Winged Genie of Assyria

IMG_1622I was fascinated with the representations of winged genii carved on the walls of the palaces of Assyrian Kings. I saw them at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad during my last visit along with Lamassu. The genie is a powerfully built man, with wings sprouting from his back.

Winged genii are not to be confused with the magical genie of Aladdin’s lamp (Arabian Nights).

Winged genie is the conventional term for a recurring motif in the iconography of Assyrian sculpture. Winged genii are usually bearded male figures sporting birds’ wings. The genie symbolised both protection and fertility — its role was to safeguard and replenish the ancient kingdom of Assyria.

Winged genii are displayed most prominently in palaces of royalty. The genie had an essential protective role: it defended the city. However, it was also a blessing genie holding holy water and sprinkled it on visitors with a pine cone to purify them.

Winged Genie of Assyria
A human-headed and winged Genie (sage, guardian or protective spirit), National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad, Neo-Assyrian period, circa eighth century BCE.

The two most notable places where the genii existed were palaces of Asurbanipal II (reign 883-859 BCE) and Sargon II (reign 722-705 BCE). The impact of all the genii side by side in the palace would have been to convey the strength and virility of the Assyrian empire.

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As a sign of their supernatural essence, the human-headed genies wear horned helmets. This association between horns and divine (or semi-divine) presence had a long history in the Mesopotamia. Beginning in the Akkadian Period (circa third millennia BCE) artists used bovine horns as symbols of divinity. Below the horned headdress, the long wavy hair reaches to the shoulders and ends in several rows of tight curls. The armlets over elbow and bracelets with rosette are notable ornaments. The rosette may have been associated with the worship of the goddess Ishtar since numerous rosettes have been found in her temple in the Assyrian city of Ashur.

ORIGIN

These genii have all been interpreted as beings known as antediluvian sages or apkallu (wise, sage or expert) in Akkadian. They were beings that existed during a godlike generation of humanity. These beings were closely associated with the god Enki, the Sumerian god of water, knowledge, crafts, and creation. During the antediluvian age, humanity was “covered” or more commonly referred to as the great flood, and the inhabitants were purified and roamed the earth as invisible genii. (Source: Wikipedia)

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Due to the ornate nature of the kings and genii, there are many times in which the distinction between the king and a genie are impossible. They are dressed in identical clothes and if the genie has no wings there is nothing separating it from a human. Both genii and the king would wear earrings made of a single conical-tipped pendant suspended from a crescent. Also if a genie was bearded there would be nothing different from a beard on that of a human. The standard beard of a human consisted of three layers, and the genie would have the same as well.

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

Endless reliefs decorating the interiors of the palaces portrayed the glory of the Assyrian king and the mighty deities who protected him and his vast holdings.