of the High Priest
OF THE HIGH PRIEST
Which Tribe to
by F. Graham Millar
RASC (Royal Astronomical Society of Canada)
Website use with
permission of the late copyright-holding author.
to Exodus, the jewels on the breastplate of the High Priest were
engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel-- but we are not
told which tribe to which jewel.
comparison between the jewels and the modern birthstones establishes
the order in which the jewels stood for the signs of the zodiac,
provided one reads the order of the jewels in three columns of four,
following the Egyptian calendar of three seasons of four months each.
tradition knows the sign of the zodiac attributed to each tribe, so we
can infer which tribe to which jewel. However, the names and zodiacal
standards of the tribes were probably assigned after the settlement in
Canaan, hence the signatures on the jewels must have been the signs of
stated in Exodus 28 and 39, each of the twelve jewels on the
breastplate of the High Priest stood for the name of a tribe whose name
was engraved on the stone as on a seal.
encyclopedias agree in associating the stones with the signs of the
zodiac; I cite Collier's (1). It occurred to me that the zodiacal signs
associated with the stones might be identified by comparing them with
the modern birthstones which, the encyclopedias say, are derived from
the jewels on the breastplate. An excellent correspondence is
disclosed, provided the ancient jewels are read by column rather than
by row, to agree with the Egyptian calendar of three seasons of four
months. Thus the obsession with the zodiac, present in the Israelitish
religion of the time, may have been derived from the sky religion of
the Egyptians. This much seems to be an original discovery; my further
discussion relates these deductions to already known material. The
Encyclopedia Judaica (2) gives the tribe associated with each sign. So
now we know the tribe associated with each stone. However, as the
tribe-names were probably assigned after the settlement in Canaan, the
"name" was probably the sign of the zodiac.
Table I shows
the arrangement of the jewels
on the breastplate in capital letters, the names as in the New English
Bible. The order in the rows is reversed relative to the English text
because the Hebrews wrote from right to left. My trials of various runs
of the birthstones failed to find a correspondence with the order of
the ancient jewels until I thought of the fact that the Egyptians
observed, not four seasons, but three of four months each: inundation,
growing season, and dry season (3). Fitting the run of the birthstones
by column succeeded at once
Table I shows
the arrangement of the birthstones
in lower case letters. The + sign indicates at least some resemblance
to the ancient jewel in color and, moreover, in the cases of sardony
and topaz, of the kind itself. There are seven coincidences, enough to
be convincing, but two additional ones, in col. 1, rest on mythology
JASPER (red-brown) vs amethyst. The wine color of amethyst is
associated with Bacchus; in art he is often shown with goat's horns,
hence the jewel was likely connected with Capricorn, in which the sun
anciently stood in December.
GREEN JASPER vs bloodstone. According to a legend, drops of blood from
the wounds of Christ fell upon a green stone beneath the cross and
created the first bloodstone.
correspondence is good. The zodiacal signs connected with the
birthstones are known. The Hebrew names of the signs were translations
into Hebrew of the names as we know them today (2); in particular
sartan means Cancer. The ancient names of the tribes can now be
added where they belong.
The information is
laid out in Table
key to the correlation was that the breastplate jewels had to be read
in column to accord with the Egyptian calendar. There is no dispute
that the zodiac was developed in Mesopotamia. However, the Hebrews of
Exodus probably got their concepts about the zodiac from Egypt.
uniform difference of two months between the zodiacal sign of today and
that of the Mosaic era is attributable to the precession of the
equinoxes, caused by the trace of the earth's axis making a circle of
radius 23.4 degrees on the celestial sphere in a period of 25,800
years. A precession through two signs of the zodiac has taken
four-and-a-third millennia. Thus the ancient month attributed to a
jewel in this work was correct about 2300 BCE, give or take a few
centuries. This accords well with the time of origin of the theology
implied in the breastplate.
discussed by Eliade (4), in the shamanic system of thought stones could
be the carriers of potent magic, especially striped or crystalline
stones. Stones could contain the souls of men, or could contain either
malignant or benignant magic. They were of celestial origin, and might
have been chipped from the throne of the Supreme Being. The following
quotations, taken together, indicate the magical importance of the
--- The stones
were according to the names of the children of Israel, twelve... like
the engravings of a signet. (Exod.)
to a name, there was nothing so personal, so precise in the
characterization of each demon and spirit, as the seal (5).
