Bird-Headed Deity

c. 885 B.C.

Object

Locale

  • Calah, Iraq

Country

  • Iraq

Object Info

Object: fragment; figure
Currently on view
Object ID: 8A4EDD82-7BDE-42AB-8D9F-5D117AAFD47B

Medium/Technique

limestone

Credit

Charles Bayly, Jr. Fund

About

About the Artist

This stone carving comes from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, who ruled over the kingdom of Assyria in today’s Iraq. The creation of a sculptured palace generally happened only once during a king’s reign, if at all. The king took close interest in the palace and had some indirect role in choosing the subjects of the decorations. However, the general design was placed in the hands of a committee of senior officials. Within this committee, at least one official was experienced in magic, and he made sure that the magical figures on the walls (like this bird-headed deity) were placed for maximum protection. First, the stone panels were installed into the brick palace walls, and then a team of carvers would work on creating the low-relief sculpture. One person would draw or incise the main outline of the image, and the final cutting and polishing would be done by an army of artisans. Because the carvings were influenced by wall paintings, they were often painted as well.

What Inspired It

Magicians placed protective deities throughout the king’s palace, wherever they were thought to be most effective. Bird-headed deities often stood at doorways, protecting the palace from evil spirits. Magic was an essential part of religion and daily life in ancient Assyria and was used in everything from medicine to architecture. Kings served as high priests and had ceremonial responsibilities. Icons throughout the castle, including relief carvings like this one, affirmed Ashurnasirpal’s authority as high priest and King of Assyria. Many carvings in Ashurnasirpal’s palace also tell of the importance of war during his reign.

Cloak
Cloak

Elaborate tassels are attached to the patterned edge of the figure’s cloak. A cloak with tassels was standard wear for kings during this time, but not for ordinary humans.

Low Relief
Low Relief

The sculpture is carved in low relief, also called bas relief, meaning that the carving projects very little from the background.

Arm Muscles
Arm Muscles

Heavy muscles are a convention of Assyrian carving and are seen throughout the palace.

Grain of Stone
Grain of Stone

The stone has a very distinctive, curvy pattern. When stones were cut from the quarry, consecutive sections went to a given room. By paying attention to the grain of the stone, we are able to identify which carvings came from the same room.

Half Man, Half Bird
Half Man, Half Bird

The deity is a magical combination of eagle and man, with the head, feathers, and beak of an eagle, and the muscle and flesh of a man. These qualities are integrated to make a convincing and powerful creature.

Right Hand
Right Hand

The deity holds what looks like either a pinecone or the flower of a date palm in his right hand. Because date palms require cross-fertilization by hand, a suggestion has been made that perhaps the deity is fertilizing a sacred tree. The sacred tree, not seen here, is a common motif in Assyrian art. It is identified by ornamental leaves and curling tendrils. It symbolizes vegetal health and fertility, and is usually attended by human-headed or bird-headed deities. In other places, the pinecone is held up over people or doorways that need magical protection. Although scholars are not positive about what is happening here, it does seem to be an important ritual gesture.

Teaching Resources

Quick Classroom Ideas

  • Explore the different textures and patterns found in the sculpture.Point out the different types of lines (e.g. zig-zag, curvy, circular) and have students experiment with tools to make their own lines in clay.
  • The Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity is a small piece of what was originally part of an elaborate palace. We believe that the deity is making an offering to a sacred tree. Have your students study different types of trees and select one to complete the picture, then use their imagination to write about what makes this tree sacred.
  • Create a classroom guardian figure and a classroom greeter. What kind of animal would make a good guard? Which kind of animal would be friendly and welcoming? What characteristics would each animal have? Would they carry anything with them? Draw an image of your guardian or greeter.

This video talks about the relief carvings on Ashurnasirpul II's palace and the historical truths found therein.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.