Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions

Only the king was permitted to kill lions—and doing so signified his power and ability to keep nature at bay.

Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, gypsum hall relief from the North Palace, Ninevah, c. 645-635 B.C.E., excavated by H. Rassam beginning in 1853 (British Museum)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the British Museum in London, and we’re looking at a series of magnificent low reliefs.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] These show a very dramatic lion hunt, and it’s the king of Assyria who’s killing the lions.

Dr. Zucker: [0:17] Now the Assyrians emerged in Mesopotamia before 1000 B.C.E. but increased their power, and by the time these reliefs were made in the 7th century B.C.E., the Assyrians were dominant and really at the height of their civilization.

Dr. Harris: [0:32] The Assyrians had several royal palaces in several capital cities: Nineveh, Nimrud, and Khorsabad. The scenes that we’re looking at now are from the royal palace in Nineveh.

Dr. Zucker: [0:43] These would have decorated a hallway, so you would have walked through the scene, and we’re seeing different moments in time.

Dr. Harris: [0:50] 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: [1:12] It’s a lion hunt, but 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.

[1:31] The king killing lions was an important symbolic act that spoke of the king keeping nature at bay, keeping his city safe.

Dr. Harris: [1:41] Even though we see the king killing lions here, he’s killing them in an arena. He’s not killing them out in the wild.

Dr. Zucker: [1:48] Let’s move through the story. On one side of the hallway, we see the king readying for the hunt.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] 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 reins 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: [2:13] I’m taken with the horses.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] The horses are represented so much more naturalistically.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] Especially if you look at the musculature of the face, of the eyes, this tremendous detail.

Dr. Harris: [2:21] And emotion. They look as though they’re resisting getting bridled for this hunt.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] 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: [2:41] 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 an informality, I think, to the horses.

Dr. Zucker: [2:58] Well, 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.

[3:13] 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: [3:25] At the very top, what seems to be a monument to the king showing itself a relief of a hunt with a king and a chariot slaying lions. It’s a representation of a representation of the hunt.

Dr. Zucker: [3:39] It’s a relief of a relief.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] Right.

Dr. Zucker: [3:40] I love that.

Dr. Harris: [3:41] This scene does feel chaotic. Figures gesturing in different ways, climbing in different ways, some looking back, some looking forward.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] 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: [4:05] Of course, this would have been much easier to read in the palace where the relief was painted.

Dr. Zucker: [4:11] 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, and we can see that the lions will be held in place by a double row of soldiers that have shields and spears.

[4:24] Then inside that, to ensure that the lions don’t even get that far, there’s another row of soldiers with mastiffs. They’re holding spears, and those dogs will make sure that the lions don’t pass.

Dr. Harris: [4:36] 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: [4:45] I love the representation of the dogs. You can see them straining against the leash.

Dr. Harris: [4:49] 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: [5:04] 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: [5:16] Wounded, pierced, some on the ground, some leaping up, represented with such sympathy.

Dr. Zucker: [5:23] 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: [5:34] This all speaks to the power, the authority of the king over nature, and representing that power to his people.

[5:42] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024,