Detail of a Human-headed Winged Bull (Lamassu) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2008
Mesopotamia, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu)
Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1932 (32.143.1–.2)
From the ninth to the seventh century B.C., the kings of Assyria ruled over a vast empire centered in northern Iraq. The great Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.) undertook a vast building program at Nimrud, ancient Kalhu. Until it became the capital city under Ashurnasirpal, Nimrud had been no more than a provincial town.
The new capital occupied an area of about nine hundred acres, around which Ashurnasirpal constructed a mudbrick wall that was 120 feet thick, 42 feet high, and five miles long. In the southwest corner of this enclosure was the acropolis, where the temples, palaces, and administrative offices of the empire were located. In 879 B.C. Ashurnasirpal held a festival for 69,574 people to celebrate the construction of the new capital, and the event was documented by an inscription that read: “…the happy people of all the lands together with the people of Kalhu—for ten days I feasted, wined, bathed, and honored them and sent them back to their home in peace and joy.”
The so-called Standard Inscription that ran across the surface of most of the reliefs described Ashurnasirpal’s palace: “I built thereon [a palace with] halls of cedar, cypress, juniper, boxwood, teak, terebinth, and tamarisk [?] as my royal dwelling and for the enduring leisure life of my lordship.” The inscription continues: “Beasts of the mountains and the seas, which I had fashioned out of white limestone and alabaster, I had set up in its gates. I made it [the palace] fittingly imposing.” Such limestone beasts are the human-headed, winged bull and lion pictured here. The horned cap attests to their divinity, and the belt signifies their power. The sculptor gave these guardian figures five legs so that they appear to be standing firmly when viewed from the front but striding forward when seen from the side. These lamassu protected and supported important doorways in Assyrian palaces.
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| A bull-man from Khorsabad
|Lamassu: Babylonian protective demon with a bull’s body, eagle’s wings, and a human head.The name lamassu is problematic. The Sumerian word lama, which is rendered in Akkadian as lamassu, refers to a protective deity, who is usually female. She is often shown as a standing figure that introduces guests to another god. Her male counterpart is called alad or, in Akkadian, šêdu.During the Neo-Assyrian Empire (c.883-612), monumental bulls, often with wings and always with human heads, were placed as gateway guardians at the entrances of royal palaces. The general idea behind them was that they warded off evil. (In jargon: they were apotropaic figures.) Usually, they have five legs. Lion-bodied protective deities are also known, and are usually called “sphinxes”.|
| Two lamassu’s in the Gate of
All Nations, Persepolis)
|These monumental statues were called aladlammû (’protective spirit’) or lamassu, which means that the original female word was now applied for a rather macho demon. In one modern interpretation, they combine the strength of a bull, the freedom of an eagle, and the intelligence of a human being. Female lamassu’s are called apsasû.Lammasu’s are also known from the palaces of the Achaemenid kings. Those in Pasargadae have now disappeared, but in Persepolis, we can still see them in the Gate of all nations. The hoofs are visible in the Unfinished gate; in the building that is identified as either a Council Hall or a Tripylon (”triple gate”), lamassu’s served as the capitals of columns.It would be interesting if we could establish a link between the Asian bull-man lamassu and the Greek bull-man Minotauros, although the first one has a man’s head and a bull’s body, and the Minotaur has a man’s body and a bull’s head.|
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