Judgment of the Bird-Man

Akkadian cylinder seals depicting the Judgment of the Bird-Man have often been viewed in light of later texts, such as the Neo-Sumerian Ninurta’s Pride and Punishment and the Akkadian OB/SB Epic of Anzu. These mythological narratives portrayed the Anzu/bird-man as a divine thief, conquered by the warrior god Ninurta—though the stories differed on whether he stole the Tablet of Destines from Enki/Ea or from Enlil, and whether he was captured or killed in battle. Various theories have been proposed about the Akkadian glyptic scenes, as archaeological discoveries and publications offered evolving insights into the past.

In the Akkadian seal impression pictured here, a male deity presents the bird-man, bound and captive, to the enthroned water god Enki/Ea. They are followed by two other deities, one of whom escorts the prisoner, while the other carries a large tree branch hanging from a stick.

Judgment of the Bird-Man, c. 2,250 BCE. Modern impression from an Akkadian serpentine cylinder seal. Collection of the British Museum, BM 103317. Photo (cropped) by Zunkir, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The prominence of vegetation in Akkadian depictions of the bird-man led early scholar Elizabeth Douglas Van Buren to propose the existence of lost oral tales in which the bird-man stole a branch from the tree of life; the thief was captured and brought in judgment before Enki/Ea; and the magical bough was returned to its rightful place in the abzu, highlighting the theme of divine justice. Acknowledging the Anzu’s historical associations with agricultural fertility, she argued that his character radically changed in pre-Sargonic and Akkadian times as older myths and representations were adapted to the growing cult of the sun god Shamash.

After the publication of Ninurta’s Pride and Punishment (a.k.a. Ninurta and the Turtle) in the 1960s, Samuel Noel Kramer interpreted the Akkadian scenes in relation to the later text, describing the vegetation as merely a symbol of the tablet/me stolen from Enki/Ea. While pointing out visual parallels with the myth, he noted that many Akkadian representations of the Anzu/bird-man remained unexplained. Thus, speculation has continued about lost stories which may have inspired these and other Akkadian scenes, along with later texts about the rise and fall of the Anzu.

For further reading: Van Buren (1933) and (1953); Kramer (1984) and (1989).

%d bloggers like this: