Watering the Plants - and the King - in Ancient Assyria

Deciphering the Walls of an Ancient Palace

Two Ashurnasirpals flanked by the apkallu. Heritage Images/Contributor/Getty Images

Pine trees bring to mind wintry climates and Christmas trees - not the temperate climate of the ancient Near East … especially Assyria in modern Iraq. But on the walls of a magnificent Assyrian palace, several odd scenes appear. Strange, half-human figures are shown carrying tote bags in one hand and shaking pinecones at king with the other - but why?

Let’s first identify where these pinecone-carrying figures appear.

On walls, to be sure, but whose? They feature most prominently in the ninth-century B.C. Northwest Palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, located in the capital city of Nimrud (a.k.a. Kalhu). Ashurnasirpal, who ruled from 883 to 859 B.C., created a palatial legacy for his successors. This palace is known for its gorgeous wall carvings, complete with gorgeous, seven-foot-high slabs of stone carved with scenes from history and mythology. These carvings also display the king’s might in military and leisurely matters. The entire palace - through its propagandistic inscriptions and reliefs, as well as its sheer size - tells the story of Ashurnasirpal’s glory, communicating the import of the ruler himself and the grand legacy he aimed to create.

So where do the genies and pinecones come in? Some of the wall reliefs showed the gods surrounding Ashurnasirpal - or the king honoring his divine lords. Even the throne room included such images.

In one, two images of the king appear on either side of the Assyrian Tree of Life - more on that later. There, Ashurnasirpal pays homage to a winged deity - probably Ashur, patron god of Assyria, or Shamash, god of justice. Next to each copy Ashurnasirpal is a winged man. This half-man holds a small bag in one hand, while the other hand reaches up to gesture at the king with a pinecone-like object.

These images are plentiful in the Northwest Palace, but why does a king need a half-human god shaking a pinecone at him?

This creature is an apkallu, which roughly translates to “sage” in Akkadian. But these aren’t your average wise men - these apkallu serve to protect the king and are frequently shown with him. An apkallu, or genie, as many modern scholars term it, appears next to the king to in a gesture of protection or blessing. The apkallu is a sort of a liminal figure himself; he’s half-man, half-bird here, and he’s also often shown as divine, as witnessed by his horned headdress. He serves the king, guarding the ruler with his magic and muscular frame (seriously, check out those built legs).

The apkallu can appear in multiple, hybrid guises - i.e., part-fish. But he usually carries a banduddu, or pail, in his left hand, which hangs down by his waist. That word literally means “cleaner” in Assyrian, but most often refers to an instrument of purification. The banduddu contains holy water into which the apkallu dips the mullilu; the genie then scatters the king and the sacred tree with the sacred liquid.

Now that we can identify just what this magical being is and what he’s carrying, let’s examine their purpose.

Why would a demigod genie need to purify a king? Couldn’t he just clean himself up and take a bath? As it so happens, ancient Assyrian ideas of purification aren’t so simple. Purifying isn’t just about cleaning oneself, although that certainly is part of it. As Assyriologist Claus Ambos notes in an essay, the Akkadian words for purification range in meaning from literal cleanliness to “‘pure,’ ‘holy,’ and ‘sacred’ in a ritual sense, to ‘free’ in a legal, economic, and social sense.” 

Mesopotamian tradition associated purity with sanctity, a lack of pollution. By purifying the king, then, the apkallu aren’t really scrubbing the king clean of actual dirt. In fact, by scattering water from the pail onto him, they are re-sanctifying him and removing any potential impurities he might bear that are unworthy of his royal person or the god he worships.

Royals, in particular, must be clean of external pollution before coming home to their city or entering a sacred area, lest they bring in negative influences with them. Records of the Mesopotamian ceremony of bit rimki, or the “house of ablution,” describe rites in which the king purifies himself before re-entering the city from the potentially “dirty” outside. These rituals, as Assyriologist Walter Farber noted in an essay about magic in Mesopotamia, rare “concerned with cultic impurity caused by contact with impure substances and people, by transgressing taboos, or by situations beyond human control…” By cleaning Ashurnasirpal, then, the apkallu place the king as the prime example of the Assyrian cultural sensibility of ritual purity. As monarch, Ashurnasirpal exemplifies how a man must act towards the gods, so it's necessary for him to approach them in perfect shape, for magical beings, the apkallu, to make him king pure and holy for worshipping the gods.

Now what we know what the purpose of the mullilu is, can we tell what it was made from? Although pine trees do grow in Iraq, the cone-shaped item probably isn't a pinecone. Scholars have debated this matter for centuries. Some consider the cone to be a pomegranate or a cedar cone. Just as historians debate what plant the mullilu comes from, they also haven’t decided what kind of plant the Tree of Life is that Ashurnasirpal faces. It may have been a date palm; although the Assyrians didn’t raise date palms, they may have adopted this symbol, as they did so many others, from the Babylonians.


Perhaps the actual species of tree isn’t as important as what the tree, the center of these reliefs, represents. As Assyriologist Barbara Nevling Porter aptly summarizes, it might represent “the world dominated by the Assyrian king … an orderly and productive world on which divine guardians [the apkallu], making the gesture of hand pollination, symbolically confer abundance.” By taking the mulillu and scattering water - metaphorical “seed” - onto the king, the apkallu ensure the prosperity of the ruler and the world he rules over - the tree, a.k.a. the Assyrian empire. The apkallu bless the king, the "gods' regent on earth, the conduit through whose actions their gift of abundance could reach Assyria and her empire," as Porter says in another essay. Therefore, the apkallu are also ensuring the future of the entire world over which Ashurnasirpal rules.

That definitely beats a genie’s three wishes!