Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Assyrian Sacred Tree

Figure 1 - the Assyrian "tree of life"(?)
     It is difficult to know what to make of the so-called Assyrian sacred tree. In spite of its name, it is likely not a real tree at all. Rather, it seems to be parts of several trees put together in some way. Different "branches" of the tree seem to be shown as being held together on a trellis or by ribbons and / or metal bands (Figure 2). In figure 1, the trunk of the tree is surmounted by a palmetto (this is typical) and has two sets of three rings holding the different pieces of the trunk together.

Figure 3 - a winged genie with a bucket (of water?)
Figure 2 - multiple branches joined together
     The meaning of this "tree" is not clear, although it does seem to have some religious meaning. Winged genies, possibly known as "Apkallu", in either the form of an eagle headed human or in the form of winged humans, are shown sprinkling water on these trees. The genie holds a bucket (of water?) and dips a pine cone into the bucket, and the sprinkles the water on the cone onto the tree. The significance of this is unclear although a connection to fertility rites has been suggested.

     Whatever this "tree" is, it must have been important to the Assyrians as many representations of winged genies sprinkling water on these trees is an extremely common motif in the decoration of the royal palaces. The photos here are from the palace of Ashurnasirpal and are now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Figure 4 - an eagle-headed genie with a pine cone

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