SONS OF GOD - THE IDEOLOGY OF ASSYRIAN KINGSHIP
by Professor Simo Parpola
Parpola, Simo (1999) Sons of God - The ideology of Assyrian Kingship.
In: Archaeology Odissy Archives, December 1999.
The impact of Mesopotamian
religious thought on the evolution of other ancient religious and philosophical
thought has never been seriously investigated. What follows are my initial
forays into this uncharted territory. I suspect the influence has been
far greater than anyone has yet suggested.
A more substantial
matter is the Mesopotamian sense of the king as the son of God. As we
shall see, some of the similarities to later religious concepts are rather
The most elaborate
rendition of the tree motif in this palace occurs on a relief placed directly
behind the royal throne. The tree appears under the winged solar disk
of Ashur, the supreme god of the empire. The symbol of the highest god
hovering over the tree marks it as the cosmic tree growing on the axis
mundi and connecting heaven with earth. It is flanked by two representations
of Ashurnasirpal II depicted as the ideal king. This enigmatic tree thus
stood in the center of the Assyrian Empire, the middle point of the world
from the ideological point of view. The cosmic nature of the tree is implied
by its elaborate structure, absolute symmetry and axial balance, as well
as by the overall composition of the relief, the flanking figures forcing
the viewer's attention towards the center and thence to the winged disk
Since the human king,
in contrast to gods, was made of flesh and blood, his consubstantiality
with god of course has to be understood spiritually: It did not reside
in his physical but in his spiritual nature, that is, in his psyche or
soul. He thus was an entity composed of both matter and divine essence.
This sounds very like the doctrine of homoousios enunciated at
the Council of Nicaea in 325, in which Jesus is said to be "of the same
substance" as the Father. According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the eponymous
hero, a "perfect king," was two thirds god and one third man.
It is not difficult
to recognize in this myth the archetype of the Christian dogma of the
elevation of Christ to the right hand of his Father as the judge over
the living and the dead. The figure of Ninurta also recalls that of the
archangel Michael, the "Great Prince," the slayer of the Dragon and the
holder of the celestial keys, in Jewish apocalyptic and apocryphal traditions.
The Assyrian idea
of royal perfection is not elaborated in terms of Aristotelian logic but
is expressed only through metaphors, allegories and symbolic imagery.
In order to understand it, we must see it through the symbols and images
by which it is expressed. The most important of these is the sun, the
primary symbol of the supreme god, Ashur. The blinding brilliance of its
disk symbolized the absolute purity, holiness and righteousness of god
as opposed to the darkness of the world, associated with evil, ignorance,
injustice and death. The sun's unwavering, absolutely straight path across
the skies, its merciless heat and the triumphant return of light after
the winter solstice symbolized god's irresistible victory over wickedness
and evil. Finally, the eternal return of the seasons symbolized the eternity
of god and kingship as a divine institution eternally regenerating itself,
notwithstanding the bodily death of the king.
The fragility of the
human component of the king was duly recognized and accepted as an inevitability.
However, it could not be tolerated. The king's body was viewed as a temple
erected by god himself--the worldly residence of the divine spirit. Like
a temple of stone eventually worn and stained by dust, smoke, rain, fire
and other agents, it was subject to the constant influence of the elements,
pollution, decay and old age. But just as it was unworthy for the image
of god to reside in a dirty or dilapidated temple, it was inconceivable
that the spirit of god, synonymous with purity, chastity, wisdom, light
and perfection, could have resided in a filthy and foul body. It was essential
that any stains and defects observed in the king's body and comportment
be immediately removed and amended, just as the disk of the sun would
soon return to its pristine glory and beauty after an eclipse. If not,
the divine spirit would depart from the king's body, leaving behind just
an empty shell.
Under this doctrine, godlike perfection was an inherent characteristic of kings, granted to them even before their birth. According to Assyrian royal inscriptions, kings were called and predestined to their office from the beginning of time. Their features were miraculously perfected in their mother's womb by the mother goddess, that is, the spirit of god, and their intellectual and physical abilities were perfected by the great gods, that is, the powers and attributes of god. After birth, they were nursed in the temple of Ishtar and raised there "between the wings of the goddess," being initiated into her sacred mysteries. Their education was completed in the "tablet house," where they received thorough training in all aspects of Mesopotamian learning and wisdom. An inscription of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-630 B.C.) elaborates as follows on the careful education this king received:
I learned the craft of the sage Adapa, the hidden secrets of the entire scribal profession. I observed the portents of heaven and earth. I was praised in the meetings of scholars, arguing with expert diviners about the liver, the mirror of heaven. I can solve complicated, elusive mathematical problems. I have read sophisticated texts in obscure Sumerian and in Akkadian difficult to comprehend, and have studied inscriptions on stone from the time before the flood with elite companions.(1)
Having completed his
education and proven his valor, the prince who displayed the greatest
abilities was chosen and appointed as crown prince by his father. The
choice of the prince was confirmed by consulting the divine will through
"extispicy" (inspection of the liver, or other entrails, of sacrificed
sheep), and on an auspicious day the prince was officially introduced
into the royal palace and presented with the royal diadem in a ceremony
patterned after the triumphal return of Ninurta to his heavenly father.
