Helios zodiacs & ms Beinecke 408

I think I’m probably alone in holding that the ‘astrological’ series represents the months, and stars according to those months,  but not the zodiac whether that zodiac defined by the 12 Greco-Roman constellations or by the 12 astrological divisions.

I should begin by saying that what is known as a ‘Helios’ zodiac should rightly be called a ‘Sol invictus’ zodiac since all but a very few of our remaining example are Roman, or Romanised, as we know because it was the Romans who made a zodiac of 12 constellations, in which was Libra.

We can’t blame them for not  having heard of the Mul-Apin tablet, and the way they came to form their ’12’ makes it fairly clear that it wasn’t an adoption of ancient Babylonian ideas, at least not directly.

Western astronomy had no idea the Mul.apin tablet existed until fairly recently, either.

So if it’s a 12-figure ‘helios’ zodiac, it’s Roman-era and if its a mosaic it won’t be dated earlier than the late 3rdC AD, and in most cases not earlier than the 6thC AD or so.

A few earlier examples exist in other media, but that can wait for the ‘ivory road’ posts.

I want to address the structure in this post; in the next that I write about the month-folios I’ll talk about their emblems and then explain why these two things, together with stylistic considerations, led me to think that their content is more likely to be similar to Brouscon’s month-by-month ‘star clock’ charts than to the later, astrological calculations and the 12-figure zodiac.

The process will – fairly indirectly – refer to the old Babylonians but again not in terms of astrology’s ’12-figure’ zodiac which  appears not to have been pictured publicly  until the late second century AD. (The earliest examples I know are in ivory, dated to the 1st-2ndC AD, and in those cases, the form given the  ‘scales’ is ambiguous; it looks less like a pair of scales than the letter Π with a short bar at the top, and the work itself appears to be  Greco-Egyptian or Semitic – but that can wait).


Some time ago, Rene Zandbergen noticed  that in MS Lat.Vat. Gr.1291 is included a miniature which is an example of the ‘helios zodiac’ genre. Since then, this miniature has often been discussed in connection with these month-folios in ms Beinecke 408.

(I refer to them as ‘month-folios’ as the most neutral term possible and chiefly because the inscriptions are reasonably supposed month-names).

To discover whether  these folios might relate specifically or more generally to the genre of the ‘Helios zodiac’, a type defined equally by its structure and content, f.73r is as useful as any other folio in this series.

At first impression the two do seem very like.

Closer inspection, though, makes clear that this first impression of visual likeness is little more than that: an impression created by their mutual use of concentric bands alternating between the inhabited and the inscribed.

Their structures differ, and their numerical factors differ. So does the order in which inscribed and populated bands are presented.  I should think that in both cases, however, there is one solid point of similarity and that is that both appear to have addressed their original audience in Greek – something less certain in the case of the miniature than in these folios from the Voynich, I should say.

The genre we describe as the  ‘Helios zodiac’ is only partly defined by the central motif’s being a ‘Helios’ figure; some are so defined when the central motif shows no more than the quadriga. (This eliminates the tabulae from Grand which show both sun and moon, but not a single helios, and no quadriga). The essential element is the band(s) displaying a twelvefold division, and each of those 12 containing in order the emblems for the 12 constellations in the Greco-Roman zodiac, together with a single image of quadriga and/or sun.

The manuscript not have that arrangement in any folio in this section.

So in one respect, certainly, the similarity is absent: none of these month-folios has the same structure.

As month-folios, of course, there is no necessity they should, and it could be argued that they are related to the ‘Helios’ type, but less directly: that each of these 12 month-folios is an expansion on that basic form, representing in more detail one of those zodiac months ~ either by showing the stars from its constellation or, alternatively, the number of days in that month: like a book of hours.

As a whole the series forms a finite   ’12’ , but as we have it, it fails to agree with the form of the western zodiac’s ’12’ and there is no clear correspondence between the number of days in a month and the number of star-holding figures.

For the ‘Mars’ or ‘March’ roundel (f.70r), for example, you’d have add into the count, the two stars from the centre in order to make the 31 days of the modern month. In the exterior band there are only 19 figures (unless I’ve miscounted) and the interior shows 10.

(Combining all the figures save the central one in the miniature, however, gives a total of 36, which would allow a sub-text to refer to the ’36  stars’, about which see e.g. bibliographic references and discussion in Chris Mitchell’s paper (2008) (pdf).

However, the fact is that the various types or classes of astronomical diagram are defined chiefly by their numerical factors. In its essential features – i.e. the twelvefold band and ‘helios’ none of the folios in this section is like that ‘helios’ type, including the specific example in MS Lat.Vat. Gr.1291.

It is a mistake to treat combined zodiacs ~ again like those tabula from Grand ~ as if their primary reference was the Roman zodiac, rather than the Egyptian decans or any other of the series represented.

In this case, the vital ~ and I should say the limiting distinction ~ is whether or not the series includes a single, standing, archer.

