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Tag: Assyrian Empire

From Anthony Green, Neo-Assyrian Apotropaic Figures, 1983

“From Assyria and Babylonia in the first half of the first millennium BCE comes a series of small figurines in the round and relief plaques, which are usually found beneath the floors of buildings within receptacles of baked or unbaked brick or (at Nineveh) stone slabs or (so far restricted to Aššur) pottery jars; the figurines themselves are almost invariably of sun-dried clay, very occasionally, perhaps, of terracotta or metal.

(Note 1: E. Douglas Van Buren, Foundation Figurines and Offerings (Berlin, 1931) [henceforth referred to as FFO] is now outdated on this subject. For a synthesis of material mainly from published sources up to 1973, see Dessa Rittig, Assyrisch-babylonische Kleinplastik magischer Bedeutung vom. 13.-6. Fh v. Chr. (München, 1977) [henceforth Rittig]. The Nimrud corpus remains for the most part unpublished. A certain amount of new material, including Nimrud figurines, will appear in R.S. Ellis, Domestic Spirits: Apotropaic Figurines in Mesopotamian Buildings (Philadelphia, forthcoming)).

Their purpose, as texts prescribing the rituals involved attest, was to avert evil from the buildings and sickness from the inhabitants.

The British School’s Nimrud complement comprises at least 136 relevant pieces from 66 separate deposits discovered in three buildings: the Burnt Palace, the Acropolis Palace (AB) and Fort Shalmaneser, and dating possibly from the reign of Shalmaneser III (?) or, at least, Adad-nirari III down to the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 613 BCE.

In this paper I shall deal with just one, but perhaps the most important, area on which the series sheds light, namely the question of the identification of the creatures represented by the various iconographic types. It can hardly be denied that the study of apotropaic figurines is of somewhat limited importance in itself. Where it succeeds is rather in the light which it throws upon matters of more general and basic interest.

It is vital here to recognize the official nature of the ritual and practice, and the consequent position of the iconography of the figurines in the official religion of the Assyrian state. And while there are no apparent documentary sources directly concerning, for example, the subjects of the apotropaic palace reliefs, there are texts ordaining procedures for apotropaic rituals involving figurines, which often enable identifications of analogous types.

Professor Mallowan was quick to recognize the relationship between the so-called Nisroch or “Griffin-demon” common in the ninth-century palaces and in Middle and Neo-Assyrian art in general (Plate IXa), and the bird-headed human figurines of apkallē from Phase E of the Burnt Palace (Plate IXb).

A bird-apkallū, the so-called Nisroch or "Griffin-demon). Plate IXa.

A bird-apkallū, the so-called Nisroch or “Griffin-demon.” Plate IXa.

A bird-headed human figurine of apkallē from Phase E of the Burnt Palace, Plate IXb.

A bird-headed human figurine of apkallē from Phase E of the Burnt Palace, Plate IXb.

Citing this instance, J.B. Stearns (Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, AfO Behest 15 (Graz, 1961), 26, n. 44), has remarked that although there is here an isolated, rather superficial, relationship, there are no general correspondences between the figures on the reliefs and the actual or prescribed figurines, and that even in this case the connection does not aid our understanding of the monumental figures:

” . . . it is important to note that they are only one type out of many kinds of statuettes mentioned in these texts. Thus the parallel between the foundation-figures and the reliefs seems far from complete, since only the … winged, eagle-headed genie is present in the texts …

It should also be noted that among the several types of figurines excavated none except the bird-headed type seems to resemble the genies of the reliefs …

In short, the relationship between the apkallē of the typical text here adduced and the excavated figurines seems rather superficial, and the connection of either texts or the figurines with the rites depicted on the reliefs seems too tenuous to warrant basing an explanation of the reliefs upon such evidence.”

But although this appears true when considering the reliefs catalogued in Stearn’s restricted study, it is not the case when the full repertoire of apotropaic figures on the reliefs and in fictile art is considered, when a number of correlations can be found.

The method of using such correlations to identify individual figure types has already been well vindicated, I believe, in Dr. Julian Reade’s reappraisal of the subject-matter of Assyrian sculpture.”

Anthony Green, “Neo-Assyrian Apotropaic Figures,” Iraq, Vol. 45, 1983, pp. 87-8.

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Babylon

” … All the younger gods, who displaced the elder gods as one year displaces another, were deities of fertility, battle, lightning, fire, and the sun; it is possible, therefore, that Ashur was like Merodach, son of Ea, god of the deep, a form of Tammuz in origin.

His spirit was in the solar wheel which revolved at times of seasonal change. In Scotland it was believed that on the morning of May Day (Beltaine) the rising sun revolved three times. The younger god was a spring sun god and fire god. Great bonfires were lit to strengthen him, or as a ceremony of riddance; the old year was burned out.

Indeed the god himself might be burned (that is, the old god), so that he might renew his youth. Melkarth was burned at Tyre. Hercules burned himself on a mountain top, and his soul ascended to heaven as an eagle.

These fiery rites were evidently not unknown in Babylonia and Assyria. When, according to Biblical narrative, Nebuchadnezzar “made an image of gold” which he set up “in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon,” he commanded:

“O people, nations, and languages… at the time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick… fall down and worship the golden image.”

Certain Jews who had been “set over the affairs of the province of Babylonia,” namely, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego,” refused to adore the idol.

They were punished by being thrown into “a burning fiery furnace”, which was heated “seven times more than it was wont to be heated.” They came forth uninjured.

In the Koran it is related that Abraham destroyed the images of Chaldean gods; he “brake them all in pieces except the biggest of them; that they might lay the blame on that.” According to the commentators the Chaldaeans were at the time “abroad in the fields, celebrating a great festival.”

To punish the offender Nimrod had a great pyre erected at Cuthah.

“Then they bound Abraham, and putting him into an engine, shot him into the midst of the fire, from which he was preserved by the angel Gabriel, who was sent to his assistance.”

Eastern Christians were wont to set apart in the Syrian calendar the 25th of January to commemorate Abraham’s escape from Nimrod’s pyre.

It is evident that the Babylonian fire ceremony was observed in the spring season, and that human beings were sacrificed to the sun god. A mock king may have been burned to perpetuate the ancient sacrifice of real kings, who were incarnations of the god.

Isaiah makes reference to the sacrificial burning of kings in Assyria:

“For through the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod. And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the Lord shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it.

For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared: he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood: the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.”

When Nineveh was about to fall, and with it the Assyrian Empire, the legendary king, Sardanapalus, who was reputed to have founded Tarsus, burned himself, with his wives, concubines, and eunuchs, on a pyre in his palace. Zimri, who reigned over Israel for seven days, “burnt the king’s house over him with fire.”

Saul, another fallen king, was burned after death, and his bones were buried “under the oak in Jabesh”.

In Europe the oak was associated with gods of fertility and lightning, including Jupiter and Thor. The ceremony of burning Saul is of special interest. Asa, the orthodox king of Judah, was, after death, “laid in the bed which was filled with sweet odours and divers kinds of spices prepared by the apothecaries’ art: and they made a very great burning for him” (2 Chronicles, xvi, 14).

Jehoram, the heretic king of Judah, who “walked in the way of the kings of Israel,” died of “an incurable disease. And his people made no burning for him like the burning of his fathers” (2 Chronicles, xxi, 18, 19).

The conclusion suggested by the comparative study of the beliefs of neighbouring peoples, and the evidence afforded by Assyrian sculptures, is that Ashur was a highly developed form of the god of fertility, who was sustained, or aided in his conflicts with demons, by the fires and sacrifices of his worshippers.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 348-51.

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