The ancient star and crescent

star and crescent pre-islamTo introduce this important read on a symbol as ubiquitous and important as the star and crescent, I should remark that a symbol, howsoever emblematic it may seem, can’t be owned nor claimed by a single social or historical group. Symbolism isn’t a mathematically observable matter, as symbols aren’t determined by fixed stipulated rules by which a conjecture is either true or false. A symbol is as fickle as the people using it, its meaning purely dependent on whatever a group of people associate it with. It’s therefore important to repeat that one can not own a symbol, let alone exclusively associate it with a single group. The moment a group of individuals agree upon a specific icon to symbolize a shared notion, it becomes a new symbol. Is that a form of appropriation or ideological proximity? No, because a certain image was reinvented by a certain group of people to bear a new meaning. This is especially important to keep in mind with regard to the star and crescent, a symbol used by so many groups and civilization throughout history. For this piece, I will limit myself to its use in Ancient and Classical times.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the crescent was associated with the moon and all of its astral and cosmological facets. Just like we commonly depict the moon today, the crescent at the time didn’t represent a specific lunar phase, but rather the moon as a concept and astronomical body. The Sumerian god of the moon was Nanna,  who was called Sīn in the Akkadian language spoken in the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. Sīn governed the rising of the waters and the cattle herds and was seen as a wise and unfathomable god, considered to be the father of many deities. He was often depicted as an old, bearded man, worshiped in temples in the major cities all over Mesopotamia all the way up to Ḥarrān. The center of his cult, however, was in Ur, a city in Babylonia. Sīn’s symbol was a crescent with its horns facing upwards.

On many so-called kudurru boundary stones, Sīn’s crescent appears next to Shamash’s disc and Ishtar’s 8-pointed star in the first tier, signifying his importance as a major deity. Sīn’s crescent usually appears alone, or near a star, not with a star in its center. However, it’s rarely depicted holding the Star of Shamash between its “horns”. An example is the cylinder of Kirikiri, a 20th c. BC Babylonian seal currently at the Chicago Oriental Institute. In much later depictions, the crescent incidentally forms a combination with a star. On a 5th-4th century BC bronze plaque, a horned Sīn can be seen with both a crescent and a star, very similar to the later depictions of this symbol. It should be mentioned that a much older combination of star in crescent exists, namely the shattered stele of Ur-Nammu. After its discovery in the 1920s, however, its reconstruction remains highly speculative and was determined by some to been pieced back incorrectly.

The moon was an important and divine heavenly body in the polytheistic beliefs of many pagan societies. This was no different for the Punic civilization of North Africa, the Carthaginian Empire. I already mentioned their goddess Tanit when writing on the Hand of Fāṭima. Like most mother-goddesses, Tanit was associated with healing, fruitfulness and nursing. Besides an open palm, her stelae often featured a crescent moon with an orb/dot between its horns. Again, the crescent faces up or down, mostly above her anthropomorphic sign of a figure raising two arms in prayer. While the Sumerian moon god was undoubtedly male, the Levantine, Punic and Greco-Roman tradition represented the moon as female, associating with it things like fecundity, beauty, the tides, death, rebirth and natural cyclical processes.

While not a lunar deity in the traditional way, Tanit was closely connected to the moon and its healing, nurturing role. She was as a matter of fact related to the Near Eastern Semitic Astarte, who was worshiped in Phoenicia and Canaan. It is however interesting that Astarte doesn’t appear with a crescent symbol, making it all the more probable that this Punic depiction of a crescent is native to Carthage, and not influenced by Sīn’s cult. In conclusion to Sīn and Tanit, it should be noted that both deities feature a single crescent without a star, the crescent lying horizontally and not standing vertically like in later depictions. This kind of lunar depiction, while certainly not a general practice in the region, could also be found in other local religions. An example is the two reliefs of the Palmyrene Arab moon deity Aglibol as well as the Palmyrene Arab goddess Arsu, associated with Venus. Both appear near a horizontal crescent.

The origins of the star in crescent, however, leads us away from the lands of Semites and brings us all the way to Anatolia, where the Kingdom of Pontus ruled the Black Sea area. The religion in Pontus was a peculiar syncretic mix of Zoroastrian Persian, pagan Greek and native Anatolian beliefs. These local Anatolian beliefs with regard to the crescent were characterized by the cult of Mēn, a lunar god worshiped in the interior parts of Anatolia and completely adopted all across the Pontic lands. This male deity had a temple dedicated to him at Cabira (modern Niksar in Turkey) and, according to the Greek historian Strabo, was sworn a royal oath to by the Pontic kings. Mēn was, again, symbolized by a horizontal crescent but, different than previous symbols, with a star between its horns. The star is not directly related to Mēn, but is nevertheless an essential part of the crescent’s appearance.