--- Seals of the
name of God were most powerful (6).
the importance of stones in shamanic belief, and from these quotations,
it is plain that the jewels of the breastplate were potent amulets,
laying claim to the protection of the zodiacal totems. We may believe
that the design incised on each stone was not literally the name of the
tribe, but the ideogram of a zodiacal demigod.
to the Judaica (7), some modern scholars consider that the Hebrews
penetrated Canaan in stages, by groups that perhaps were not already
constituted as tribes. The historical names of some of the tribes
resemble place names in Canaan that they might have adopted. The areas
they settled (Josh. 13) are summarized in Judaica, and are shown in
the column farthest to the right in Table II.
map (8) of the areas shows that they conformed approximately to the
cardinal directions and the quarters of the zodiac. It seems that the
zodiacal standards of the tribes must have been assigned after the era
of settlement. According to plausible evidence (2, 9, 10), the
integrated nation developed in Canaan and the tribes were named there.
Thus there is all the more reason to think that the engraving on each
jewel of the breastplate was not in fact a tribe-name but a sign of the
illustration in the Judaica (9) shows a plan of "the Tabernacle" from a
document of the date 1654 CE, in which a central tent shrine was
surrounded by twelve booths, three to each side of a square. Clearly
not the major Tabernacle of Exodus 25, it may have been the plan of the
Place of the Ark in Shiloh (Josh 18:1).
practice, called amphictyony,
known from the Middle East to Italy, was for a central shrine to be
maintained in annual rotation by six or twelve tribes settled about it
(9, 10). Now this is the point: this plan of the Tabernacle, and the
assignment of the tribal areas, demonstrate a zodiacal amphictyony, a
highly structured type of society. After the completion of the
Settlement, the hosts of the tribes would meet at the shrine for
sacrifice, civil affairs, and military planning. The rites and secular
proceedings would confirm and strengthen the nation
By comparing the modern birthstones with the jewels on the breastplate
of the High Priest, it has been possible to identify the signs of the
zodiac for which they stood.
To establish the correspondence between the birthstones and the jewels,
one must recognize that the ancient jewels were arranged in three
columns of four, in keeping with the Egyptian calendar of three seasons
of four months, an evidence of Egyptian influence in the religion.
3. The zodiacal
sign of each tribe is known, so the jewel corresponding to each tribe
can now be identified.
The settlement areas of the tribes in Canaan were in the order of the
zodiac, fitting an amphictyonic system of society. This schematic
perfection supports the theory that the tribes were named and their
zodiacal standards assigned only after the Settlement.
Very likely the names engraved on the jewels of the breastplate were
not literally the names of the tribes but the signs of the zodiac.
Encyc., s.v., Birthstone.
2. Encyc. Judaica,
3. Encyc. Brit.,
Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism, Bollinger Series LXXVI, Princeton University
Press, New Haven, 1970: index s.v. quartz, rock crystals, stones.
5. Encyc. of
Relig. & Ethics, 1932, s.v. Charms and Amulets.
6. Encyc. of
Relig. & Ethics, 1932, s.v. Magic Circle.
7. Encyc. Judaica,
s.v. Tribes, the Twelve.
8. Atlas of the
Bible, Grollenberg, L. H., Nelson and Sons, London. 1956, p. 56+.
9. Encyc. Judaica,
Schaff-Herzog Encyc. of Relig. Knowledge, s.v. Tabernacle.
from this article may be adopted, or parts may be quoted, if credit is
given to the author by name. The author gives permission for the entire
article to be copied provided that his name and this copyright notice
be included. Failure to give credit would violate international
copyright law. - F. Graham Millar
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