Ashurbanipal hunting lions
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Ashurbanipal hunting lions

November 20, 2019


(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: We’re in the
British Museum in London and we’re looking at a series
of magnificent low reliefs. Dr. Harris: These show a
very dramatic lion hunt and it’s the king of Assyria
who is killing the lions. Dr. Zucker: The Assyrians
emerged in Mesopotamia before 1,000 BCE, but
increased their power and by the time these reliefs were made in the seventh century BCE, the Assyrians were dominant and really at the height of their civilization. Dr. Harris: The Assyrians
had several royal palaces and several capital cities. Ninevah, Nimrud, and Khorsabad. The scenes that we’re looking at now are from the royal palace in Ninevah. Dr. Zucker: These would
have decorated a hallway. You would have walked through the scene and we’re seeing
different moments in time. Dr. Harris: Assyrian kings
decorated their palaces with these low reliefs
depicting battle scenes, hunting scenes. These all speak to the
power of the Assyrian kings, but this particular set of
reliefs is especially naturalistic and dramatic. These are considered masterpieces of Assyrian sculpture. Dr. Zucker: It’s a lion hunt. It’s important to
understand the symbolism. The lions, which were
native to Mesopotamia and, actually, a slightly smaller
species that is now extinct, were symbols of the violence of nature and the king killing the lions. By the way, there was a
law that said only the king could kill lions. The king killing lions was
an important symbolic act that spoke of the king
keeping nature at bay, keeping his city safe. Dr. Harris: Even though
we see the king killing lions here, he is
killing them in an arena. He’s not killing them out in the wild. Dr. Zucker: Let’s move through the story. On one side of the hallway,
we see the king readying for the hunt. Dr. Harris: We can identify the king because of the particular
crown that he wears and he’s also larger than
the other three figures who are helping him to
get ready for the hunt. We see one figure with
reigns pulling the horses, two other figures turning
in the same direction as the king. On the left hand side it’s
obviously been damaged. Dr. Zucker: I’m really
taken with the horses. Dr. Harris: Well, the
horses are represented so much more naturalistically. Dr. Zucker: Especially if
you look at the musculature of the face, of the eyes. There’s tremendous detail. Dr. Harris: And emotion. They look as though they’re
resisting getting bridled for this hunt. Dr. Zucker: We can see
one of those bridles being tightened and we
can see two other figures trying to steady the horses. All of this is taking place
within an enclosed space and we can see other
attendants that are holding a barrier of some sort
to pen in these animals. Dr. Harris: Now they’re
represented below the scene with the king, but we’re
meant to understand them as being around the king. We have human figures who, although they’re striding
forward, there’s a formality to their poses, but strangely,
a informality, I think, to the horses. Dr. Zucker: We’ll see that
also in the representation of the lions, who are
represented quite distinctly from the greater sense of formality that the king displays or
his attendants display. We have this division
between man and the control of man and then nature and its wildness. As we move to the middle of the panels, we see a very different scene. We’ve pulled back, our
view is more distant, and we see figures much smaller now. We see a hill with lots of figures on it. Dr. Harris: And at the
very top what seems to be a monument to the king, showing
itself a relief of a hunt with a king in a chariot slaying lions, so it’s a representation of
a representation of the hunt. Dr. Zucker: It’s a relief of a relief. I love that. Dr. Harris: This scene does feel chaotic. Figures gesturing in different ways, climbing in different
ways, some looking back, some looking forward. Dr. Zucker: They seem to
be hurrying up the hill. They may be fleeing, they
may be trying to grab a better position to watch the hunt from, these may be spectators. We think we’re seeing men
and women, but in fact, this is so old part of this is guesswork. Dr. Harris: Of course, this
would have been much easier to read in the palace where
the relief was painted. Dr. Zucker: These were painted
very brightly, in fact. They really would have stood out. As we move to the right,
we come to the arena for the hunt itself. We can see that the lions
will be held in place by a double row of soldiers
that have shields and spears and then inside that,
to ensure that the lions don’t even get that far,
there’s another row of soliders with mastiffs. They’re holding spears and
those dogs will make sure that the lions don’t pass. Dr. Harris: And although
these figures are represented one on top of one another, we’re meant to understand them as being
in rows in depth in space. Dr. Zucker: I love the
representation of the dogs. You can see them straining
against the leash. Dr. Harris: We have to
walk to the other end now to see how the lions
have entered the arena. We see another double
row of the king’s guard and then we see a child releasing a very menacing looking
lion into the lion hunt. Dr. Zucker: So this is a
completely fabricated hunt. It is controlled. We see the king on chariot. He’s shooting an arrow. We see the arrow airborne
and then, of course, we see the lions dying all around us. Dr. Harris: Wounded,
pierced, some on the ground, some leaping up, represented
with such sympathy. Dr. Zucker: The variety is incredible, the detail is incredible. You’ll notice that the
king is in some danger. There is a lion that was
wounded, but is coming back to attack, but his assistants
are taking up the rear. Dr. Harris: This all speaks
to the power, the authority of the king over nature
and representing that power to his people. (jazz music)

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  1. Interesting to see the evolution of propaganda and appeal to authority. Surely a work in this vain wouldn't have nearly the same reaction today! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Magnificent. But it's sad to consider that humans even in ancient times held such violent views towards nature. I understand the state's need to emphasize civilization's primacy over the wilderness, but it's just so damn gruesome. Seems like we're still acting out that gross opposition today : (

  3. What it shows is a barbaric cruel being claiming to be a human king with cowardly staged "heroics". Much like today's leaders.

  4. Thanks for offering artist reconstruction of how it would have looked in its day at 4:10. I was wondering about that.

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