Winged, Human-headed Genius and Royal Attendant

  • Iraq, Nimrud, Northwest Palace
  • Assyrian period
  • Reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859B.C.)
  • Alabastrous limestone
  • H-110.5 D-10 W-183
Catalogue Entry

This is a portion of a scene that was originally a wall relief carved over three stone slabs depicting the King of Assyria, Ashurnasirpal II, flanked by his attendants and protective, divine figures. The scene once decorated the wall of an anteroom, Room C, at the west end of the throne room suite of the so-called Northwest Palace, the king's royal residence on the citadel mound of his capital city at Kalhu (Nimrud), near the Tigris River, in what is today northeastern Iraq. The scene was partially visible to the enthroned king through a wide doorway flanked by human-headed, winged lions (aladlammu) (fig. 1).1 The Shumei fragment shows a winged , human-headed genius (apkallu) on the left and a royal attendant on the right; they originally stood behind an image of the king.

The scene is preserved only in fragments, but the motif was described by Austen Henry Layard, the original excavator of the palace from 1848 to 1851; the details and fragments of the scene that survive were identified by scholars who have since worked on the reconstruction of the throne room suite (fig. 2).2

The king faced to the right and was carved on a single slab. In his left hand he held his bow erect, one end firmly set on the ground. In his right hand he raised an offering bowl up to the level of his face, as if to pour a libation. On the reliefs in the throne rooms, the king is depicted thus in a ritual at the close of the lion and bull hunts.3

To the right of the king on the adjacent slab was a royal attendant, a sword belted at his waist, holding a mace and a fly whisk. Behind the attendant, to his right, stood a winged, human-headed genius carrying a bucket and cone. The genius wears a miter with horns which, with his wings, signifies divinity. On the adjacent slab to the left of the king was another royal attendant carrying a mace and a bow, his quiver slung over his shoulder and a sword belted around his waist. Behind this figure was another winged, human-headed genius carrying the bucket and cone and wearing a horned mitre. These last two figures are the ones on the Shumei relief.

The king is dressed in a long tunic over which is draped a full-length body shawl, one corner slung over his shoulder. The attendants wear long tunics and what appears to be a short shawl draped over one shoulder. The geniuses wear short tunics and long body shawls, left open to show powerful musculature. All wear sandals. Preserved garment hems are decorated with a motif of squares within squares, edged with crisscross piping, and fringed. The bottom of the attendants' wide belt is similarly marked (perhaps incorrectly). This square-within-square decoration of the hems is the preferred garment decoration on all the other known reliefs from Room C. The figures' armlets and bracelets are either plain or are decorated with rosettes, the ends capped with finials etched with crisscrossed decoration. Each of the figures also wears a single or double strand of beads around his neck. Each of the geniuses and the king carry two knives and a whetstone in his wide belt. In Room C, geniuses to the left of the king all have two-horned miters; those to the right of the king have three-horned miters;4 our relief is from the left of the king and therefore the genius wears a two-horned miter. This variation suggests that there were at least two artists responsible for the iconography in this room. The figures' faces and the way the stone is finished on the slabs to the right and to the left of the king also differ in small ways, supporting this suggestion.

The Assyrian artists who designed the decoration of the palace utilized the four themes of the throne room in symbolic fashion throughout the rest of the palace: the king at the close of the (ritual) hunt, therefore as hunter and priest; as triumphant in battle; and as sovereign. Repeating these ideas in stone throughout the palace accentuated the "ideology and propaganda" of the art, emphasizing and re-emphasizing his principal roles in Assyrian society.5

The scene of which our relief is a part is a version of the ritual at the close of the hunt, augmented in meaning by the addition of the protective divine figures. It is appropriate to have such an augmented scene in the throne room suite, close to the place where the king appears in state, and where he is portrayed in a variety of other composite scenes reiterating the various roles he had in Assyrian society.

The human-headed, winged divine figure is one of the apkallu, the seven seers, who perform protective functions in Assyrian religion.6 The figure is familiar from a common scene, a ritual before the so-called sacred tree, a symbol which may represent the fertility of the Assyrian state.7 The scene has also been interpreted as a ritual of purification, using the bucket (the banduddu) and the cone (mullilu-the purifier).8 The king's participation in the sacred tree ritual is featured behind the throne itself and across from main doorway of the throne room.

Across the bodies of these figures was inscribed a cuneiform text in the Assyrian language which identified the palace, its builder, summarized his war campaigns, and his building plans. Known in scholarly literature as the "Standard Inscription," it is repeated in at least two versions, one later than the other, on every stone slab that line the walls of palace and on some of the stone pavement slabs. The copies in room C were all inscribed in eighteen lines; it is likely that it is the later version.9 Preserved on our relief fragment are eight complete lines and portions of the ninth and tenth. The inscription reads in part:

"The palace of Ashurnasirpal, chief priest of Ashur, the chosen one of Enlil and Ninurta, the favorite of Anu and Dagan, the divine weapon of the Great Gods, the potent king, the king of the world, the king of Assyria, / .... [I am] the powerful warrior who always lives by [his] trust in Ashur, / his lord, who has no rival among the princes of