28 febrero, 2018

Mythical Wednesday: Lamassu, the Guardian Spirits

Name: Lama (Sumerian), Lamassu (Akkadian/Assyrian), alad (Sumerian), šêdu (Akkadian), aladlammû (Assyrian), apsasû (Assyrian).
Geographical area: in their role of protective spirits, the Lamassu can be found at the gates of many palaces and temples guarding the gates through all the Mesopotamian area. However, the remaining examples were found in Assyria, north of Mesopotamia, being the most famous the ones from Dur Sharrukin (actual Khorsabad), from Nineveh and the ones remaining in Persepolis, in Iran, at the known Gate of All Nations.

Lamassu from the palace of Sargon (721-705 BCE) at Dur Sharrukin.
Currently at the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Timeline: Lamassus as they are currently known, with their mixed iconography, were especially popular during the Neo-Assyrian empire (911-621 BCE). Approximately a hundred years after, these spirits became part of the imperial imagery of the Achaemenids in Iran, probably transmitted through conquest and cultural exchange with the Elam and Mesopotamia areas.
History: speaking about the Lamassu is certainly complicated since they were not a unique creature but resulted from the fusion of two different divinities. The Sumerian term lama, lamassu in Akkadian, designated a protective deity normally female with a human shape. Her masculine counterpart was alad in Sumerian (šêdu in Akkadian) and they didn’t have a defined personality, being anonymous entities. Their task was accompanying worshippers and escorting them in presence of higher divinities. However, later on the word aladlammû was used to denominate the gigantic mixed creatures guarding the gates of Assyrian palaces and temples, being masculine deities this time with their feminine version, aspasû.
Thus, the Lamassu we know nowadays are actually an Akkadian origin divinity created form the fusion the Sumerian and the Akkadian words. Nevertheless, both these latter creatures and the original lama and alad preserved the same role that was protecting mortals, from demons most of the time, but also from the gods themselves. They are known as the apotropaic divinity kind. Placing them at the gates was a way of preventing the evil spirit to enter the palaces and the sacred grounds. Opposite to other divinities, the Assyrian Lamassu did not have a dual character so habitual in Mesopotamian mythology, but they were always considered benevolent, noble and powerful divinities.

Monumental gate from the palace of Ashurnasipal II (883-859 BCE) at Nineveh.
Currently at The British Museum.

Iconography: the Lamassu combine different elements, each one representing a specific value. Their bodies are normally the ones of a lion or a bull, two of the most relevant animals from the Mesopotamian imagery, both symbols of royalty and strength. They also have wings like the birds of prey, probably eagles or vultures, symbols of speed and freedom. Lastly, their heads are always human and adorned with the horned crowns gods are represented with, so they symbolise their intelligence and their superior presence linked directly with the heavens.
It is said that they have five legs, but this is not entirely correct. Their legs are displayed in a way they can show two different positions. Standing in front of them they will look static and in guarding position, whereas walking or looking at them from the side the legs show movement, therefore making them passing figures. Some examples have a highly detailed decoration, and in some cases, they are wearing ornaments like earrings, necklaces or tiaras. The lower half of their bodies are normally carved with inscriptions praising the corresponding sovereign, generally the one that ordered the building’s construction.

"Lamassu" by Yigit Koruglu (2017), https://www.yigitkoroglu.com/    

Similar deities in other cults: the Lamassu were especially popular in the imagery of the Achemenid dynasty in Persia, intertwining and adapting their iconography with the symbols of Mazdeism/Zoroastrianism like the wings, the bull and the lion.

BLACK, Jeremy and GREEN, Anthony: Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. The British Museum Press, London, ed. 2004.
Archmap, Maltai Rock Reliefs (may 2014): http://archmap.org/archmap_2/Site/Collection?building_id=2689

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