Culture Trips

The Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal: The 2700-year-old ‘fake news’

Williams captures the fantastical quality of the reliefs, how they portray an eternal instant when an arrow is at once yet-to-be-unleashed (“with drawn bow”) while at the same time forever striking its target (“bristling in their necks!”). Here, time collapses. So too, in a sense, does the enmity between the slayer and the slain. It’s almost as if the king and the lions he perpetually quells – antagonists who are depicted by the ancient sculptor with at least as much heroism and sympathy as the august protagonist of the hunt – occupy a realm outside of the here-and-now (or there-and-then) and are, in essence, less mortal adversaries than spiritual reflexes of each other, pulsations of the same mythic heart.

This is where the significance of Ashurbanipal’s radiant earring reveals itself and becomes a crucial puzzle piece not merely in comprehending the complex relationship between these two complementary forces, the hunter and hunted, but in rescuing Ashurbanipal himself from eternal futility. After all, if the king is truly as mighty as the alabaster reliefs suggest, why do the lions keep coming back, panel after panel, year after year, reign after reign? The sculptor who conceived the aesthetic strategy for the carvings, in other words, faced a monumental conundrum in explaining how it is that an all-powerful ruler is incapable of defeating his foe once and for all – a dilemma that the earring, and it alone in the iconography of the works, helps him overcome.

A symbol of lion and king

At first glance, the piece of jewellery appears to be little more than a deceptively simple solar symbol blossoming with barbed flares, an ornament accenting the king’s incontestable brilliance. Look closer, and the beaming petals that shoot pointedly from the earring’s centre echoes not just the sharpened arrowheads on which the king’s power is conditioned but also the claws and teeth that threaten to overwhelm him. The earring is a kind of compound emblem, one that absorbs into itself the eternity of the refulgent sun, the invincibility of the king, and the formidableness of the forces that he and he alone is powerful enough to keep at bay.

There is every reason to suspect that contemporary observers of the gypsum reliefs would have recognised immediately the earring’s double entendre – its reference both to the weaponry of the hunt and that of its ferocious target. In Mesopotamian mythologies of the era, the sun was synonymous with the archer god Ashur, from whom the king’s very name derives. Surviving stone medallions that predate the Lion Hunt panels portray a winged Ashur, bow in hand, encircled by and enthroned in the sun. Blurring into this connection between the sun and the archer and complicating it is an age-old association too between the sun and the lion, a link that dates back to the very inception of astrological signs millennia before Ashurbanipal’s reign. “The ancient connection of the sun god with the lion,” according to the folklorist Alexander Krappe, who was the first to translate the collected tales of the Brothers Grimm, “is reflected in the lore of the zodiac, unquestionably of Mesopotamian origin”. The sun is read in arrows and claws.

Seen through the lens of the multivalent earring, the alabaster Lion Hunt is more than merely a chronicle of a single campaign to cull a persistent pest. It is the stuff of timeless myth, turning a failure to entirely defeat the lions into a glorious victory. Suddenly, easily overlooked flourishes introduced by the ancient sculptor into his masterpiece begin to make sense: the elegant little lion head whittled into the tip of Ashurbanipal’s bow; the leonine armlets that clench the muscles of his attendants. The hunter and hunted define each other; they are coeternal cogs in the endless engine of existence. To exalt the king, the lion too must be apotheosised. However brutal the beastly battle between them, life itself relies on the struggle. The reliefs are making it clear that the king and the lion are one.

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