Kvanvig: The apkallus as Watchers and Guardians
by Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez
“As demonstrated in the rituals, the apkallus were not only figures of the past. Surely, they visited the earth in antediluvian time to bestow wisdom on mankind, but they were still alive and invisibly present in the human world.
They were present as “guardian spirits,” as we have seen in the depiction of the sick man. We now see that they performed other roles as well. One of the most important was to purify the Tree of Life. This duty was closely connected to their role as cosmic guardians and formed a parallel to the maintenance of the divine statue, as in the Poem of Erra.
When the apkallus purified the tree, they “insured the correct functioning of the plans of heaven and earth,” as it was expressed in Bīt Mēseri. The divine and human worlds overlap. The depiction of the sick man did not show the āšipū performing their ritual, but the apkallus, whom they represented.
In the Poem of Erra the human ummanus were called the images of the transcendent apkallus. Since the scholars emulate the role of the apkallus, the Tree of Life scene, with the apkallus, can also be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the scholar’s activity at the court.
The Tree of Life represents the king, whom the scholars protect with their wisdom. In many of the letters that Parpola has edited this is expressed through a recurring phrase: massartu ša šarri nasāru, “to keep the king’s watch.”
In the Akkadian phrase the element of “watching” is expressed twice, both through the noun massartu, and through the verb nasāru. The Akkadian massartu both has the connotation “guard, watchman, be awake,” and someone who watches for astronomical observation.
The noun corresponds closely to the verb nasāru, “guard, take care of, keep watch for celestial phenomena.” Used together in massartu nasāru, the phrase often means “to take care of a person’s interests.”
The two meanings “guard” and “watch for omens” come together in the tasks of the scholars; it was through their watching for divine signs that they guarded the king. A good illustration of this double meaning we find in the following letter:
“To the king, our lord: your servants, the scribes of Kilizi. Good health to the king, our lord! May Nabu and Marduk bless the king.
We watched the moon; on the 14th day the moon and the sun saw each other. (This means) well-being.
May Nabu and Marduk bless the king. Because of the ilku-duty (state service) and the corvée work we cannot keep the watch of the king, and the pupils do not learn the scribal craft.”
(Letter 143, Parpola, Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars, p. 111.)
The role of the earthly scholars at this point reflects the apkallus, as we have seen in many other instances. The scholars were “watchers” over the king’s well-being and health and in this instance over his kingdom, in the same manner as the apkallus who were invoked as “watchers” in the rituals.
The scholars should watch the king in order to maintain the cosmic order, just as the apkallus were watchers of the cosmic order in the divine realm.”
Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 144-6.