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Apkallu & Composite Beings in Neo-Babylonian Art

“An examination of all the extant, provenanced depictions of composite beings, Mischwesen, in Neo-Babylonian (NB) iconography sheds important new light on the worldview of the last great Mesopotamian civilization.

Wall relief depicting a winged and eagle-headed Apkallu (Sage). This protective spirit holds a cone and a bucket for religious ceremonial purposes. From the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud (Biblical Calah; ancient Kalhu), modern day Ninawa Governorate, Iraq (Mesopotamia). Neo-Assyrian period, 865-850 BCE. The British Museum, London.

The types of hybrids that are portrayed include such disparate forms as the apkallu and the genius in human form, as well as creatures based on bulls, lions, canines, winged quadrupeds, fish, birds, scorpions, and snakes.

Demons, monsters, and minor apotropaic deities, from Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, Demons & Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, 1992, p. 64.

Each composite being is analyzed in terms of its physical components, its context within scenes, its historical development, and its interpretation in NB texts.

Within the hierarchical cosmic community, some lower deities and sub-divine beings appear in composite form. These play a key role in the cosmos by interacting with gods, with each other, with humans, and with natural animals.

Their behavior parallels dynamics found in natural life, such as in competition, conflict, predation, protection, and in the service of others who are more powerful.

In hybrids the capabilities of natural animals and humans are heightened by the selective addition of features derived from other species. There is no consistent correlation, however, between the strength of a natural creature and the relative power of the superhuman being that it symbolizes, or between its physical complexity and its placement in the cosmic hierarchy.

Pazuzu: a demon-god of the underworld, sometimes invoked for beneficial ends. The inscription covering the back of his wings states: “I am Pazuzu, son of Hanpa, king of the evil spirits of the air which issue violently from mountains, causing much havoc.” Pazuzu was particularly associated with the west wind which brought the plague. Under certain circumstances Pazuzu was a protective spirit, particularly to drive his wife Lamashtu back to the underworld. Lamashtu was a demoness who infected men with various diseases. Pazuzu first appeared in the 1st millennium BC with the body of a man and the head of a scowling dragon-snake, with two pairs of wings and talons of a bird of prey. He has a scorpion’s tail and his body is covered in scales. statuette of Pazuzu, circa 800 BC –- circa 700 BC, Louvre Museum.

In fact, the transcendence of high gods is often emphasized by their simple representation through attribute animals in natural form.

Ishtar receives the worship of an Amazon. Ishtar stands on a lion, holding a bow with arrows at her back. Her eight-pointed star is atop her head. Lusty antelopes rear on the right side, perhaps signifying the god Ea. The portrayal of the tree is somewhat problematic, as it differs from the iconic depictions of the sacred tree common in Neo-Assyrian art. Drawing © 2008 S. Beaulieu, after Leick, 1998: Plate 38. Used by kind permission.

Portrayals of composite beings often express the need for protection from malevolent powers by beneficent beings, some of whom can be accessed only through human mediators, such as ritual functionaries.

Green identifies the ugallu at the center, the “lion-man,” and lahmu at left. He speculates that the “House god” appears at far right. Limestone relief, one of a pair flanking

a doorway in the N. Palace at Nineveh.

Previously published: H.R. Hall, Babylonian and Assyrian Sculptures in the British Museum,

Special relationships between supernatural beings and elite humans, especially the king, make such humans indispensable and therefore support their roles in the existing social order.

It appears that the choice of a particular being portrayed on a given object could be influenced by factors such as its owner’s profession, religious and/or political affiliations, and especially by the apotropaic function(s) of specific composite beings.”

Constance Ellen Gane, Composite Beings in Neo-Babylonian Art, Doctoral Dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 2012, p. 1.

The apkallus as Watchers and Guardians

“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.

Ummanu and bird-apkallu tend the sacred tree. The bird-apkallu are portrayed in the iconic act of purifying or pollinating the sacred tree with mullilu cones and banduddu buckets.

A fleur de lis is clearly portrayed at the base of the sacred tree. It is not known whether the fleur de lis was also portrayed atop the horned headdresses of the ummanu in the top register. It is worth noting that the ubiquitous rosette pattern is portrayed at the base of the sacred tree in the top register. The same detail is apparent upon scrutiny of the sacred tree in the lower register, partially occluded by a mount or platform for the tree. One further detail which may be of no import: the bird-apkallu on the right wears a bracelet, but unlike other bracelets portrayed on left wrists elsewhere in this frieze, the rosette is not visible. For whatever reason, this apkallu wore his rosette bracelet oriented towards his body. This could be no more than an oversight by the original artist, or realistic portrayal of a real life model.

From Kalhu, Northwest Palace of Assurnasirpal II, Room I, Slab 30, inscribed wall relief, Metropolitan Museum 32.143.3. Photo Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., 1932.

John Malcolm Russell, The Writing on the Wall: Studies in the Architectural Context of Late Assyrian Palace Inscriptions, Eisenbrauns, 1999. P. 18.

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.ein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1992.

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