Royal Lion Hunt of King Ashurbanipal
“The Lion Hunt” is a low relief sculpture showing the Royal Lion Hunt of King Ashurbanipal with his royal entourage, together with horses, dogs on leashes and chariots. The sculpture shows captured lions and lionesses being released from cages to do battle with the King. The Lion Hunt is one of the most captivating works of art from antiquity.
The suffering lions are depicted as brave and defiant, but they are eventually defeated with arrows, spears, and swords and are shown in detailed suffering and dying in agony. The ancient artist expertly captured the lions in motion depicting each animal as a unique individual. This detailed artistry was created over 2,500 years ago with primitive tools, and it is a masterpiece of Assyrian art.
These masterpieces were made about 645–635 BC, and originally formed different sequences placed around the palace. They may originally have been painted and formed part of a brightly coloured Palace decor. They also reinforced the power and majesty of the King as they represented a formalised ritual “hunt” in an arena, where captured Asian lions were released from cages for the king to slaughter with arrows, spears, or his sword. There may have also been a religious or royal privilege dimension to the Lion hunt. An ancient clay tablet records that when a lion entered a house in the provinces, it had to be trapped and taken by boat to the king.
King Ashurbanipal reigned from 668 to 681 BC and “The Lion Hunt” sculptures were discovered at his Palace of Nineveh in 1853 at the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Nineveh was the oldest and most populous city of the Assyrian Empire, which was located on the east bank of the Tigris opposite modern Mosul in Iraq.
King Ashurbanipal was the last great Assyrian leader, for after his reign ended the Empire descended into a period of civil war between his descendants, generals and rebelling parts of the empire. Less than 30 years after the Lion Hunt was created the empire had fallen apart and Nineveh been sacked and burnt.
Lion hunting has been an élite ritual since ancient times. In Ancient Egypt, lion hunts were usually reserved for pharaohs. These hunts nearly resulted in the extermination of lion populations in North Africa by 1100 BC. Artworks have survived to show Pharaoh Amenhotep III killing more than 100 lions in a single hunt.
In ancient Assyria, lion hunting was a ritualised activity reserved for kings. These hunts were symbolic of the monarch’s duty to protect and fight for his people. The Assyrian kings hunted lions for political and religious purposes, to demonstrate their power. The king would kill the lion from a chariot with his bow and arrow or spear. Meanwhile, spearmen and archers would always protect the king from the lion.
Lion hunting is evident also in Greek mythology and art. Lions were present in the Greek peninsula until classical times. The prestige of lion hunting is demonstrated in Heracles’ first labour, the killing of the Nemean lion. Lions were depicted as prominent symbols of royalty, as in the Lion Gate to the citadel of Mycenae.
Today lion hunting is a subject of controversy as currently, the lion is listed as a vulnerable species and some subspecies are listed as endangered. Fewer than 20,000 survive in the wild, a reduction of 60% in the last two decades. There were estimated to be 1.2 million lions in 1880.
- One of the groups of reliefs shows the king pouring a libation onto the collected bodies of the dead lions. A libation is an ancient ritual pouring of a liquid or grains as an offering to a god or spirit, or in memory of those who have “passed on”. Was this ritual depicted on these wall sculptures an offering to the spirit of the killed lions or giving thanks to Ashurbanipal’s god(s)?
- Various substances have been used for libations, most commonly wine, olive oil or milk products. Which do you think the Assyrian king used?
- Long before these reliefs were created, the killing of lions was reserved in Mesopotamia culture for royalty, and kings were often shown in art doing so. There may have been a religious dimension to the activity. Why did this practice evolve?
Royal Lion Hunt of King Ashurbanipal
- Title: Royal Lion Hunt of King Ashurbanipal
- Material: Gypsum alabaster
- Sculptured: 645–635 BCE
- Excavated: 1852–54 CE
- Find site: Nineveh (near Mosul, in modern-day northern Iraq).
- Museum: The British Museum
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“Fear the goat from the front, the horse from the rear and man from all sides.”
– Assyrian Proverb
Photo Credits in order of above: 1) JOM