Let me introduce you to the larger-than-life half-Greek, half-Armenian ancient king Antiochus I of Commagene. He lived in the first century BCE in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) and apparently had a keen interest in astrology and hermeticism. Born on the 16th of the Greek-Macedonian month “Audynaios” which roughly corresponds to our month of December, Antiochus of Commagene was most likely a Sagittarius.
This ancient king is somehow in vogue now. I am writing this article in December 2015 in the midst of three topical issues somehow related to him: the bloodied Syria war, the Jewish Hanukkah festival of lights, and Hellenistic astrology.
Antiochus himself might have been a larger-than-life figure, but his kingdom– Commagene—was a minuscule one that was smaller than modern Israel. In his era (1st century BCE), his kingdom was surrounded by menacing empires like the Parthian, the ever-expanding Roman, and the Ptolemaic-Egyptian one.
Geographically, Commagene is situated some 25 miles north of the modern Syrian borders where some bloody conflicts are actually taking place right now and where innumerable refugees are flocking in a desperate attempt to escape the mayhem. This is the first element connecting our regal protagonist to the present.
The second link has to do with a Greek “Seleucid” king who was a successor to Alexander the Great and whose superior army had been defeated by the Maccabean Jews in 165 BCE, the event modern Jews commemorate in their Hanukkah festival.
Coincidentally, that king - also named Antiochus - was an ancestor of the mother of King Antiochus of Commagene! Here then is the second element connecting Antiochus of Commagene to the present period.
And the third link to Antiochus is recently revived Hellenistic Astrology which had apparently held the interest of Antiochus of Commagene at a very deep, esoteric level. In his time, Hellenistic Astrology was beginning to take shape and form through its Mesopotamian roots, especially within the Commagene geographic area very close to Mesopotamia.
Antiochus, who bore the title “Manifest God”--Epiphanes Theos in Greek—was either a megalomaniac or a shrewd politician. Well aware his kingdom was tiny and would eventually be swallowed by giant empires, Antiochus tried artificially to “pump up” his kingdom, to aggrandize and establish in his own way an illustrious “Commagene dynasty.” This goal led Antiochus to commission a rather pharaonic project—the construction of a huge mausoleum atop Mount Nemrut, the highest mountain of Commagene—where he said, “my soul will be eternally dwelling with the gods.”
Using many thousand tons of stones and gravel, his workers actually reshaped the entire mountaintop to resemble a perfect pyramid! They created two separate terraces at the east and west corners and added a similar array of gods’ statues including, remarkably, Antiochus’ statue! Bas reliefs below these gigantic statues recount Antiochus’ mostly fictitious saga. Inside the pyramid, they allegedly placed his tomb.
The artist who sculpted this bas relief was good with his hands, and the arrangement of these 19 stars over and around the body of the lion presents another question: Is this arrangement casual and purely decorative, or is there something deeper to be seen? Even an amateur astronomer can tell this arrangement is not casual at all.
More than two millennia have passed since the era of Antiochus of Commagene, but the constellations in the heavens have maintained pretty much the same configuration. Only after tens of thousands of years do they shift significantly. Typically, Greek astronomers commonly observed the constellation of Leo with 19 stars. Knowing this, everything starts fitting in and it makes sense that some stars on this lion slab are bigger and some smaller: they almost perfectly match their true corresponding magnitudes!
So we understand this bas relief is an astronomical depiction that might very well be a sort of deification of the constellation of Leo. But while I am just hazarding a guess, another question comes to mind: How can we possibly be sure that the lion sculpture relief on Mount Nemrut is in reality a horoscope? Surely, it doesn’t look like one, or at least it doesn’t look like the circular horoscopes with the zodiac on the circumference and the planets arranged around it.
If this is a horoscope, then where are the typical horoscopic elements—the planets, the Ascendant, the houses, and so on? Our modern assumptions of a horoscope do not match what we see here. Yet supporting evidence on this bas relief points to the horoscope scenario. One needs a discerning eye - and the notion of some Greek!
We mentioned the presence of 19 stars on this lion slab earlier. In reality, there are 22, but three of them - those hovering over the back of the lion - stand out from the other ones for three reasons:
1) They are much bigger than the rest.
2) They are composed of sixteen-pointed rays, not eight like the other 19 stars.
3) They bear names over them, in Greek. Actually their Greek names are the key to their mysterious nature!
The Greek phrase—ΠΥΡΟΕΙC ΗΡΑΚΛ(ΕΟΥC)–over the left sixteen-pointed “star” means the fiery one of Hercules. Of course this sentence does not make much sense without one’s knowledge of some ancient Greek astronomy or literature. In classical Greece, “the Fiery one” referred to the planet Mars which in ancient Greek texts we often encounter simply as ΠΥΡΟΕΙC—the “Fiery.” We will see below why the full title “the fiery one of Hercules” is displayed here.