Otherwise, re-interpreting what is actually present to argue that there were originally a different number; that the duplications are unintentional and so on, is arguing away the evidence that is present in order to maintain an opinion of what is not in evidence.

Any parallel offered must, at the very least, include a standing archer.Otherwise,  the absence of clear stylistic similarities between the that ‘Helios’ miniature and the month-roundels must makes any posited direct relationship or common origin more difficult to maintain.

The number of diagrams, sculptures and even three-dimensional architectural structures which use concentric bands to represent the heavens is beyond counting.

And even granting that each star in the month-folios (as we suppose they are) is to represent a calendar day, then it can be taken as no more than an example of a calendar in which the passage of days is linked to the phenomenon of the passing stars. Those stars which form the zodiac band itself do not appear to me to be sufficient in number to explain the a given month-folio.  I’m afraid that I’m unable to comment on  links between  Brouscon’s monthly star-clock diagrams and the systems of decans and anwa’, but  in regard to the latter,  since  Spanish works are less well known, I might mention:

Miquel Forcada Nogués, Ibn ʿĀṣim, Kitāb al-Anwā wa-l-azmina, al-Qawl fi l-šuhūr (Tratado sobre los anwāʾ y los tiempos; Capitulo sobre los meses).

Various systems of this type existed in parallel to the strictly ‘zodiac’ calendars and despite what you may read in some wiki articles, they systems long pre-dated the 7thC and the Muslim faith.  (on this see  Serjeant and Varisco).

So  in the event, although both the miniature and the month-folios appear to have originated from a milieu in which Greek was spoken and both to refer to the heavens, any closer relationship cannot be argued on the basis of structure and number: without which their seeming likeness cannot exist. So we are left still without any potential provenance or literary context for this section in ms Beinecke 408 ~ a series evidently associated with the months  at some stage  by the addition of the inscriptions. I am less inclined that I was at first to suppose the inscriptions very much later than the fifteenth-century copying, but that does not lessen my doubts about the degree to which the source-works had the figures to appear with the sense they are given by those inscriptions. The doubling of bulls and goats the non-European form for the bulls, and the inclusion of two goats adjacent to one another present serious objections to an expectation that these ‘months’ coincide with the scheme implied in a Greco-Roman zodiac. There is, in addition, the fact that while recognition of the ‘hours’ refers to Greek terms, the central emblems in these folios speak a fairly clear Latin ~ but this is not an indication of date and provenance; one can assume such bilingualism from the time of the Roman conquests.

A greater difficulty is presented, in my opinion, by the clear fact that  those central emblems conform neither in form, in sequence nor in final number remaining to the Greco-Roman scheme and that this was almost certainly obvious to any person literate (i.e. in Latin) within medieval western Christendom.  Indeed, given the number of zodiacs carved in public monuments throughout western Christendom and the style of moralisation in sermons and religious commentary, I should suppose it just as obvious to the great majority, who were perfectly accustomed to reading a pictorial text. (On the moralisation of the zodiac and the ’12’  Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism.. remains a useful work.)

I do agree that the star-holding figures speak Greek (as it were), and more exactly that they refer to the  ‘oura (hour/era) and by the fifteenth century popular etymologies associated the idea of the original astrolabos ‘star-taker’ or ‘star-gripper’ with the sense of astrolabein as taken to mean ‘star-bearer’ or ‘-toiler’, but even so it brings these folios into no specific or particularly close relationship with the  Greco-Roman zodiac as such, nor to the  ‘Helios zodiac’ genre in particular.

If the differences are due more to style than to content, then other examples of the ‘Helios zodiac’ genre may shed more light on the question.

That in  Maltezana is of interest, for its geographic position in the Dodecanese and for its maritime character ~ but a better known example will do, this being the  Beth Alpha ‘Helios’ mosaic.

On the Maltezana mosaic (‘Tallaras baths’) Jacoby makes some important points.

Jacoby, Ruth, ‘The Four Seasons in Zodiac Mosaics: the Tallaras Baths in Astypalaea, Greece’, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol 51 No.2 (2001) pp225-230.

Even at first glance, it will be seen that the Beth Alpha mosaic offers some interesting habits in regard to its representation of these figures, though this a matter apart from content and structure.

The latter show it a true ‘Helios zodiac’ and thus in essence closer to MS Lat.Vat. Gr.1291 than to any of the month-folios in ms Beinecke 408.

Some have argued that, despite the Beth Alpha mosaic’s being dated to the 6thC AD, its central figure has antecedents which not those of the Greek and Roman male  ‘Helios’.

I believe that this is probably so in fact, but its date and location makes me greatly doubt that such earlier associations were  intended by the commissioner or maker of the work, or that knowledge of them informs any part of this dialogue between the creator of the mosaic and its contemporary readers.

To  those features which form the definition of a ‘Helios zodiac’,  the Beth Alpha mosaic conforms – having the essential twelvefold division, the inclusion of zodiac emblems equally disposed between those divisions, and the vehicle (quadriga) drawn by steeds – usually four in number. In addition, the central figure is shown with radiant hair or crown.

