Assyrian Education Network

ASSYRIA: A Study of Symbols
by Mark Samuel
Posted: Monday, January 22, 2001 10:59 am CST


"This is not the work of men's hands but of those infidel giants of whom the prophet - Peace be with him! Has said that they were higher than the tallest date tree…". Those were the words of Henry Layard upon the discovery of the Nimrud palace of ASHURNASIRPAL II (884-859). In fact, when reading about "Assyria", any researcher finds himself captured by the work that had been accomplished and overwhelmed with the human ability and capacity behind such genesis.

The Assyrians flashed out of northern Mesopotamia to establish the great land of Ashur or Assyria; to protect it however, they had to found strong armed forces that could secure its boundaries and, in some occasions, expand them for the sake of Ashur's dominion. Sculptures present Assyria as an empire of a cosmopolitan nature that by the end of the seventh century, had unified the nations of the Middle East in a way never seen before (1, p. 33). A king was not a mere secular ruler but a high priest of the god Ashur; He owed to him and to his subjects of maintaining and furthermore extending the land of Ashur to impose his yoke on lands beyond the pale (1, p.19). At his coronation, an Assyrian king, elected by the gods although not himself of a divine nature would speak such words:

      "Before Assur, thy god, may thy priesthood
      and the priesthood of my sons find favour,
      with thy straight scepter make thy land wide;
      May Assur grant thee quick satisfaction ,
      Justice, and peace."(3, p. 160).

This is clearly illustrated in almost every excavated stela where we notice how the king points with his right hand to the supreme god Ashur. On the other hand, this obedience seems flagrant on the fifth of Nisannu (April 1st) during the Assyrian new year festival. On this particular day, the sheshgallu priest(high priest) shows up in front of the king, takes his royal insignia, brings them to Marduk(Ashur), returns back to the king, slaps him, pulls his ears and ask him to face himself down in front of Marduk and recites a prayer of remorse after which he's granted absolution on behalf of Marduk:

      "Have no fear…
      for Marduk has spoken…
      Marduk will listen to your prayer…
      He will increase your rule…
      He will exalt your kingship…etc" (4, p. 45)

From Nimrud, we could see, behind the throne, a scene carved on a slab where the Assyrian king is introduced twice surrounding a sacred tree and pointing towards a winged disk. This latter most likely represents the god Ashur while the tree, although erroneously known as "Tree of Life", probably represents fertility in the land of Ashur (1, p. 37). In roughly similar slabs, the king would be standing beside the tree while Griffin-demons sprayed him with holy water. These slabs evoked the supernatural protection which the king enjoyed and were a breathtaking wall textile (3, p. 162).

A mace in his hand, a rosette on his wrist, and five godly symbols above him and on his necklace were his shield to protect his holy monarchy and his life as a servant of the gods. The mace in his left hand was most probably a mark of his authority with which the king presented himself as the sole authorized ruler of the land of Ashur while the rosette on his wrist granted him luck from Ishtar. These rosettes were found in large numbers inside the temple of Ishtar and sometimes, during the Neo-Assyrian period, replaced the star symbol (2, p. 156).

The five holy symbols above his head were mostly known as:

  1. The helmet: Decorated with horns representing the supreme god, naturally Ashur. The horned cap which comprised of up to seven superimposed pairs of horns was the distinctive head-dress of divinity. In Neo-Assyrian art, it is named as that of the national god Ashur (2, p. 102).
  2. The winged disk: Its origins and meaning are controversial but possibly initiates from Egypt. Some scholars argue that the disk in Assyria represented the sun god Shamash while others interpreted it as the symbol of Ashur or Ninurta (2, p. 185).
  3. The crescent: Known from inscriptions to be the symbol of the moon god Sin. Its akkadian name was Ushkaru. It was probably considered to have magical powers. From the old Babylonian period onward, the crescent was often enveloped with a disk; sometimes showing fusion between both symbolizing the eclipse (2, p. 54).
  4. The fork: Better known as the lightning or thunderbolt. This symbol represented the storm god Adad(Ishkur). Sometimes it was held as an attribute by the god. During the Neo-Assyrian period some carved slabs show the god Ninurta(?) carrying triple-lightning symbols, probably because he has taken a role once Adad's characteristic (2, p. 118).
  5. The star: The eight-pointed star stretches down from prehistoric times through the Neo-Babylonian Period. This astrophysical figure was known as the planet Venus and it symbolized Inana/Ishtar, goddess of love and war. In Neo-Assyrian seals, the upper body of Ishtar is sometimes positioned above a crescent enclosed by stars (2, p. 169).

For instance however, looking at the stela of ASHURNASIRPAL II (1, p. 20), one can easily notice that the necklace of similar five symbols the king wears on his chest illustrates a Maltese cross instead of a winged disk coating a cross as a symbol of the sun.