The Greek phrase—CΤΙΛΒΩΝ ΑΠΟΛΛΩΝΟC—over the central sixteen-pointed “star” means the glittering one of Apollo. But without someone’s knowledge about Greek astronomy or literature, again this sentence will not make much astrological sense. In classical Greece, the name of the planet Mercury was known as “the Glittering one.” We often encounter it in ancient Greek texts simply as CΤΙΛΒΩΝ—the Glittering.
And the Greek phrase–ΦΑΕΘΩΝ ΔΙΟC—over the right sixteen-pointed “star” means: the radiant one of Jupiter. This is the easiest item to identify on the Lion slab because indeed it refers to planet Jupiter. In classical Greece, “the Radiant one” was the name of planet Jupiter. We often encounter it in ancient Greek texts simply as ΦΑΕΘΩΝ – the “Radiant”.
When planets and gods commune
At this point, the Lion slab takes a whole new meaning and becomes apparent that this is not a mere representation of the constellation of Leo, but there is still more to it. It most probably has astrological connotations. Otherwise the three fully named planets over the Lion’s back would make no sense. Why would they inscribe and depict just the planets of Mars, Mercury and Jupiter on the slab? Why not Venus and Saturn too? The latter are conspicuously absent!
The sequence of planets over the lions back might be another important clue. They do not follow the classic sequence—Mercury, Mars, Jupiter—but they are enumerated in this rather erratic manner: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter. Did the sculptor commit an error in the sequence of the planets? Or is the famous scholar Otto Neugebauer correct in claiming the sequence of these planets is either accidental or manneristically repeats the late Babylonian enumeration of the planets—Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Mars? If we omit Venus and Saturn, we get Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, the exact sequence of the planets on the lion slab although mirrored in reverse. I personally think Neugebauer’s assumption does not hold much water. In contrast to what we know today, he lacked some crucial archaeological findings.
I believe the lion slab is “semiotically” connected to the gigantic statues of the deities at the pyramid’s base. At both the eastern and western terraces, the same array of deities is replicated in exactly the same order: the deified Antiochus on the very left, the all=important Greek goddess Tyche—Fortune, Jupiter at the center, Mercury and, finally, Mars on the very right. If we start enumerating these statues from right to left we get Mars, Mercury, Jupiter. That’s exactly the sequence of the three planets on the lion slab!
Of course there are a couple of objections here:
Why should we enumerate the gods/planets at the base of the pyramid from right to left when, on the lion slab, we enumerate the three planets from left to right?
Why are the two major statues/deities—Apollo and Mars—located on the left, the “lesser” side of Jupiter, while a mortal like Antiochus stands on Jupiter’s right, “good” side?
The answer to the second question is simple: The Mesopotamians always took the observers’–the pilgrims in this case—point of view into account, so actually Antiochus stands on the lesser, left side of Jupiter. In the first question, it was a matter of “staging.” Since Jupiter as the king of the gods had to be at the very center of the statues’ array, the only viable option left was to enumerate the Mars-Mercury-Jupiter sequence on the reverse, ending with Mars on the far right. Even so, the lion slab and the array of the statues are intrinsically attuned! The full planetary denomination over the lion’s back—for example, “the glittering one of Apollo” for Mercury—enabled the pilgrims to correlate the lion’s esoteric symbolism to that of the gods’ gigantic statues.
A lunar "necklace" - Signs vs Constellations
There is a last decisive clue on the lion slab we haven’t touched so far. A clearly visible type of sickle-shaped ornament is shown on the lion’s chest. In the long Mesopotamian, and probably global, tradition, a sickle-shape symbolizes the Moon. Here, we can see the message that the lion slab shows the Moon in the constellation of Leo.
This isn’t an astronomical slab but an astrological one commemorating some major event either for Antiochus or the kingdom of Commagene, taking place under the auspices of the constellation of Leo!
Did you notice I’ve been writing “constellation of Leo” instead of “zodiacal sign of Leo?” Although both the constellations and the zodiac are divided into 12 sections bearing the same names, constellations and zodiacal signs are two radically different things. The constellations remain (relatively) fixed on the celestial vault while the zodiacal signs are slowly shifting. Today, for example, the constellation of Leo largely corresponds to that section of the sky where the zodiacal sign of Virgo is. In some 2500 years the constellation of Leo will be corresponding to the zodiacal sign of Libra. That’s why I am cautious with the use of the terms “constellation” and sign”. But by a remarkable coincidence in Antiochus’ times, the tropical and sidereal zodiacs were almost coinciding and were off by just 4 degrees. So astrologically speaking, the “constellation of Leo” and the “zodiacal sign of Leo” were almost the same back then.
