The Palm Tree as a Symbol of the Jewish State

For the most part, I’m very happy to follow chapter 9 ‘Between Rome and Jerusalem: The Date Palm as a Jewish Symbol’ in Steven Fine’s 2005 book, Art and Judaism in the Greco Roman World.  It’s a broad and nuanced survey, but in the end concludes that the primary reason for the equation of Judaea with the Date Palm is because it was the most readily identifiable and desirable regional export, and could, on top of that, be given a symbolic meaning that did not offend the Jewish prohibitions against graven images.

However, two key pieces of early evidence aren’t illustrated by Fine, only discussed.  Hence, I thought I might put them up for the curious here.  [I do love connections between seals and coins!] These images are taken from ‘Two Bullae of Jonathan, King and High Priest’, p. 257-259 of Ancient Jerusalem Revealed (1994).  This summarizes and expands two previous publications.


Based on comparison with the legends of the coins of the Hasmonean kings, Avigad concludes that these two bullae are imprints of the seals of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE).





As Avigard says:



Note that originally in the first of the 1974 publications Avigard identified the High Priest Bulla as displaying a club; his opinion was revised on the discovery of the second bulla and the new identification as a palm tree was first made in his second 1974 article.

For later follow up:

A gem with a palm tree.

Also cf.

J. J. Winckelmann, Description des pierres gravées du feu Baron de Stosch, dédiée à son Eminence Monseigneur le Cardinal Alexandre Albani (1760), 564, Kat.Nr. VIII,14 Zenon; Image of impression on Arachne

286 out of 410 days: Cocks, Victory and Virility

Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with a terminal figure of Hermes, before which stands a youth holding a wreath and palm-branch in his left hand, and a cock on his right.
Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with a terminal figure of Hermes, before which stands a youth holding a wreath and palm-branch in his left hand, and a cock on his right. BM 1923,0401.420; Gem no. 2794

I was writing up my thoughts for the book on the symbolism of the cock on coinage during the First Punic War this morning.  [An issue touched upon in an earlier post, here.]  The idea that in the Greek world the cock need not be directly linked to Hermes, but more generally be a symbol of bellicosity and manliness, is well summarized by this book.




This might help explain the pairing of cock and Minerva (Athena) on coins of Suessa, Teanum, et al (for images see earlier post).  But I was still playing around with the Mercury association in my mind, when I came across the glass paste above.

Here we see the epitome of manhood, the victorious young athlete standing before a terminal Herm.  He has his prize crown and palm-frond and in thanksgiving for his victory he offers the god a cock. [Just like the victor in the Callimachus epigram quoted in the previous post!] The cock symbolizes at once his victory and his virility.  A Herm’s most notable feature was its phallus.  Although we are often think of Mercury (Hermes) as first the god of commerce, we must remember he ended up as such by his status as the fecund god, the wealth-bringer.   Just as cock is slang for male genitalia today, so in the ancient world the cock encapsulated a similar semantic range of meaning as the phallus: power, especially masculine power, the (pro)creative power that leads to wealth and to overcoming one’s adversaries.

Anyway, the glass paste is a ‘gem’ of a summation of the symbolism of the cock, so I thought I’d share. Okay, back to my other writing.

Post Script. 

When two cocks appears facing each other on gems it is most often a representation of a cock fight, thus a type of agonistic scene, often with victory imagery incorporated into the design:

Gem with two cocks and a palm branch. [Arachne image database]

Gem with two cocks one being crowned by victory.  [Arachne image database]

Gem with one cock on a rudder with a palm branch. [Arachne image database]

But also relevant are images where the are associated with martial symbolism:

Gem with military standards, cocks, and stars, flanking scorpion grasping a cresent.  [Arachne image database]

This is a good image showing the early association of the cock and Athena:

Vase in the Beazley Archive.

Other relevant bibliography:  Hoffmann 1974.