THE BULL OF HEAVEN
The wild bull, which had roamed the plains of central Mesopotamia since time immemorial, was a massive creature standing over six feet tall at the shoulder. In literature and the visual arts, it was venerated as a symbol of supernatural strength and ferocity, often being likened to gods, kings and heroes. Its broad curving horns inspired the horned headdress that all gods and goddesses wore to signify their divine status. Cattle were first domesticated in the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia round about 7000 BCE. The overriding motive for their domestication was not for their meat but for their great strength, which was harnessed by early farmers to provide traction for ploughs and threshing sledges. Most households would only keep one or two beasts, which were often named and almost treated as part of the family.
The age-old meaning of the bull as a symbol of prosperity and abundant herds is conveyed in a pair of contrasting omens: ‘If the Bull of Heaven’s stars are very bright: the offspring of cattle will thrive’, but if its stars are very faint: ‘the wealth of the land will disappear; the offspring of cattle and sheep will not thrive’. These omens expose part of the simplest encoding scheme that underpins celestial divination – if a star or constellation is ‘bright’ its meaning is positive, but if it is ‘faint’ or ‘obscure’ the prediction is negative.
Beyond their nature as symbols of the land’s prosperity, the bull, cow and calf all have a decidedly celestial quality to their character. Sumerian poetry sometimes refers to rain-laden clouds as the ‘bull-calves of the storm god’ and other texts attribute huge herds of cattle to the moon god, their numbers – well over half a million individual beasts – are so implausibly large that many modern commentators have suggested that they represent the stars of the sky. Very similar ideas about celestial cattle can be found in early mythology the world over. The Egyptians personified the heavens as the goddess Hathor, who was often envisioned as a starspangled cow with the solar disk set between her mouth each evening to re-emerge as the sun the next day. Comparable ideas can also be found in Vedic literature where herds of cows represent the fertile rains of the heavens and the rays of sunlight released at dawn. In this symbolic scheme the golden calf naturally represents the newborn sun of spring emerging from the cosmic waters just as the newborn calf emerges from the life-giving waters of the womb. Essentially the calf is a symbol of the reborn sun and of the resurgent life that follows in his train. Just such an idea can be found in Mesopotamian tradition where Šamaš, the sun god, is sometimes called the ‘calf of the wild cow’.
from the book © WhiteBabylonian Star-lore’ by Gavin White