From now on the prince was considered equal in essence to his father,
fit to exercise kingship and assume royal power should his father die.
Mythical sages holding
buckets of holy water flanked the palace doorways, ready to purify everyone
who entered the sacred precinct. The air of the palace was heavy with
the fragrance of purifying fumigants and incense, and its rooms were manned
by eunuch attendants and bodyguards, whose very asexuality emulated the
Over and above the
royal council, the safeguarding of royal perfection essentially depended
on another group of men attached to the king's service, namely the royal
Apart from reading
and reacting to the signs sent by the gods, the royal scholars protected
the king against disease-causing demons, black magic and witchcraft.
This rite is not to
be misunderstood simplistically as a cheap way of "tricking fate." Its
rationale lies in the doctrine of salvation through redemption outlined
in the myth of the descent of Ishtar into the netherworld, according to
which even a spiritually dead soul (in this case, the king) could be restored
to life through repentance, confession of sins and divine grace, and could
return to a state of innocence and purity by gradual ascent to higher
spiritual states. The relevant ritual put a heavy strain on the king,
who had to live an ascetic life and undergo a long and complicated series
of ritual purifications during the "reign" of the substitute, which often
lasted as long as a hundred days. Again, the emphasis of the ritual is
clearly on the repentance of the ruler, not just on the mechanical performance
of a set of ritual acts.
The path to this spiritual
perfection is outlined in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the famous story of the
legendary king of Uruk who sought eternal life. At the beginning of the
epic, the author informs us that Gilgamesh has returned from his quest
with a hidden secret that he has written down for posterity, but nowhere
does he reveal what this secret is. He does, however, give clues as to
how this "locked lapis lazuli box" can be discovered and opened. These
clues include the literary structure of the epic, intertextual allusions,
enigmatic passages and intriguing spellings of names and words to be analyzed
with the esoteric interpretive techniques used at the time.
Two crucial points
mark the hero's progress towards spiritual perfection: the killing of
the monster Humbaba and the felling of the tall cedar tree in Tablet V
(which I take to symbolize victory over the "ego") and the killing of
the Bull of Heaven in Tablet VI (which I take to symbolize victory over
the "id," man's animal soul).
O Gilgamesh, perfect king, judge of the Anunnaki, administrator of the netherworld, lord of the dwellers-below! You are a judge and have vision like God; you stand in the netherworld and pronounce final judgment. Your judgment is not altered, your word is not despised; you question, you inquire, you judge, you weigh, and you render the correct decision. Shamash has entrusted verdict and decision in your hands. In your presence kings, regents and princes bow down.
Through his attainment of spiritual perfection, Gilgamesh became the yardstick of man's spiritual value, the ideal weight, so to speak, placed on the other end of the scales to determine the weight of one's soul on the day of judgment. In this role, the perfection of Gilgamesh and the way it was attained became a model for anyone who, like Gilgamesh, dreaded the idea of death and strove for eternal life.
On the surface it might seem that the epic, dealing as it does with the deeds of a king, was addressed principally to a royal audience, as a model of royal perfection. However, there is reason to believe that it was, from the beginning, written for a different readership. Even though the attainment of perfection is presented in the epic as a process taking place in Gilgamesh, a more attentive reading shows that his perfection is an inborn quality decreed to him at birth; aided by gods, he proceeds towards his goal unfalteringly, like the sun, never wavering in his course. Hence, the program of spiritual perfection outlined in the epic actually had no relevance for a king. The true hero of the story, rather, is Gilgamesh's companion, Enkidu, a primitive man who overcomes his animal nature through divine guidance and becomes the partner and indispensable helper of Gilgamesh in his quest for life. The possibility of achieving human perfection is not limited to the king alone.
The esoteric lore I have described did not die with the fall of the Assyrian Empire. The scholars who had previously served the Assyrian emperor later found employment at the courts of the Median and neo-Babylonian kings, the usurpers of Assyria's claim for world dominion.
In due course, we find their descendants teaching Daniel the esoteric secrets of the Chaldeans, advising the Achaemenid kings of Persia, transmitting their wisdom to Pythagoras, waiting at the deathbed of Plato, performing the substitute king ritual for Alexander the Great, reading the physiognomy of Sulla and finally spreading their doctrines in the imperial court of Rome, as highly valued advisers of the emperors Claudius, Nero, Domitian, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. I venture to suggest that their influence was far greater than is generally believed.
1 Maximilian Streck, Assurbanipal und die letzen könige bis zum untergange Ninevehs, Vorderasiatische Bibliothek 7 (Leipzig, Germany: Hinrichs, 1916), p. 255.
Below, The King´s Prayer, as translated from the cuneiform by Professor W.G. Lambert:
The King's Prayer
Who has kept the commandment for ever?
of mankind who exist are sinful.
From Wilfred G. Lambert, "DINGIR.SA.DIB.BA Incantations," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 33 (1974), pp. 283-285.