The Beth Alpha mosaic therefore has more in common with the miniature in MS Lat.Vat. Gr.1291 than with any folio from this section in ms Beinecke 408.

However, in the way of depicting certain of these figures there are certainly closer echoes to the imagery in Beinecke 408.

This bull has more nearly lyrate horns; the paired fish are plainly well-protected. More importantly, perhaps, its figure for the Spring quarter and rebirth of the year holds a flower resembling the lotus. All these may be considered of greater or less relevance, but there is no doubting the relevance of its including for Sagittarius an archer who is depicted as a standing human figure.

The standing human archer (for Sagittarius) is rare in medieval Europe and appears first in other contexts altogether, so this figure in the context of a ‘Helios’ zodiac is especially important by reason both of location and of date.  In Europe, the usual form for Sagittarius remained for many centuries after the sixth century, a figure having the form shown  in the miniature and still most often used today.

The miniature in MS Lat.Vat. Gr.1291 appears to have  been first formulated in the early centuries AD though it is contained in a Carolingian (western Christian) manuscript dated to the ninth century.

The Beth Alpha ‘Helios zodiac’  is in the precincts of a Jewish synagogue and is dated to a period between those phases in the production of ms MS Lat.Vat. Gr.1291.

If  I am not mistaken about the ‘star-holders’ form deriving from a Greek vocabulary, then the likelihood is greater that the standing archer in f.73v is derived not from the western domain, but from the eastern world that had lain within the old Hellenistic empire. And as Goitein and others have pointed out, the common language of the Jews was for centuries neither Hebrew nor Latin, but Greek or such regional forms as Judeo-Persian or later, Judeo Arabic, until the tenth-century revival of Hebrew as a vernacular language.

Again, the energetic movement given the figures in the month-folios, and echoed to an extent by those in the innermost band in the miniature appears to have originated exterior to Europe proper (Europe ending at the Bosphorus), and in the earlier rather than the later period.

This is suggested, not least, by the appearance of similarly-energetic gestures in a work on medicine that was made in Persia in the 11thC, from the basis of older and classical sources. (see illustrations at the end of the INDEX page).  Closer to the Mediterranean, in  Baalbek is a series of female figures shown high above the viewer, naked to the waist amid the waters. The staggering amount of time, effort and money expended by Rome upon this formerly Phoenician centre appears to have been an attempt to appease the gods for the Roman obliteration of Phoenician cities and culture. It was a systematic genocide coupled with a sterilisation of the soil about Carthage and appears to have resulted in a collapse of the older economic and trading world. But from Baalbek, one of those figures:

A hint of the serpent is here ~  a remind the viewer of that poison to which love was so often likened, and simultaneously the serpent’s reputation for wisdom, healing and potency.

It was at about this time (c.2nd-3rdC AD) that the ‘Scales’ came to be included in the formal Greco-Roman zodiac imagery. The question will be treated more fully in the page-by-page section next year, but I believe it marks the inclusion of a figure already established in older local astronomies.

Throughout much of the world beyond Greek and Roman administration,  the common (and not so common) people’s view was also that the heavens’ centre was occupied not by the sun but by the Pole star(s).  Before Ursa Major [Charles’ Wain] occupied that point, Draco had held it, curling about the two Ursae. Thereafter  U. Major held the Pole,  to give way in turn to the inexorable rise of  Polaris in U.minor. Bedouin proverb to this day says that ‘Polaris committed the crime, but Canopus bore the brunt’ ..of an astronomical event which occurred long before the birth of Christ.

Draco coiled in the wine-dark ‘sea’: ‘Orphic’ bowl

There is a road which runs from  near Beth Alpha and Baalbek – from Antioch on Orontes –   overland and which bound the eastern Mediterranean to the eastern limits of Seleucis’ original inheritance, bordered by India and by the western end of the Tarim basin. How old the way is we simply do not know.

The next post begins   in the northern reaches of the Black Sea, with Greek colonies established before the time of Alexander. But one thing is plain:

The Tyrian merchant who five centuries later told Claudius Ptolemy about the ‘stone tower’ marking Asia’s border was not the first person from the eastern Mediterranean, nor the eastern shores of the Black Sea, to have seen it and non-astrological knowledge of the stars in the intervening regions was very highly developed indeed; it appears to have formed a basis for religion in some cases. They did not share that narrow focus on the sun’s 12 constellations which is a characteristic of western Europe and which so bemuses the wider world. ( Needham, in a rarely critical moment, describes it as the ‘ecliptic preconceptions of the west’).

Eastern, and Greek, the month-roundels appear to be in inspiration, but they are not any more  directly related in content or purpose, I think, to the Roman era’s ‘Helios’ zodiacs’.

Known routes eastward before the time of Claudius Ptolemy

Having now presented the negative case, the next post should be more positive, I hope.


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