Assyrian royal advisers

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
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The king's bureaucracy included many officials, but some figures stand out for how exotic they are to modern people – among these are the royal eunuchs who served the king without interrupting his dynasty, the oracles who searched for signs and answers from gods and the universe, and the sect of priests instructed in sacred wisdom believed to be given to humans by amphibious Apkallu in the distant past.

The advisers had a unique role, and importance to the king. An ideal Assyrian king was one who took advice, listened to advisors, and kept councils of experts. He had to be the ultimate, best-informed decisionmaker in a way that was inaccessible to anybody else because of the cost and resources required to maintain the highly-educated experts and their services, needs, and institutions. The Assyrian king ensured that Assyrians trusted he was fulfilling this obligation to seek advice for immediate and broader issues. We have reliefs that depicting oracles joining the king on war marches, performing extispicy in the war camp itself in order for the king to have the most up-to-date battle advice. There are reliefs showing the king in deep conversation with advisors who are of equal size to him. And although in the 7th century we have kings who were very highly interested and educated in divine knowledge, even they did not call themselves masters of the knowledge. The king alone could not master all this information, so he turned to scholars for its interpretation and practice.

Altogether, the royal court did not only contain eunuchs to fill the king's administrative bureaucracy. There were also experts who also ensured that the king fit the ideal and model of kingship, and his cooperation was a meaningful, obligatory function of his role.

  • Experts to ensure the king was of sound mind, body, and health.

  • Experts to ensure the king's environment was properly balanced and purified.

  • Experts to ensure the king was well-informed to make appropriate decisions.

Practice and expertise.

Although eunuchs occupied a broad range of administrative roles, there were many advisors who had religious specializations. Advisors were not just economists, political scientists, doctors, or psychologists. Some professionals were highly-skilled in a single type of prophecy such as extispicy or astrology. They may use their talents to warn the king of an upcoming calamity such as an assassination attempt, so the king could be protected. Other times, they may tell the king what response the universe had for an inquiry he had made. There were advisers believed to have conserved the wisdom of the Apkallu tradition for countless generations. They wore actual coats made out of giant fish with the fish head as a cap – river fish in Mesopotamia can be as massive as two meters long – because their wisdom had originated from amphibious fish-like Apkallu who had been instructors to mankind. Other advisers were masters of how to perform medical exorcisms or other needs. Different illnesses were associated with malignant influences from particular deities, so treatments and rituals that might be perceived today as having medical value were not distinguished by Assyrians from religious rites to expel demons and restore sacred balance.

Psalms and hymns.

Another important group of the royal court did not actually give advice at all but were actually musicians. Nonetheless, they were active in remediation of cosmic disturbances and execution of rituals. Music was not just for pleasure. These musicians were highly qualified personnel. They were crucial to ensuring the Assyrian king and his environment were appropriate, sacredly, and ritualistically pure and balanced. Music was recognized for its ability to nurture, sooth, and restore – the Assyrians understood that music had a powerful psychological effect. Musicians could perform music for acute reasons to keep the king in good health and spirits. Musicians also performed the catalog of music that accompanied the extremely ceremonial, protocol-driven rituals of Assyrian kingship. There is palace relief showing the king concluding a lion hunt by drinking wine and sacrificing some to the gods over the lion's body while two musicians both perform exalted music by singing and playing psalteries.

These performers sang some songs in Assyrian, but they also performed in Sumerian. This was an ancient language that very people understood, but it was crucial because it was believed to be the language of the gods. It was the language in which the gods had originally communicated with mankind, so singing in Sumerian was appropriate when the gods were being addressed directly.