The Akkadian term ṣalmu: Some remarks on the concept of ‘image’ in Mesopotamia in the second and first millennia B.C.

Stele of Assurnasirpal II ( Reign: 883-859 B. C.). In: Layard, A. H., Discoveries in the ruins of Nineveh and Babylon; with travels in Armenia, Kurdistan and the desert, London 1853, p. 350.

Stele of Assurnasirpal II ( Reign: 883-859 B. C.). In: Layard, A. H., Discoveries in the ruins of Nineveh and Babylon; with travels in Armenia, Kurdistan and the desert, London 1853, p. 350.

by Babette Schnitzlein

A number of Akkadian written sources mention the term ṣalmu. Akkadian is a Semitic language which is known to have been used from the middle of the third millennium B. C. until the first century of the first millennium A.D. Akkadian was written in a script called cuneiform. Taking a closer look at the texts, in which the term ṣalmu appears, it becomes evident that ṣalmu is not a term for a specific medium, for example a statue or painting. It was used for all kind of images like statues, reliefs, stelae, figurines out of clay, depictions on seals and metal bands.

There are some differences between the English word image and the Akkadian word ṣalmu, however. The word ṣalmu is only used for images of anthropomorphic figures. Anthropomorphic figures in the Ancient Near East could be not only humans, but also deities and gods. The images called ṣalmu don’t have to be mimetic. The Assyrian empire, which lasted until the end of the 7th century had its core region in Northern Mesopotamia. The Assyrian king regularly erected monuments depicting him, which were referred to as ṣalmu. One example of such a monument appears in the lefthand side of the above picture. The depicted stela was discovered at the entrance of a temple in Nimrud, an Assyrian capital city. It is an example of the typical stela/rock relief of the Assyrian king. The image of the king is very standardized; it is not a portrait. The king is depicted in front of anthropomorphic and/or symbolic depictions of the god. For example the crescent was a symbol for the moon god Sin. Looking at the written sources, symbolic as well as anthropomorphic images of deities can be referred to by the word ṣalmu. In Ashur, yet another Assyrian capital, a number of aniconic stelae from the second and first millennium have been discovered. Nonetheless the short inscriptions on the monuments start with the word ṣalmu and a personal name. The persons mentioned were either Assyrian kings or state officials. Persons could thus be depicted iconically and aniconically.

The importance of an object perceived as a ṣalmu is the relationship between the depicted and the depiction. It has been argued that a ṣalmu is a representation/substitute for somebody. The deity had to take their place in his/her statue. The object became an entity in its own right. If the temples and cult statues of a city were destroyed, the gods no longer dwelt in that city. Likewise, with his image the king could be constantly present at a specific place, for example in front of a shrine. In rituals figurines were used as substitutes for or representations of anthropomorphic figures. A figurine of a demon could be, for example, fashioned in order to afflict the patient’s illness on it instead of on the sufferer. The notion of substitution was not limited to an object. A human being could also be a ṣalmu. In a ritual, for instance, a priest could represent a god, and while doing so he would be considered the ṣalmu of the respective god. Another representation of a person was his/her name, written or uttered, but this is another topic!


The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Volume 16, Ṣ, Chicago 20045, sub ṣalmu, 78–85.

Bahrani, Z., The Graven Image. Representation in Babylonia and Assyria, Philadephia 2003.

Radner, K., Die Macht des Namens. Altorientalische Strategien zur Selbsterhaltung, SANTAG 8, Wiesbaden 2005.

Dieser Eintrag wurde veröffentlicht in Articles von Max Weber Stiftung. Permanenter Link des Eintrags.

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