Deities & Superheroes

Lesson Plan: Deities & Superheroes

Bird-Headed Deity
Artist Not Known, Calah, Iraq
About 885 B.C.


Students will compare the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity limestone relief to comic book superheroes and talk about common themes and important differences. Attention to the three-dimensional detail in the relief, as compared to the two-dimensional images of cartoon art, helps them learn about different visual elements artists use to convey certain feelings and concepts.  They will then create a superhero of their own.

Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)


21st Century Learning Skills Addressed:

  • Critical Thinking and Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Collaboration
  • Self-Direction
  • Invention

2009 Colorado Academic Standards Primary Area Addressed:
Visual Arts

  • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
  • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Invent and Discover to Create
  • Relate and Connect to Transfer

Additional 2009 Colorado Academic Standards Addressed:
Language Arts

  • Oral Expression and Listening
  • Writing and Composition
  • Research and Reasoning

Length of Lesson

Two to three 45-minute lessons


This lesson helps students explore why they believe humans artistically portray deities or other superhuman beings that protect them and help them survive. Creating their own superheroes helps students synthesize information and apply it in a new way, an important expansion of critical and higher-order thinking skills.


Students will be able to:

  • describe how the relief is part of a larger limestone relief that was part of a palace wall;
  • identify at least three details in the relief;
  • explain visual elements of the relief that convey power, strength, and importance; and
  • discuss how deities and superheroes differ and theorize why the concept of beings with superpowers persists over time (focusing on the concept of both being protective forces).


  • Photocopies or projected images of at least three different superheroes, including those who have animal features (e.g., Aquaman)
    • The Superhero Database has an index of hundreds of superheroes, historical information, and an image gallery
  • Three unique types of fruit with multiple textural and other sensual elements, one set for every three to four students
  • Optional: Two hula hoops
  • Sticky notes
  • Pen/pencil and paper for each student
  • Magazines with pictures of animals and humans in action (e.g., athletes running or jumping, birds flying, whales or sharks swimming, etc.)
  • About the Art sheet on the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity limestone relief (found at the end of the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • One color photocopy of Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity limestone relief or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


Day 1

  1. Observation warm-up: Divide students into groups of three to four. Give each group a set of fruit. Have them write down as many details about the fruits as they can, paying attention to multiple senses in addition to vision. Have each group share at least three observations with the entire class.
  2. Tell students that they are going to now turn their abilities to observe details to the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity limestone relief. Display the relief. Have students write down the details they observe on sticky notes, writing only one detail per sticky note. Encourage them to look at the texture, dimensionality, and realism of the carving.
  3. Students will then do the same for images you’ve selected of various superheroes from comic books (having a range of vintage to more recent superhero images is intriguing and adds some dimension). They are to now write out details they observe in these images onto sticky notes as well, only writing one detail per sticky note.
  4. Place the hula hoops so the centers overlap (or draw two large circles on a board to make a Venn Diagram). Have students put sticky notes that apply only to the deities in the outside of one hoop, those that apply only to the superheroes in the outside of the opposite hoop, and similarities in the middle.
  5. Discuss the differences and why they are important (e.g. deities not battling a one-time enemy but rather ensuring survival against everyday forces, needing sustenance to survive.) The idea is to talk about the protective nature of each. Discuss why humans might feel a need to be protected, especially looking at survival (e.g. food supply, reproduction if appropriate, etc.)
  6. Students will create their own superheroes using human and animal features. They should draw their superhero, to the best of their ability, using the magazine images to help guide them.
  7. In small groups of three to four students, or as one large group (if time permits), have children share their superheroes.

Day 2 (and 3 if more time is needed):

  1. Creativity warm-up: Ask students to create an advertisement for the superheroes they developed yesterday. What would the ad say? Remember, the ad is to entice and intrigue someone to call up and ask for the superhero’s services. The goal is to help students focus on the critical traits and get them thinking about their hero again in order to write a story about him or her. Don’t spend too much time here; it’s just for fun and to get students thinking creatively.
  2. Have the children create a story board on the computer, or on paper, putting their superhero into action. They need to include a beginning (call to adventure), a problem (tension), middle (conflict), solution (resolution), and an end (closure/learning) for their story.
  3. Students can present the story in a digital story format (includes text and images like a comic book) or traditional story format.

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About the Art

Bird-Headed Deity by Artist Not Known, Calah, Iraq, About 885 B.C.

Who Made It?

This stone carving comes from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, who ruled over the kingdom of Assyria in today’s Iraq. The creation of a sculptured palace generally happened only once during a king’s reign, if at all. The king took close interest in the palace and had some indirect role in choosing the subjects of the decorations. However, the general design was placed in the hands of a committee of senior officials. Within this committee, at least one official was experienced in magic, and he made sure that the magical figures on the walls (like this bird-headed deity) were placed for maximum protection. First, the stone panels were installed into the brick palace walls, and then a team of carvers would work on creating the low-relief sculpture. One person would draw or incise the main outline of the image, and the final cutting and polishing would be done by an army of artisans. Because the carvings were influenced by wall paintings, they were often painted as well.

What Inspired It?

Magicians placed protective deities throughout the king’s palace, wherever they were thought to be most effective. Bird-headed deities often stood at doorways, protecting the palace from evil spirits. Magic was an essential part of religion and daily life in ancient Assyria and was used in everything from medicine to architecture. Kings served as high priests and had ceremonial responsibilities. Icons throughout the castle, including relief carvings like this one, affirmed Ashurnasirpal’s authority as high priest and King of Assyria. Many carvings in Ashurnasirpal’s palace also tell of the importance of war during his reign.

For more resources related to this artwork, check out the "Find Out More" section for this object on Creativity Resource online.

Things to Look For

Bird-Headed Deity by Artist Not Known, Calah, Iraq, About 885 B.C.


Elaborate tassels are attached to the patterned edge of the figure’s cloak. A cloak with tassels was standard wear for kings during this time, but not for ordinary humans.

Low Relief

The sculpture is carved in low relief, also called bas relief, meaning that the carving projects very little from the background.

Arm Muscles

Heavy muscles are a convention of Assyrian carving and are seen throughout the palace.

Grain of Stone

The stone has a very distinctive, curvy pattern. When stones were cut from the quarry, consecutive sections went to a given room. By paying attention to the grain of the stone, we are able to identify which carvings came from the same room.

Half Man, Half Bird

The deity is a magical combination of eagle and man, with the head, feathers, and beak of an eagle, and the muscle and flesh of a man. These qualities are integrated to make a convincing and powerful creature.

Right Hand

The deity holds what looks like either a pinecone or the flower of a date palm in his right hand. Because date palms require cross-fertilization by hand, a suggestion has been made that perhaps the deity is fertilizing a sacred tree. The sacred tree, not seen here, is a common motif in Assyrian art. It is identified by ornamental leaves and curling tendrils. It symbolizes vegetal health and fertility, and is usually attended by human-headed or bird-headed deities. In other places, the pinecone is held up over people or doorways that need magical protection. Although scholars are not positive about what is happening here, it does seem to be an important ritual gesture.

Bird-Headed Deity
Artist Not Known, Calah, Iraq
About 885 B.C.

Charles Bayly, Jr. Fund, 1963.1
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2008. All Rights Reserved.

This image is intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum.
This piece may not currently be on display at the museum.