Lamassu | The mythical human-headed winged bull

From the ninth to the seventh century BCE, the kings of Assyria ruled over a vast empire centered in northern Iraq. Under the reign of two great Assyrian kings known as Ashurnasirpal II and Sargon II they both established prominent capitals a century apart with a common inclusion of a hybrid mythological guardian creature known as the Lamassu. Lamassu in the Akkadian language means “protective spirits.” Yesterday, I visited the National Museum of Iraq or the Iraq Museum in Baghdad mainly to see Lamassu.

IMG_1631The Lamassu is a celestial being from ancient Mesopotamian religion bearing the head of a man, the wings of an eagle, and the hulking body of a bull, sometimes with the horns and the ears of a bull. The Assyrian art, strongly indebted to the Mesopotamian tradition, derives from Sumero-Babylonian thinking its typical vocation for composite forms; however, the Assyrian human-headed winged bulls depart abruptly from the pattern of creatures like the bull-man or human-headed bull of protodynastic period. The first recorded Lamassu comes from c. 3000 BCE. The Lamassu – a symbol combining man, bull and bird – combines the strength of a bull, the freedom of an eagle, and the intelligence of a human being.

Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883-859 BCE), the first great Assyrian king, constructed a new capital in Kalhu (present day Nimrud) to represent his power and reign over his vast empire. At the entrances to this palace complex, there were hybrid supernatural figures with a bearded human head, the body of a bull or a lion, wings of a bird, and 5 legs that stood guard at all entrances to the palace; this creature is known as the Lamassu, as a protective spirit and a symbol of the power of the Assyrian king. Behind them were colossal winged human figures of the same height, bearing the pine cone and basket – winged genies. Winged genies are usually bearded male figures sporting birds’ wings. The winged genies are a reappearing trait in ancient Assyrian art, and are displayed most prominently in palaces or places of royalty. The two most notable places where the genies existed were Ashurnasirpal II’s palace Kalhu and Sargon II’s palace Dur-Sharrukin.

The Assyrian Hall, National Museum of Iraq
The Assyrian Hall, National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.

The Lamassu Guardian figures were sculpted in pairs so that they were flanking the entrance to the king’s throne room. The Lamassu figures are a very interesting example of Neo-Assyrian Art.  For several hundred years (934-609 BCE) Assyria was the most important and influential empire in the Mesopotamian region.  The kings at this time used art as a way to make certain everyone knew of their importance.

Relief sculpture is by far the most striking manifestation of Achaemenian art. Adopted as the basis of the new style was the straightforward technique of the Assyrians, with its engraved detail and lack of modeling.

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The representation of the human-headed winged bull is the cross of two perspectives, changing from high relief in the flat area (side view) to the full-relief view of the forward portion of the sculpture. The materialisation of the figure emerging from the raw stone block stress the link between creature and palace, as well as dynamic power and motion to the visitors, and thus intended to guard and protect against evil powers. The precarious balance between the motionless posture of the forward-looking portion and the dynamic movement of the side view originates  a sedate unsteadiness bringing the creature to life.

The sculptures were meant to be seen in one of two ways – from the front looking directly at the face, or from the side as the viewer entered the king’s throne room.  Therefore the figures are sculpted with five legs – two legs that can be seen from the front view and four legs that can be seen from the side.  This would indicate that the figure was a four-legged beast, but the extra leg was added so that the side view made visual sense. The figures were carved in relief, that is they were not free-standing sculptures but rather only part of the figure was carved and they needed a wall to support them.

Every important city wanted to have Lamassu protect the gateway to their citadel. At the same time, another winged creature was made to keep watch at the throne room entrance. Additionally, they were the guardians who inspired armies to protect their cities. The Mesopotamians believed that Lamassu frightened away the forces of chaos and brought peace to their homes. The most famous colossal statues of Lamassu have been excavated at the sites of the Assyrian capitals established by King Assurnasirpal II (r. 883 – 859 BCE) and King Sargon II (r. 721 – 705 BCE).

The Akkadians associated the human-bull hybrid as a gatekeeper associated with the god Papsukkal, who is the attendant deity of Anu (sky god of the supreme deities) and functions as a gatekeeper in the spiritual world by providing a pathway between the higher gods and humans. While these hybrid creatures were supernatural beings, they were superior to humans but were not considered to be deities. Even though the Lamassu does wear a horned cap/tiara, which proves their divinity, they were not considered deities in their culture.

19 thoughts on “Lamassu | The mythical human-headed winged bull

  1. I have seen these figures in the encyclopedia and also when I read about this region. So, this was much before Islam swept across the region? It looks like in many ways this civilization was much more advanced and evolved than the current religion which is quite rudimentary

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    1. That was the time when all great civilisations like, Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian and Indian, reached their heights, but the mankind couldn’t maintain the development. You can note the details in the reliefs, which show their skills and cultural diffusion. We are still wondering how the people at that time would have constructed the majestic ziggurats, pyramids. How the astronomers studied and marked the movement of celestial bodies with such precision without any telescope, etc.

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      1. Indrajit, I have all reasons to believe that all these civilizations were highly developed and had attained some sort of sophistication Which is completely missing in the current times…. In the entire middle East. To me it looks like the current civilization is without any sophistication.

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        1. I hope so. It’s actually strange to know that people don’t even talk about Mesopotamia and Persia, Which was once a great civilization. Egypt is the only country which has been able to encash some bits along with Greece and Italy. Religion and politics seems to be the culprit in this scheme.

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    1. Aro, the situation is rather very bad in Iraq, unfortunately. Many of the thousands of years-old artefacts and remnants of ancient civilisations have been vandalised by invaders, looted by greedy people, lost due to ignorance or apathy and these happened till recently. After the US invasion in 2003, even the museums were looted and artefacts were sold and smuggled out. The last blow came from ISIS when they devastated and demolished the artefacts, remains of the buildings etc and we all watched those videos helplessly. Lamassu, of course, is impossible to loot because of its size and weight. Many artefacts are now safe in museums in the US, London, Paris and Baghdad. Read my next post on the National Museum of Iraq.

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  2. Thank you, sir, for sharing this interesting post on Lamassu, the sacred guardian figures of the city and throne in ancient Mesopotamia. There was a pair of these figures in the British Museum.These half-bull half-human figures are very noticeable. I think there is a pair somewhere in Mumbai too.

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