestial events that accompany the archetype, which are measured on the stones of time. The amazing feats of the megalithic stone constructions of Bronze Age Europe and the British Isles, such as the building of the Aubrey Circle at Stonehenge, emphasize the advancement of the science and technology as well as the worship of The Goddess and the Bull in this culture….With the emergence of the patriarchy, kingship and organized warfare in the Iron Age, the archetype of The Goddess and the Bull evolves as a symbol of male regeneration in association with kingship, with the forces of the goddess still present.”
On the bull as an icon of male regeneration, “Bull: The sun, resurrection, violence and fertility” has more:
“While Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman world, the cult of Mithras, a Persian sun-god, was being embraced and spread by Roman soldiers. According to this religion, Mithras assisted in the creation of life on earth by taking a bull into a cave where he cut its throat. … A rite called the “taurobolium” was used to commemorate the death and resurrection of Mithras and to baptize initiates into his cult. In this rite the initiate was placed in a trench under a latticed roof. The bull was then led on top of the roof where its throat was slashed and its blood gushed down upon the initiate thereby purifying him and causing him to be symbolically reborn into eternal life. The person thus baptized was then venerated by his co-worshipers as a semi-divine being. Mithras was also worshiped as a sun-bull and was believed to continually give up his own life in the form of bull sacrifices in order to bring about peace between warring brethren. It was not uncommon for enemies to get together, sacrifice a bull, and then work out their differences.”
Throughout the ancient world there are numerous depictions of the Sun god wrestling with and overthrowing the bull, particularly taking central place in the Mithraic cult of the Roman empire. Zoroaster in ca 6th century BC specifically denounced the sacrifice of the bull, suggesting this was a ceremony of the ancient worshippers of Mithras and,… possibly suggesting a possible polarization of icons of the Persian vs the European world.
The ascendancy of the Sacred Ram may also mirror the rise of the Saka-Scythian and especially the Persian-Archaemenid kingdoms which had the well-known ram rhyton as a key feature of their cultures, although the Golden Stag and Golden Doe were the preferred iconography of the more eastern tribes, North-Iranians, and Eastern Hunnish nomads (see also Legend of the Stag).
W. Culican helps us understand the development and spread of ram-head iconography in “The Iconography of Some Phoenician seals and seal impression”
The Khnum sceptre was “a curved wand ending in a ram’s head. … In almost all cases the acolyte who carries the ram-headed sceptre also carries a jug and Naster has connected both these objects with the Egyptian cult of Khnum,63 the Egyptian ram-god, whose name is written with the “hieroglyphs ‘jug’ and ‘hawk’ “, and pointed to a surviving plain example of a Khnum sceptre in the Turin Museum. In two examples quoted by Naster a ram-headed wand was also used as a symbol of Ea in the time of Esarhaddon (as seen on the well-known Esarhaddon stela from Senjirli)G4 and these lead Naster to the conclusion that a Khnum-Ea-Baal syncretism had taken place by the Persian period in Phoenicia, consequent upon the rise to prominence of the cult of Khnum in XXVI, Dynasty Egypt. As a symbol of Ea, the short ram-headed crook was already in use in Babylon in the 12th century B.C. from Susa in the Louvre shows it resting on the altar supported by the goat-fish of Ea. In the time of Sennacherib, it had become longer: we see on one of his reliefs at Bavian the symbols of the gods displayed with the three tiaras of Ashur, Bel and Ea at their head. Next to these and closely placed to the third tiara is a thin ram-headed sceptre standing upon a small cavetto altar of Egyptian type.Go The theory that the use of this cultic object is a result of a syncretism of the Egyptian, Phoenician and Assyrian creator gods Khnum, Baal and Ea is a very attractive on That the ramheaded sceptre or “Khnum sceptre” was adopted in Phoenicia before the Persian period is shown not only by the evidence of the 8th century ivories from Nimrud, but also by the famous “El stela” from Ras Shamra,GG which is attributed to the 13th century B.C. and which we may regard as the Canaanite prototype of the specifically Phoenician iconography of our first bulla. On the stela from Ras Shamra an acolyte approaches El holding aloft a hom-like wand terminating in what appears to be a ram’s head: G7 in his left hand he holds down a jug. The presence of the winged-disc above this scene strongly suggests that the seated god is indeed the supreme sky divinity, hence the suggested identification as the bearded god as El, the head of the Ugaritic pantheon … Though details of dress show that the El stela is purely Canaanite work,08 Egyptian influence appears not only in the use of the winged-disc but also in the headdress of El, the homs of Khnum topped by the atet feathers.”
The Sacred Ram is considered a manifestation of the Sun-god and its creative power; a symbol of the resurrected Sun. Aries heralded the end of the season of death, and was thus also a symbol of fertility, new life and creative energy.
