Kvanvig: The Apkallus as Protective Spirits
by Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez
“The apkallus are especially known from two incantation rituals: the one is Bīt Mēseri, as already stated; the other is called: šēp lemutti ina bit amēli parāsu, “to block the foot of evil into a man’s house” (KAR 298).
The two incantation series have a different scope. Bīt Mēseri prescribes the procedures to be performed when someone is ill, i.e. has come under demonic attack. Šēp Lemutti (“The Foot of Evil”) describes the procedures to be performed when a house should be protected from demonic attack. Consequently the rituals described have some common denominators, but also clear differences.
The rituals describe in great detail how figurines should be made of the seven apkallus. These figurines should then be addressed in an invocation to make them represent the apkallus themselves. In the case of Bīt Mēseri, where an ill person is concerned, the figurines should be arranged in the ill person’s room, close to his bed; in the case of Šēp Lemutti the figurines should be deposited in the foundation of the house.
We are here at a point where textual and archeological evidence support one another. An abundance of such small figurines are found in boxes buried in the foundations of houses and palaces from the Neo-Assyrian and the Neo-Babylonian period.
Because of the detailed description of their appearance in the rituals, it is not difficult to identify the excavated figurines as the same entities described in the rituals. The excavated figurines are representations of the seven apkallus.
(Cf. F.A.M. Wiggermann, “Mischwesen A,” Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie (RLA) 8, Berlin, 1993-7, pp. 222-25, 222, 224.)
Moreover, having identified the small figurines, it is also possible to identify many of the large reliefs that flanked the entrances to the palaces of the Neo-Assyrian kings. Here the small figurines were blown up in large scale representations of figures with the same appearance as the small figurines, corresponding to the descriptions in the rituals.
(Cf. For a detailed examination of the evidence, Dieter Kolbe, Die Reliefprogramme religiös-mythologischen Characters in neu-assyrischen Palästen, EH, Reihe 38, Frankfurt am Main, 1981, III-VII, 14-30.)
There are three kinds of apkallus: fish-apkallus, bird-apkallus, and human apkallus. The fish-apkallu is represented as a fish-garbed figure, with a human body and a carp cloak (cf. the description in Berossos).
The bird-apkallu is represented as a griffin; he has a human body, wings and a bird’s head.
(Cf. Anthony Green, “Mischwesen B,” Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie (RLA) 8, Berlin, 1993-7, pp. 246-64, 252; Anthony Green, “Neo-Assyrian Apotropaic Figures,” Iraq 45, 1983, pp. 87-96.)
The representation of the human apkallu is more uncertain. A. Green suggests that these apkallus were imagined as genii, figures with human bodies and wings, holding a bucket in the one hand and a cone in the other.
Figures of fish-apkallus and bird-apkallus are found in Babylonian Ur and in several of the major Assyrian cities, Nimrud, Aššur and Nineveh. They are found in royal palaces and in houses assumed to belong to the guild of the āšipū, “exorcists.”
(Cf. Dessa Rittig, Assyrisch-babylonische Kleinplastik magischer Bedeutung vom 13.-6. Jh. v. Chr., MVS. München, 1977, pp. 70-85, and pictures 20-31.)
The apkallus were, as stated, not only manufactured as prophylactic figurines. It is possible to find them in numerous examples of monumental art in Assyrian palaces. The fish-apkallu is also found in Persian Persagadae, placed at the entrance to the Audience Hall.
(Cf. Trudy S. Kawami, “A Possible Source for the Sculptures of the Audience Hall, Pasargadae,” Iran 10, 1972, pp. 146-8.)
In the Assyrian palaces the apkallus are guarding the sacred tree, the king, and deities. Thus the apkallus were not only invisible present in rituals (sic); they were manufactured as figures and represented in impressive monumental art.”
Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 129-31.