According to Eugene Lane’s Corpus Monumentorum Religionis Dei Menis, the cult of Mēn was undoubtedly influenced by Persian Zoroastrian elements, possibly the cults of Māh/Anahita. Zoroastrianism was, and still is, a Persian religion with a strong focus on a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, light and darkness. The star would than actually symbolize the sun and light (Zoroastrian Mithra/Ahura Mazda). The combination of star and crescent would thus represent Sun and Moon, Day and Night, Light and Darkness; Zoroastrian dualism. This is confirmed by the Cambridge Ancient History, which states that the appearance of star and crescent in Pontic imagery may allude to the religion of the Persian Achaemenid rulers of which the Pontic kings claimed descent. From the time of king Mithradates III (r. 220 -183 BC) onward, the star and crescent symbol began to appear on Pontic coins and as a royal emblem. Many Pontic coins throughout the reign of several local kings are an excellent example of Greek, local Anatolian and Zoroastrian beliefs combined. They depict a crescent and star, combined with Greek imagery like a seated Zeus or a winged Pegasus.

Mēn’s iconography influenced later Greek and Roman depictions of pre-existing lunar deities like Selene, Hecate and Luna. Many Roman emperors honored these lunar deities by featuring a star and crescent on their coins, among others Caracalla (r 211-217 AD) and Hadrian (r 117 – 138). According to the Historia Augusta, Caracalla was a devout follower of the moon cult, worshiping Lunus, the Latinized name for Mēn and the masculine variant of Luna, at Carrhae (Ḥarrān). The existence of Lunus is remarkable, as Greek and Roman lunar deities were by default women, which shows the influence of (male) Mēn on Roman religious anthropomorphism. The Greeks adopted Mēn’s iconography specifically in the Greek majority city of Byzantium (modern Istanbul).

This former Greek colony was devoted to the worship of the Greek moon goddess Hecate, erecting a statue for her, commemorating her for saving them from a Macedonian invasion. She, as the story goes, saved the city from Philip II by brightly shining her light during a nighttime infiltration attempt by Macedonian troops and thus warning the citizens. She consequently developed a cult in the town. Several 1st c. AD coins struck at Byzantium effectively show a crescent with a rayed star, in clear reference to Hecate. As Byzantium grew to become Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, this legacy was adopted by the now Christian emperors, with which the star and crescent was increasingly associated at the time.

Some beautiful 13th – 14th century church murals do indeed depict armored saints with a star and crescent symbol on their shield. This was also the case for a couple of Byzantine seals. Just like the paintings, an 11th century AD seal depicts a member of the famous Comnenus dynasty with a star and crescent featured on his shield. The prevalence of the symbol’s position on a shield may indicate a common habit among nobles and clergymen to feature these astral icons on their armor. Important to note that the crescent moon no longer lays horizontally, but appears vertically standing for the first time. Art and Identity in Thirteenth-Century Byzantium by Antony Eastmond shows a vertically standing crescent with star on an inlay panel on the south porch of the Hagia Sophia, dated around the 15th century.

The popularity of the star and crescent surely wasn’t limited to monuments and armors, but appeared equally as much on coins all throughout the history of the empire. Although no longer part of the pagan cult of Hecate, Byzantium’s legacy lived on among the Byzantines, and the star and crescent symbol became a token of identity and local Christian iconography, incidentally appearing on a cross or a cross’ shaft. This was noticed outside the empire, and foreigners increasingly associated the star and crescent with the Byzantine realm. In the 15th c. AD “Adoration of the Magi” by German painter Stefan Lochner, the Byzantine attendee stands with a blue flag with star and crescent. It’s not probable that the Byzantines used the symbol on their banners, but at least is was used as emblematic association by others to depict them.

I would like to conclude this extensive read by mentioning the Sassanian numismatic decorations featuring a star and crescent. From the 5th century onward, the astral motif appears on the crown of the depicted kings under Yazdagird I (r. 399-420 AD) and on the margin of Sasanian coins under Kavad I (r. 488-496 AD). The sudden appearance of the astral symbols on Sasanian coins in the 5th century could be linked with the strong uptake of star and crescent on Byzantine coins in that same century, as could be read in Astral Symbology on Iranian Coinage by Andrea Gariboldi. She states that the Zoroastrian Sasanians kept the original Sun and Moon dualist meaning in their iconography, both serving as visible divine entities to justify their own godly kingship. Indeed, a stone relief in Ṭāq-e Bustān in Iran shows king Khosrow II (r. 590 to 628) receiving the ring of kingship from the deity Mithra. To his left stands Anahita/Māh. The crown of Khosrow II bears two crescents. As the Sassanian Empire crumbled in the 7th century AD at the hand of invading Muslim forces, the star and crescent symbol wasn’t further developed in the region except for its continuation in Byzantine imagery, which ended after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

For examples and pictures, please visit this thread on my Twitter.

Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.

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