Arena with group of Assyrian soldiers, among them an archer (perhaps Ashurnasirpal II), aiming at a lion

Lion hunting: the sport of kings

By Gareth Brereton, Curator: Ancient Mesopotamia

Publication date: 4 January 2019

Fascinated by the Assyrian Empire in the BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria? Delve into this great king’s world with Curator Gareth Brereton as he lifts the lid on the ancient sport of royal lion hunting.

Lion hunting: the sport of kings

The royal lion hunt was a very ancient tradition in Assyria and the wider region of Mesopotamia. The earliest depiction of a ruler hunting lions is found on a carved basalt monument that dates to before 3000 BC. It shows two bearded figures wearing diadems (a type of crown) who can be identified as 'priest-kings'. One kills a lion with a spear and the other shoots at a lion with his bow and arrow. In Assyria, the lion hunt was an important symbol of royalty and the Assyrian royal seal showed a king slaying a rampant lion.

Representing the hunt

Royal lion hunts were depicted on the bronze bands that decorated monumental gates, stone obelisks that recorded the king’s achievements and on the carved wall panels that adorned the interior rooms of Assyrian palaces.

Some of the most spectacular depictions of the hunt were found in the palace of king Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) at the city of Nimrud (in the north of present-day Iraq). They show the king hunting lions and wild bulls from his chariot, followed by a ritual scene where the king poured an offering of wine over the dead animals. More than 200 years later, King Ashurbanipal revived the royal lion hunt and decorated his North Palace at the city of Nineveh (also in the north of present-day Iraq) with brilliantly carved reliefs that show his prowess as a brave hunter.

Wall panel depicting a lion hunt. An archer, riding in a chariot, is shooting a bow.
Wall panel relief depicting a lion hunt. The figure holding the bow maybe Ashurnasirpal II or his son Shalmaneser III. Assyrian, 875–860BC.

Warrior king

Ashurbanipal presented himself to the world as a heroic king, claiming that the gods had given him outstanding strength and virility. As part of his military training the young crown prince was taught to drive chariots, ride cavalry horses and develop skills such as archery. Unlike earlier Assyrian rulers, however, Ashurbanipal rarely, if ever, led his troops on campaign.

Ashurbanipal instead proclaimed his prowess as a warrior on a series of carved alabaster panels from his North Palace, that show the king hunting lions. Here Ashurbanipal is portrayed as the complete action hero as he slays ferocious lions on horseback, on foot or from the back of a chariot using a variety of weapons. He wanted to show the gods and his subjects that he was a heroic warrior.

Creatures of chaos

Assyrian texts record how plagues of lions obstructed the roads, and harassed herdsmen and shepherds by attacking livestock in the plains. It was the king’s duty to rid his land of dangerous wild animals.   Ashurbanipal set out to the plains in his royal chariot to confront a fierce mountain breed of lions but was surrounded and attacked. Fulfilling his role as the heroic hunter, Ashurbanipal boasts how he scattered the pride and killed each lion with a single arrow to restore peace to the plains.

In the steppe, a widespread place, raging lions, a ferocious mountain breed, attacked me and surrounded the chariot, the vehicle of my royal majesty. By the command of the god Ashur and the goddess Ishtar, the great gods…I scattered the pack of those lions.

Copper alloy weight of a seated lion with its mouth open
Copper alloy lion weight. Assyrian, 858–824 BC.

As the divinely appointed protector of Assyria, it was the king’s duty to maintain order in the world by defeating the forces of chaos, which included foreign enemies and dangerous wild animals such as the lion. Assyrians thought of their world as encompassing a civilised heartland, situated in Assyria’s cities, which was surrounded by a hostile, untamed periphery. Wherever the king ruled, peace and prosperity abounded, whereas foreign lands were afflicted by chaos. By hunting lions, creatures of the untamed hinterland, Ashurbanipal showed how he could extend his control over the wilderness. Laden with ritual symbolism and heroic drama, the royal lion hunt was a particularly effective means of publicising the king’s ability, as the shepherd of his people, to protect his flock.

Staged spectacles

Arena with group of Assyrian soldiers, among them an archer (perhaps Ashurnasirpal II), aiming at a lion
Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847–1928), The Diversion of an Assyrian King. Oil on canvas, 1878.

Although Ashurbanipal represented himself hunting animals in the wild, the hunting scenes that decorated Ashurbanipal's palace were staged events within the game parks of the city. These were public spectacles, comparable to Roman arena games. A scene from a wall panel shows a small boy releasing a lion from its cage, which had been captured for the purpose of the hunt. He is protected from the lion by a smaller cage.

On another panel the hunting arena is formed by a circle of guards carrying spears and shields, behind which is a row of archers. Additional guards hold fierce looking mastiffs on leashes to stop the lions from escaping the arena.

Guards with spears, and a guard with a spear handling a dog, at the lion hunt arena
Details from a relief showing guards with spears and dogs securing the lion hunt arena. Assyrian, 645–640 BC.

Excited spectators run up a nearby mound to get a better view of the action. Some carry skins, perhaps selling water to the crowds.

The lions themselves may well have been relatively tame. The Assyrians kept lions along with other animals such as deer and gazelle in their game parks and pleasure gardens. In a wall panel from Ashurbanipal’s palace, a lioness and a lion with a magnificent mane relax in an idyllic garden and, in another scene (below), a seemingly tame lion walks alongside musicians.

A harpist and a lyre player with a tame lion beneath palms and cypresses
Relief depicting a harpist and lyre player with tame lion beneath palms and pine trees. Assyrian, 645–640 BC.

Whatever the reality of the hunt, Ashurbanipal was sure to claim a courageous victory! In one scene, an Assyrian horseman, guarded by spearmen in a chariot, distracts a crouching lion. Ashurbanipal (shown below) approaches from the left and grabs the lion by its tail, preparing to strike it over the head with a mace. The accompanying caption states:

I, Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria, while carrying out my princely sport, seized a lion that was born in the steppe by its tail and, through the command of the gods… shattered its skull with the mace that was in my hand.

A hunter holding a lion's tail as it stands on its hind legs, its front claws raised in anger. Another lion crouches.
Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion. Assyrian, 645–640 BC. 

A political and religious message

This section from a larger wall panel shows the climax of a royal lion hunt. A lion has been mortally wounded by an arrow, which pierces its body just above the shoulder. It squats on its haunches, tensing every muscle in an attempt to stay upright as blood gushes from its mouth. Although the suffering of the lions is horrible to see, the artist has perfectly captured the animal in its death-throes, and we see a naturalism that is rarely encountered in Assyrian art. However, it is likely that the artist captured the lion’s agony, not out of pity, but to symbolise the king’s triumph over the dangerous and chaotic forces that the lion represented.

A lion, mortally wounded by an arrow that has penetrated deep into its chest, with blood is gushing out of the mouth
Detail of a relief showing a dying lion. Assyrian, 645–640 BC.

The king’s power to defeat these enemies of civilisation was part of his divine prerogative and the hunt had a deep religious significance. On behalf of the gods, the king was cleansing the land of dangerous and chaotic forces. In this wall panel, Ashurbanipal can be seen pouring a wine offering to the warrior goddess Ishtar over the lions that he has slain. The inscription reads:

I, Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria, to whom the god Ashur and the goddess Ishtar have granted outstanding strength, set up the fierce bow of the goddess Ishtar — the lady of battle — over the lions that I had killed. I made an offering over them and poured a libation of wine over them.

The BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria, held at the British Museum, closed on 24 February 2019.

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