Photo courtesy of the British Museum

Powerful and serene, this 40-inch-high sandstone statue seems surrounded by what the ancient Assyrians called melammu, or divine radiance. Found in the palace at the Assyrian capital of Kalhu (modern Nimrud in Iraq), the statue represents King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.)—not as himself but rather as a kind of perfect ruler, purged of earthly stain and chosen by the gods. For author Simo Parpola, Assyrian carvings present a theology of kingship in which rulers are associated with deities and cosmic symbols (like the Tree of Life) that ultimately identify the ruler as the son of god. The semi-divine king was not only a model of perfection; he also had the sacred responsibilities of upholding the order of the universe and ensuring its healthy continuity.