To what extent Commagene astrologers were aware of conceptual differences between constellations and the zodiac, we are not sure. Within the realm of the Hellenistic world, Hipparchus had discovered precession of the equinoxes in 130 BCE. From that point on, astrologers had to take a gigantic leap in consciousness to comprehend and assimilate that there was a new “entity” called “zodiacal sign,” which was quite different and independent from its namesake constellation! Generations would definitely pass before astrologers began to adjust to this new idea.
But let’s turn back to the lion slab which obviously depicts a horoscope! To our modern eyes, we may not see it because we instinctively compare it with the modern horoscopic blueprints with which we are familiar—the ones with the zodiacal circle, the planetary symbols, the houses, the Ascendant and so on. But we shouldn’t apply modern preconceptions to artifacts that are more than 2000 years old. At that time, for instance, the Ascendant was a concept not yet developed. There were no astrological houses at least not in the modern sense. Apparently the zodiac had already been invented, but it was handled as a theoretical concept without much usefulness. The astrologers of that era were following old traditions and verbally wrote down planetary positions in the signs, writing the words instead of the symbols.
Those were times of a major transition in astrology. The “omen lore” era where horoscopes consisted of simple planetary omens inscribed on mud-bricks was coming to an end, and the gigantic wave of the new, revolutionary Hellenistic astrology was emerging on the horizon. If we could see Mount Nemrut’s lion slab through the eyes of an educated person in that culture, we would immediately see a very advanced horoscope!
Apparently, this lion slab horoscope serves two major purposes: On one hand, it astronomically marks as a short calendar, the date of some important event. On the other hand, this short “certificate” gives testimony to the event’s having taken place during some extraordinary cosmic occurrence that vibrationally “sealed” it for ever!
But what was that important event and when did it occur?
Determining the date of the "event"
Thanks to the lion horoscope and modern computers, it’s rather easy to establish the date of this unknown event. We are looking for when the Moon and the planets of Mars, Mercury and Jupiter were all in the constellation or zodiacal sign of Leo. We will not get many such dates. And thanks to information provided by the inscriptions at the site, we know this important event was related either to Antiochus or to his father Mithridates who ascended to the throne in 109 BCE. We can further narrow the time frame to the period between 140 BCE and 38 BCE, when Antiochus died. We then can obtain the results you see in the next table:
We are left then with cases 1 and 3. Case 1—July 14th, 109—corresponds to the coronation year of King Mithridates, Antiochus’ father. Some scholars claim the lion horoscope is “cast” for the Mithridates coronation. I disagree. Why would they elect a coronation horoscope, leaving the Sun, the most regal of the “planets” out of the sign/constellation of Leo and in Cancer instead?
Case 3 is the most satisfactory of them all. It not only meets the requirements, the Sun is in the sign/constellation of Leo, the ultimate “certificate” of royalty! But then, very reasonably, you will say to me, “There is no sun depicted on the lion horoscope.” I don’t think that’s true. The entire lion slab depicts the Sun in Leo so there was no need to inscribe the Sun symbol on it.
Such an absolutely rare and unique accumulation of planets in the regal sign of Leo could not have gone unnoticed by an erudite man, well-versed in astrology and hermeticism—our man Antiochus I Theos! Those years were extraordinary from another point of view as well: the regal star Regulus, lying at the “heart” of the Leo constellation a few inches above the lunar “sickle” we identified on the lion slab, had just entered the zodiacal sign of Leo.
Antiochus took full advantage of this extraordinary cosmic occurrence to deify himself and to establish an illustrious dynasty that included the construction of his enormous sanctuary/mausoleum on the summit of Mount Nemrut. He most likely performed a sort of “Theurgy” there on August 3rd, 62 BCE and equaled himself and his dynasty to the gods. This was probably when he gave himself the title of “Epiphanes Theos” —“Manifest God” and propitiated his kingdom. He wasn’t very successful however. A few decades after his death, the Romans annexed Commagene to their huge empire. Nevertheless, the Antiochus monument and the lion horoscope have survived more than 2000 years, still creating fascination in people all over the world. In that sense, the legacy of Antiochus I of Commagene has indeed been immortalized while horoscope of the lion has been a perfect election after all.
Thomas D. Gazis
©2015 Thomas D. Gazis
P.S. This article has been kindly edited by the prominent American Astrologer Michelle Young and is published on her site