Understanding Lamassu, an Ancient Mesopotamian Deity

Modern-day Iraq and Iran have been inhabited by countless people-groups for thousands of years. Once called Mesopotamia, the Assyrian people esteem Lamassu as a protective deity. Taking the hybrid form of a bull or lion, man, and bird, Lamassu represents the zodiacs and constellations and its form graces numerous cities, temples, and seals.

Who is Lamassu?

goddess Lamma
Stele with inscription showing the protectrice deity Lam(m)a, dedicated by king Nazi-Maruttash to goddess Ishtar, from Uruk (1307-1282 BCE). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Originally known as the goddess Lamma, she mediated between the gods.  A figure of the goddess was discovered in the temple of Ishtar in Uruk. She wore a ruffled dress and horned tiara, and her hands were raised in prayer. She is also known to have a male counterpart named Shedu. They were also known as royal protectors and became household protective spirits for the Assyrian people.

Shedu
Lamassu, Syrian Neo-Assyrian Period, c. 721–705 BCE

Lamassu in Mesopotamian Art and Architecture

Lamassu statues in museum
Human-headed winged bulls from Sargon II's palace in Dur-Sharrukin, modern Khorsabad (Louvre)

Resembling a sphynx or griffin, Lamassu has the body of a bull or lion with the head of a human and eagle-like wings. This motif is common in the Near East and dates to 3000 BCE. The first Lamassu appeared under Tiglath-Pileser in the 900s BCE. To protect the household, Lamassu were engraved in clay tablets, and the tablet would then be buried under the door’s threshold. On a larger scale, Lamassu would also flank the entrances of palaces as colossal sculptures, in high relief, in pairs. They would look toward cardinal points. Lumasi are usually depicted as standing and sometimes have five legs and a male head. These enormous sculptures were often accompanied by a hero grasping a lion, also colossal in scale and in high relief.

Where Can I See Lamassu Now?

Museum Visitor Looking at a Lamassu statue up close
ISIS destroying Lamassu - USA Today September 29, 2015

In addition to the sculptures that still protect ancient palaces in ancient Iraqi and Iranian cities, many have been moved to museums. You can see them at Gate of All Nations at Persepolis in Iran, the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the University of Chicago Oriental Institute. In addition, they grace seals such as the British 10th Army insignia, the SAVAK of Iran insignia, and the seal of the United States Forces – Iraq.

The Terrorist Destruction of Lamassu

Historically, most if not all ancient cultures have been the victim of iconoclasm at one time or another. Around 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL, destroyed several examples of Assyrian art including representations of Lamassu when they occupied sites in northern Iraq. Lamassu from Nimrud and the Mosul Museum, along with many other artifacts, were filmed as they were destroyed by drills and explosives. The terrorist organization sought to destroy example of non-Islamic worship, and UNESCO called the destruction of such heritage cites as a war crime.

 

Conclusively, Lamassu is an everlasting protective deity. Since antiquity, various people groups herald hybrid figures in numerous forms and cultures. We can still see many in existence in museums and as reminders of the roots of civilizations, but even protective deities sometimes need their own protection.

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Rebeccah Swerdlow

Rebeccah has loved arts and museums for as long as she can remember. From a young age, she has seen much of the world and its treasures and perspectives. She has always loved learning about other cultures, so she decided to pursue an undergraduate degree at Loyola University Maryland with a double major in History and Art History, with a focus on Ancient Greece and Rome. While finishing her degree, she completed a research fellowship and was published in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. She has volunteered at her local historical society and the Baltimore Museum of Art and worked in her university gallery. She then received her Master’s degree at the University of Delaware in Art History where she also worked with curatorial teams for exhibits at the Winterthur Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as well as the university’s gallery. Rebeccah has frequented museums and galleries in the DC area for years. When she isn’t in a museum, you can find her working in the library of the Naval Historic and Heritage Command while earning her certification from the Society of American Archivists. Rebeccah values history, culture, and learning with the highest degree.
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