Winged, Human-headed Genius and Royal Attendant

  • Limestone
  • height 110.5 cm,width 183 cm

At the end of the tenth century BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire launched a series of expeditions to recover territories outside Assyria proper over which control had been lost in an earlier period. Under Ashurnasirpal II, the territory under Assyrian control was expanded from the border of Babylon to the Mediterranean Sea and the northern mountains in what is now southeastern Turkey and the eastern mountains. Details of these expeditions and the booty acquired are available in records from the tenth century BCE founding of the Neo-Assyrian Empire to its destruction in the seventh century BCE. Through these expeditions, Assyria became materially stronger and also won access to the new materials and technologies used by Ashurnasirpal II to build his lavish capital city.

When Ashurnasirpal II assumed power, his first task was to suppress the rebellions that had broken out throughout the empire. Once he had quelled them, he was able to begin building his capital. First, he built palaces in the historic capitals of Assur and Nineveh and maintained their temples. Then, to increase his own prestige, he moved his capital to Kalhu (Nimrud), which had been the capital under Shalmaneser I (1274-1245 BCE) but was later abandoned. There, in addition to building temples to a variety of gods, he built his Northwest Palace. From the first quarter of the ninth century BCE, when the capital was moved, to until the fourth quarter of the eighth century BCE, when Sargon II moved the capital to Dur-Sharrukin, the temples and palaces of Ashurnasirpal II’s capital were steadily enlarged by him and his successors. During the last years of his reign, Ashurnasirpal II had a stone monument carved from sandstone and erected beside the northeast door closest to his throne in the throne room of his Northwest Palace. The monument was carved in relief with a scene of the king standing in front of a symbol of an important guardian deity and, around its circumference and on its lower part, the details of the architectural plans for the rebuilding of Kalhu. The inscriptions also included, most notably, the complete menu for the lavish, ten-day banquet held to celebrate the completion of the palace, together with a detailed breakdown of the participants. We can see how immensely proud the king was of this construction project from the fact that details of this banquet were to be preserved forever for future generations.

This relief (013) continues along the lower part of the west wall of the Northwest Palace throne room, the wall that the king faced directly when he sat on his throne and looked straight ahead through the west door. The images on this wall are believed to depict the ritual performed at the end of the royal hunt. According to the excavator of the palace, Austen Henry Layard, in these carvings the king is facing right. To the king’s left are a beardless attendant (possibly a eunuch) who carries the king’s staff and bow and has a quiver of arrows suspended from his shoulder. Behind the attendant we see a winged deity who carries a cone in his right hand and a small bucket in his left hand. On the king’s right, we see another attendant carrying the king’s whisk and staff and another winged deity carrying a cone and small bucket. At present the image of the king and the scene to his right are in another museum’s collection, and the carvings from the lower half are missing. Eunuchs were attendants who expressed the king’s authority, while the horned miters worn by the winged deities signal their divinity. This scene is remarkable, even in a palace in which the king is depicted as a hunter, warrior, priest, and governor. That combination of royal authority and divinity is confined to the throne room area suggests that these carvings were particularly important.

The four-winged deities are the guardian spirits called apkallu in Assyrian. The small buckets in their left hands are containers for holy water. The cones are dipped into the holy water and then it is sprinkled, in an act of purification. In the Mesopotamian myth Inanna (Ishtar) Descends into the Underworld, it is the “water of life” that brings back to life the goddess of love and war. The idea that water gives life, combined with its bringing about abundant crops, also accounts for its use to ward off death and exorcise demons — primordial perceptions derived from primitive religions. Many figurines with such four wings as apotropaic images have been unearthed from Assyrian sites. The king was guarded both by his powerful attendants and by guardian deities.

In the lower part of these carvings, a cuneiform inscription in the Assyrian language overlays the images of the guardian spirits and attendants. This text, composed in the standard form for Assyrian inscriptions, praises the origins and architectural plans of the palace and the king’s expeditions and other works, and proclaims him, with the devoted protection of the all-powerful gods, the mightiest king in the world.

In the spirit world of Mesopotamian civilization, all of the dead, regardless of their status while alive, descended to the underworld, where they were covered with dust and had only dust to eat. It was a dark world, neither heaven nor hell, where the powerless dead resided for eternity. Guardian spirits would watch over only the living; the fate of the dead meant that it was all-important to polish and exercise wisdom and power to the greatest extent possible while alive and to seek the aid of the gods in pursuit of glory. Mortal heroes might possess the power to resist the gods of heaven, but despite their searching everywhere for immortality, at the end their hopes were dashed. That was the world described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which that spiritual realm is developed fully.

This carving was excavated in 1845-47, but, unlike another set of carved panels now in the collection of the British Museum, it was donated to Canford Manor (later the Canford School) in Dorset, England, thanks to Layard’s having received support from relatives who owned the manor. There it was displayed, along with other carvings, in the specially built Assyria House. After several generations, however, the manor became a private school, and Assyria House became the school’s tuck shop (store selling snacks and other foods). Gypsum replicas of the lower part of the carved panels had been made and the extant panels themselves were covered with gypsum, so that the entire artifact appeared to be a replica. In 1992, however, an American art historian conducting research on Assyrian carvings scattered around the world “re-excavated” the panels, having discovered the temperature difference between the original and the replicas of the lower part.