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In 1928, Israeli farmers in Beth Alpha, located at the base of Mount Gilboa in the Valley of Jezreel, were digging an irrigation ditch when they unearthed a brightly colored mosaic chip. A Hebrew inscription on the piece was cause for consultation with Professor Eliezer Sukenik of the Hebrew University, who immediately ordered an archaeological dig. This led to the discovery of the remains of a fifth century synagogue's pillars and walls. The greatest surprise came when they unearthed an almost completely intact zodiac mosaic floor.

The elegant floor of warmly colored stones contains an instantly recognizable image of the twelve signs. The Greek Sun god Helios is the largest image, appearing in the center of the horoscope wheel. He's crowned and is shown inside his chariot surrounded by stars and a crescent Moon. Four horses appear with him, and his chariot has multi-colored wheels.

Beautiful renditions of the zodiac signs appear in the house sectors, starting with Libra at the rising sign point, rather than traditional Aries. Angels of the four seasons decorate the corners. Twenty-two different stones were used to create this masterpiece; the Hebrew alphabet is comprised of the same number of letters. The pavement was made in the time of Emperor Justin the First, who reigned from 518 to 527. It covers the entire nave area and has inscriptions referring to the zodiac in Hebrew and Greek.

The Creation of the Beth Alpha Zodiac

The mosaic came into being when the temple elders decided to call for a facelift of their place of worship. An independent builder named Marianus was hired to create something impressive and grand. He had traveled to Greece and seen the latest trends in temple décor, and suggested a radical design departure.

Zodiacs were popular with the Greeks at the time, and Marianus managed to convince the elders to accept his zodiac design, complete with Helios the Sun god in the center placement. They agreed under the condition that the Holy Ark appear above the image on the top panel, the place of supremacy signifying faith in God. Beth Alpha mosaic was created with three panels: the Holy Ark, the zodiac and the story of the sacrifice of Issac. Marianus and was paid 100 measures of grain for his efforts.

Graeco-Roman Influence in Hebrew Temples

Marianus may not have had to leave home to come up with the astrology motif. He could have easily looked to the many examples of in his own country. Graeco-Roman images of Helios and the zodiac were common and fashionable.

Examples of the twelve zodiac signs with Helios in his sun chariot surrounded by angels have been discovered in seven ancient synagogues in Israel. In addition to Beth Alpha, the zodiacs appear at Hammath Tiberias, Khirbet Susiya,Yafia, Sepphoris, Beth Shean, Husifa,and Na'aran. The Louvre also has a tiny first or second century mural remnant of the sign of Capricorn from the wall of Dura-Europus. All the pavements consist of three parts: an inscription or scene, a center zodiac panel and a representation of Jewish religious objects such as the Ark, Torah or menorah.

Obviously the Graeco-Roman environment had a great deal of influence on Jewish religious art. The appearance of the Sun god Helios, as well as pagan zodiac images, reflected the popularly held belief of planetary influence on worldly affairs. Helios has a long history in Judaism. His figure is found in both text and magical amulets from that time period.

Astrology and Judaism

Ancient Hebrew tradition believes the first Jewish patriarchs used astrology, including Abraham. Abraham came from Babylon or Mesopotamia, a city with a name that translates as "light of the astrologers," where planetary deities were worshipped. One astrological treatise possibly written by Abraham is known to have existed in the third century B.C. Abraham's father Terach was also an astrologer.

Moses (c.1200-1100 B.C.), as Pharaoh's adopted son, was also an astrologer. He correlated the attributes of the twelve signs to the twelve tribes of Israel, then took the people from the tabernacle in the wilderness on their pilgrimage, lined up by zodiacal order. Rabbinical tradition asserts that the signs of the zodiac have represented the twelve tribes since antiquity.

Beth Alpha's floor is renown as one the most important mosaics in Israel. The synagogue is now part of a National Park on Kibbutz Hefzibah. Visitors can tour the Beth Alpha Synagogue National Park and see the most complete zodiac floor from the time when astrology held a place in the synagogue.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marcia Masino has been a working astrologer for over thirty years. She is the author of the books Easy Tarot Guide and Best Tarot Practices, both modern classics on tarot interpretation.She has been awarded certification as a Grandmaster of Tarot by the American Tarot Association She is also a contributor to Llewellyn Publications' first Tarot Calendar and writer for Fate Magazine.

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For more information about Marcia Masino, click here.

Other StarIQ articles by Marcia Masino:

  • Washington's Astrological Secrets   1/15/2001
  • The Astrological Tarot Deck   12/11/2000
  • San Miniato al Monte: The Zodiac Church of Florence   10/15/2000
  • Gifts of Love   2/14/2000

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