Worthy Opponent

unknown artist
Lion Hunt Relief
Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh
645-635 BCE
gypsum low relief
British Museum
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The great lion hunt reliefs from the ancient Assyrian palace at Nineveh represent the power of King Ashurbanipal and his ability to defend and protect his people. In the series of low-reliefs, lions are released from their cages, some lunging directly toward the king. While they are fierce creatures, the king successfully defeats them all with his bow and arrow. The lions are rendered in great detail—wounded and bleeding and suffering. Here we see a lioness with arrows protruding from her back; her spinal cord has been severed, resulting in the loss of use of her lower legs. Though we may sympathize with the poor creatures, ancient viewers would certainly have understood the intended message: their king’s power was stronger than these great beasts.

The ancient Assyrians, whose kingdom at its height occupied much of the modern Middle East, were great builders, creating impressive cities and palaces along with superior works of art, including murals, statues, and, most famously, narrative reliefs. These shallow relief carvings, which frequently covered entire walls, always reflected favorably on the king, whether they showed foreigners bearing gifts, enemies defeated in battle, or lions being killed. This scene is from a great series of reliefs depicting a lion hunt, originally from the Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, in modern-day Iraq, and now on display at the British Museum in London.

“Lion Hunt” is perhaps a somewhat misleading title: these lions are not being hunted in the wild, they have, in fact, already been captured and put into cages, and are now being released from their cages for sport, so the king can shoot them with his bow and arrow. Viewers today sympathize with the poor, helpless lion, but visitors to the palace in the seventh century BCE would have viewed King Ashurbanipal, who reigned from 668 to 631 BCE, with great esteem and respect. The lion hunt had a symbolic aspect to it, for it represented the king’s ability to protect his people. 

In the below detail from the relief series, we see a lion who has been badly wounded, dripping with blood. Three arrows protrude from her back, one of which seems to have severed the spinal cord, resulting in paralysis of the back legs, as the artist has clearly rendered.

A photo of hieroglyphs, a piece in the Neurology, Illustrated exhibit at Tufts Medical Center

The central nervous system consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system is formed by the nerves and the muscles throughout the body. The spinal cord is so important that, like the brain, it is completely encased in a bony armor. Each bony vertebra has a circular channel in the middle of it. When the vertebrae are stacked on top of each other to form the spinal column, the channels line up to form a continuous “spinal canal” that houses the spinal cord. Although there are complicated biological events and some neurological processing that go on in the spinal cord its main functions are to 1) conduct signals down from the brain and out to the muscles (even the ones as far away as the those that move the toes) and 2) to bring signals from the sensory nerves back up to the brain. You just stubbed your toe (sensory information going up) so hop around on your other foot and yell stuff (movement information going back down). Without the spinal cord, the brain’s plans for moving cannot reach the muscles. Like a marionette with its strings cut, the limbs will be still, no matter how skilled is the puppeteer.

Spinal cord injury (SCI) can lead to severe disability and dependence on others for help with normal activities of daily living. SCI tends to hit when people are young and active. The most common cause is trauma—although not with arrows. Diving into shallow water is a classic scenario used to teach medical students about SCI. Typically a teenager, usually male, misjudges how shallow the water is, or how far down they will go, or is not aware of a rock just underneath the surface. They dive in head first striking the top of their head. The force of the impact gets transmitted down the spinal column and can cause one or several of the vertebrae to burst. The bony fragments encroach on the spinal canal and compress the spinal cord, or worse, can even sever it entirely. If the injury is “complete” then all feeling and movement below the level of the injury is lost, usually forever. When the injury is “incomplete” then some movement and sensation can return, usually over months. SCI is a medical and neurosurgical emergency. Once the patient is stabilized then specific treatments for neurological recovery are largely unsatisfactory. However, the history of medicine is filled with tales of once incurable diseases. With advances in neurobiology and microsurgical techniques, the current inability to offer effective treatments will, one day, seem as ancient as this beautiful Assyrian relief.