The Assyrian Sacred Tree Essay

2162 words - 9 pages

A traditional interpretation of what has become known as the Assyrian Sacred Tree conceives of it as the date palm. Consisting of a series of nodes and interlacing vines, the depiction of the “tree” contradicts the morphological appearance of a date palm seems at best to be a highly abstracted consolidation of various botanical characteristics from separate distinct species. Despite recent proposals by several art historians and botanists to conclusively determine its proper classification, indubitable evidence unlocking the enigma behind this timeless symbol—a sacred fountainhead for many western religions originating in the Near East—has yet to uproot the deep seeded academic insistence on the date palm.
The “Sacred Tree,” (fig. 1) was originally positioned behind the king’s throne. The scene shows two genii, sometimes with birds’ heads and sometimes with men’s heads and the horned hats of gods. Each of the winged figures holds a bucket and reaches out with an oval object toward a stylized “tree.” The composition has been read as being based on bilateral symmetry, with the vertical stalk-like structure crowned by a palmette. A meticulous examination reveals that although balanced, it has many discrepancies on both sides that deviate from perfect mirror symmetry. Ashurnasirpal appears twice, shown from two sides, dressed in ceremonial robes and holding a mace connoting his authority. The figure of the king on the right makes an invocative gesture a god in a winged disk in the top center of the relief. Ashur, the national god or Shamash, the god of the sun and justice, may be identified as the god who confers the king divine right. On the left, the king holds a ring, an ancient Mesopotamian symbol of divine kingship, in one hand, as he appears to gesture towards the plant in the center of the panel, implying perhaps that his authoritative as well as his spiritual power is rendered by the gods Shamash/Ashur as manifested in the “sacred tree.”
Sufficient distinctions exist between the two sides of the “sacred tree” composition to lead one to believe that these figures actually depict two independent images of the king and by extension, two different duties of kingship. The inclusion of the animal protomes, a physical as well as visual association suggests a celestial deity on the right. A skilled royal craftsman, on the left, slyly superimposed the mace in front of a bud, thus this king appears to be more terrestrial. On the right, the king visibly bears his celestial symbols and gestures to the winged disk above, the god faces and beckons towards the king whose lack of physical contact with the mace, suggests a celestial orientation. In fact, there exists an ancient Mesopotamian cosmological formula for the duality between celestial and terrestrial, called in Sumerian an and ki and in Akkadian, samu and ersetu, literally translated as meaning “heaven and earth,” which also refers to the cosmological dichotomy of heaven and the...

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