Furthermore, many carved slabs flagrantly show, besides the five godly symbols, signs that were often prominent for the meaning they promoted. For instance, the "Seven Dots" representation was redundant in Assyrian sculptures. The dots or globes were usually arranged as six dots enfolding a central dot to form a kind of rosette and sometimes as two rows of three headed by the seven dot to illustrate astral geometry. In Assyrian art, they were regarded as seven stars. On the other hand, according to Sumerian inscriptions, SEVEN is a name given to a group of gods who acted against evil demons using supernatural spells. Clearly, the number SEVEN had a significantly great importance in the Mesopotamian art; thus, we could notice the frequent usage of the "seven stars", "seven gods", seven demons", or "seven sages"(2, p. 162-164). Thus, the "up to seven superimposed pairs" of the divine helmet might have a specific relation or an associated explanation with the exclusivity of this number.

Some of the most interesting symbols for the Assyrians of ancient times and of today are the human-headed winged bulls. These figures were mostly known as "LAMASSU" and they served as genii protecting Assyrian palaces. They were deliberately sited at the main gate of a palace to prevent enemies from coming in. LAMASSU also appeared in the throne room as a power impact and to impose respect-by-fear presence toward the king (3, p. 146-147). According to "Art: A history of the world, DK publishing", a Winged Bull would appear having five legs if looked at from the sides but showing only four when seen from the front as a result of the juxtaposition of two of its legs. This optical illusion spread terror amongst evil forces coming from the sides due to the dynamic illusion created by the five legs (as if LAMASSU was moving forward). Moreover, villains coming from the front would be definitely frightened by the solemn stare the LAMASSU had forced on its territory.

Other figures that are recurrently drawn on the bricks of the Ishtar gate and of the processional way at Babylon are the Lions, Bulls, and the Snake gods or "Dragons". Their number at the gate and along the processional way exceeded 575 figures and their role was to greet the visitor of Babylon as he approached the gate. Those animals however, were an ever-present reminder to the people that the gods were omnipresent (4, p. 26). For instance, the Snake god or "Dragon" was a symbol of various gods or a magically protective factor. When the Assyrian king SENNACHERIB (704-681) took over Babylon, he brought back this symbol declaring it as the beast of the state god Ashur (2, p. 166).

Certainly, the above-mentioned symbols are only a humble slice of the whole puzzle of symbols that had been used in Assyrian architecture and sculpture. The rest of the "geometrical shapes" collection is listed as following: Wedge, lamp, vase with streams, 'Omega' symbol, rhomb, swastika, spade, plough, barley stalk, ziggurat, stylized tree, bucket & cone, djed pillar & ankh (Egyptian symbols), rod & ring, crook, ring-staff, ring-post, ball-staff, arrow…

As for the rest of animal symbols, they are documented as following:

Horse, horse's head, dog, cow & calf, turtle, snakes, scorpion, mongoose, fish, fly, walking bird, bird with back-turned head, bird on a low perch, long-neck bird standard, bird god, double lion-headed scepter, lion-headed staff, eagle-headed staff, ram-headed staff, goat-fish, Imdugud (bird-shaped), lion-centaur, bull of heaven, centaur, lion-dragon, lion-fish…

What is left however, is the remainder of the human-shaped figures and are presented as following:

Ninshubur(god), Lugal-irra & Meslamta-ea, Smiting god, Usmu (Ismud), Lama, genies, Lahmu, bull-man, lion-humanoid, lion-demon, La-tarak, Lamashtu, Pazuzu, bird-man, scorpion-people, fish-garbed figure, merman & mermaid, Huwawa (Humbaba), Bes… (2, p. 64, 65, 96, 97).

It is obvious how the Assyrians used a diversity of symbols to organize their life as a powerful and invincible nation. Through series of intricate symbols, their civilization immerged as of divine nature in a land where greatness in science had no frontiers and where architecture, sculpture and other arts made their first pace toward the rest of the planet. The multiple symbols they created and used in their inscriptions and drawings were undoubtedly designed by highly educated and knowledgeable artists in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and metaphysics to express the continuity of the Assyrian era. Consequently, despite the collapse of the empire in 612 BC, This sense of permanence transformed their legacy to an inspiration for scholars of present time. Today, we remain as a progeny of those who once were innovators of what we presently call "civilized world"; so should we survive the hardships, we are in need to keep an eye on our fascinating history so we can plan for the future as a unified Assyrian nation.

References:

  1. Assyrian Sculpture, Julian Reade, British Museum press, London, first published 1983, second edition 1998.
  2. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia (an illustrated dictionary), Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, British Museum press, London, first published 1992, second edition 1998.
  3. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, Henri Frankfort, Yale university Press, Pelican history of art, 1996.
  4. The Ishtar Gate: the processional way, the New Year festival of Babylon, Joachim Marzahn.


Related Information...

Education Conference
Assyrian Education Network Archives

If you have any related information or suggestions, please email them.
Atour: The State of Assyria. Terms of Use.