Some scholars believe the Ram as Aries became a central concept with the development of the Babylonian zodiac that was in widespread use in southern Mesopotamia in the Seleucid era. Hamal, the brightest star of the Ram (= Babylonian MUL.LU.HUN.GA (“Hired Man”) was said to be used to mark the vernal equinox. However, it was the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Rhodes (2nd-century BCE) who fixed Aries as the starting point for the zodiacal division of 12 equal signs so that the vernal equinox was placed at the beginning of the (Greek) sign of Aries. This system of Hipparchus, with the “first point of the sign Aries” fixed to vernal equinox, replaced the Mesopotamian zodiacal scheme of visible constellations. Symbols on the coins of Macedon and Thrace showed Aries was represented as the sun-god. These developments of the origins of the first zodiac were expounded upon by Gary D. Thompson in his “The Origin of the Zodiac” from “Essays Relating To The History Of Occidental Constellations and Star Names to the Classical Period”, see the relevant extracts of which, pertaining to the positioning of Aries in the zodiac below:
“One can posit the following steps in the development of the zodiac, although it must be said that our knowledge of how the zodiac was first developed is provisional. The division of the schematic calendar into 12 months of 30 days each, such as was used in MUL.APIN, the Astrolabes, and Enūma Anu Enlil, could be correlated with twelve constellations through which the sun was found to travel in one ideal “year” of twelve 30-day months. Because the spring equinox, which was always close to the beginning of the Babylonian year, was to occur in Nisannu (I.15 according to the tradition of MUL.APIN) then Nisannu, or month I, was when the sun was in the constellation Aries (MUL.LÚ.HUN.GA = Agru “the hired man”). For each ideal month, the sun’s position in the sky could be identified by the name of a constellation but schematized to correlate the sun’s passage through the constellations with the twelve 30-day intervals. The result would be an association of twelve 30-day months and twelve constellations, later standardized to intervals of 30º along the ecliptic.” (The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (2004) by Francesca Rochberg (Chapter 4: Sources for Horoscopes in Astronomical Texts, Page 129).)
In Mesopotamia the zodiac was conceived of as a band through which the planets move. Certainly it was not conceived of as a 360 degree circle.
“The zodiac was almost certainly constructed through analogy with the ideal year of twelve 30-day months. The sun moves at approximately one degree per day through the zodiac, completing a circuit in one year. In the ideal calendar, therefore, the Sun can be taken to move at a mean rate of exactly one degree per day. This assumption underlies the Dodekatemoria and Kalendertext schemes. The parallelism of the zodiac and the calendar is illustrated by the occasional use of the names of the months in place of the names of zodiacal signs in Babylonian texts. It also explains why Aries was taken to be the first sign of the zodiac since the Sun is in Aries during the first month of the year in the Babylonian calendar during the Late Babylonian period. …” — Source: “The Origin of the Zodiac” (The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (2004) by Francesca Rochberg (Chapter 4: Sources for Horoscopes in Astronomical Texts, Page 129 is also cited by Thompson)
The discovery of the 9,000 year old ritual ram artefact in Israel (see news article extract immediately following) may indicate to us the early origins of the ram ritual with the semitic peoples, and the continuity of the ritual into biblical times as confirmed by the biblical scriptures:
Leviticus 19:22 With the ram of the guilt offering the priest is to make atonement for him before the LORD for the sin he has committed, and his sin will be forgiven. …
(New International Version)
Leviticus 8:18 He then presented the ram for the burnt offering, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on its head…
(New International Version)
These belief systems tie over to modern day in the popular form of the astrological sign, Aries, which is our remnant and distant memory of the ancient connection to Ram offering ritual. Aries is the first of the twelve Zodiac signs and it signals the start of the vernal equinox and still represents rebirth and renewal today as it did in times past.
Analysis by Rossella Lorenzi
Thu Aug 30, 2012, Discovery News
Two Stone Age statuettes, one depicting a ram and the other a wild bovine, have emerged from the highway connecting Jerusalem with Tel Aviv.
Found at Tel Moza, a couple miles north of Jerusalem, during a dig ahead of the widening of Highway 1, the 5.9-inch-long figurines are estimated to date between 9,000 and 9,500 years ago.
The first figurine, shaped in the image of a ram, is made of limestone and features intricately carved horns.
“The sculpting is extraordinary and precisely depicts details of the animal’s image; the head and the horns protrude in front of the body and their proportions are extremely accurate,” Anna Eirikh and Hamoudi Khalaily, directors of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), said in a statement.
“The legs of the figurine were incised in order to distinguish them from the rest of the body,” they added.
The second figurine, fashioned on hard smoothed dolomite, is an abstract design. According to the archaeologists, it appears to depict a large animal with prominent horns that separate the elongated body from the head.
“The horns emerge from the middle of the head sideward and resemble those of a wild bovine or buffalo,” the archaeologists said.
Discovered near a round building whose foundation was made of fieldstone and mud brick, the statuettes might help shed light on religion and society during the New Stone Age, or Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period about 8,000 BC.
At that time humans began transitioning from nomadism, based on hunting and gathering, to sedentary life, based on farming and grazing.
One theory is that the statuettes were used as talismans.
NEWS: Stone Age Cave Painters Were Realists
“It is known that hunting was the major activity in this period. Presumably, the figurines served as good-luck statues for ensuring the success of the hunt,” Khalaily said.
“They might have been the focus of a traditional ceremony the hunters performed before going out into the field to pursue their prey,” he said.
According to Eirikh, an alternative theory links the figurines to the process of animal domestication.
Israeli archeologists have discovered an abundace of objects at Tel Moza, such as stone age tools, and objects associated with funerals and rituals.
“We can conclude from these artifacts that the site at Tel Moza was most likely the largest of its kind in the mountainous region around Jerusalem,” the archaeologist said.
Photos: A stone figurine of a ram. Credit: Yael Yolovitch, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority;
— An abstract stone figurine, possibly representing a wild bovine. Credit: Yael Yolovitch, courtesy of the Israel