Fishes and Stars: evidence for astral divinities

Fishes and Stars: evidence for astral divinities

A Harappan potsherd from Amri, combining the 'fish' and 'star' motifs.
7. A Harappan potsherd from Amri, combining the 'fish' and 'star' motifs.

An early form of Dravidian, then, emerges as the historically most likely language to have been spoken by the Indus people. The uniformity of the sign sequences in Indus inscriptions coming from all parts of the large area occupied by the Indus civilisation precludes the possibility that widely different languages were used, at least as far as the literate elite is concerned. With this conclusion, we may now return to interpreting the 'fish' pictograms discussed earlier.
In most Dravidian languages the usual word for 'fish' is meen. This phonetic shape can also be reconstructed for the mother language, Proto- Dravidian. A homonym meen denoting 'star' has also existed in Proto- Dravidian. Both words refer to a glittering object, and appear to be derivatives from the Proto-Dravidian root meen 'to glitter, to sparkle'.

The 'fish' pictograms of the Indus script, then, can be interpreted as denoting gods, if stars were used as symbols of deities. This is indeed most likely, for in the cuneiform script the pictogram of 'star' is prefixed to every divine name as a symbol of divinity. In the times of the Indus civilisation, the Mesopotamians associated their divinities with specific heavenly bodies. For example, Inanna-Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, was symbolized by the planet Venus. A similar system was later adopted by the Greeks and by the Romans, after whose deities the planets have their English names. In India, too, the planets have been worshipped as minor divinities for the past two millennia at least, and each of them has one of the principal gods of Hinduism as its overlord.

Figure 8
Figure 8. [At right] A Syrian-style seal of approximately the 18th century B.C. showing the god of waters with a star on either side of his head. (© Pierpont Morgan Museum). In the Near East, the 'star' symbol distinguished divinities not only in the script but also in pictorial representations (Fig. 8). Significantly, a seal from Mohenjo-daro depicts an Indus deity with a star on either side of his head in the Near Eastern fashion.

The interpretation of the 'fish' signs as symbols for astral divinities is further supported by different kinds of proofs for the practice of astronomy by the Indus priests. The straight streets of the Indus cities are oriented towards the cardinal directions, which presupposes astronomical observations and the use of the sun-stick, the gnomon.

The star-calendar used by the Vedic ritualists was adopted by the Aryans in India, for there are no references to it in the Avesta or in the oldest books of the Rgveda.

On the other hand, astronomical evidence dates the compilation of this calendar at around the 23rd century B.C., when the Indus civilisation flourished at its peak. Like other urban civilisations, it undoubtedly needed a calendar that adjusted the lunar and the solar time-reckoning.

It is in accordance with the traditions of Hindu name-giving as well to expect names of astral and planetary deities to be mentioned in seal texts likely to contain proper names. Astral names were given to Indian children as early as in the Vedic period, at least from 1000 B.C., and they continue to be given today. Brahmans are given two names, one derived from the child's birth asterism. Planetary names, too, can be cited from rather early sources.

[Originally published as Parpola, Asko (1988) Religion reflected in the iconic signs of the Indus script: penetrating into long-forgotten picto+graphic messages. Visible Religion 6: pp. 114-135.]