A sturdy young ibex, a wild goat identifiable by its ridged horns, emerges from the front of a first-century B.C. incense burner from south Arabia while two snakes slither up the front panel to frame a disk and crescent at the top. The ibex had been cast separately and served as a handle for the 10-inch-tall bronze censer. The animals help identify the incense burner with the cults of southern Arabia: The ibex is believed to have represented the god of the Sabaeans (a first-millennium B.C. Arabian people), while the snake, which was thought to ward off evil, is associated with Ma‘in, a fourth- to second-century B.C. kingdom in what is now northern Yemen.
Both the Sabaeans and the people of Ma‘in depended on the spice trade for their wealth. In South Arabia, as in other areas of the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, incense was used for religious offerings and in funerary ceremonies. Censers shaped like altars were often placed in tombs, presumably for the use of the dead. The high front panel of the censer shown here, with its seven spikes, most resembles a wall or other architectural façade rather than an altar, but its disk and crescent symbols, motifs often found in Arabian votive plaques and censers, suggest that it was used in cultic ceremonies.
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