Assyrian Human-Headed Winged Bull
By: Persi J. Mishel
In the past two hundred years, there have been numerous archeological discoveries by Assyrian, French, and British archaeologists in Bet-Nahrain (present-day Iraq). As a result of these discoveries, we have been able to acquire the knowledge about the cradle of civilization which was formed in Bet-Nahrain. This area of the world was dominated by different nations such as Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, and Romans, and etc.
Assyria was one of the most powerful and ambitious nations that dominated Bet-Nahrain for approximately 1200 years. In its zenith, its borders stretched the entire Asia Minor, and parts of Africa. The Assyria's heartland was and is northern Iraq; however, as a result of its superb military and efficient system of administration in government and commerce, it was able to dominate its neighbors and colonize them.
Before their Christianization which occurred in 33 A.D., the Assyrians believed in many gods, the following are some of them: Ashur (the supreme national god from which the name of Assyria is driven); Shamash (the sun god), Adad (the storm god); Ishtar (the goddess of love and of war); and etc. The Assyrians also believed in many protective supernatural beings; one of them is the human-headed winged bull which the Assyrians called it "Lamassu." Their beliefs in supernatural protective beings is not unusual, because even in modern times Christians and Muslims and some other religions believe in angels and protective images.
Lamassu was built by Assyrian artists in form of colossal sculptures and stone relief. Lamassu is composed of the following animals: The head is that of human signifying the intellectual power of man, wearing the horned crown that signified divinity in ancient Mesopotamia ; the ears and body are those of a bull which embody the physical strength of a bull; the wings of a bird signified the flying capability and speed of a bird.
The earlier colossi of Lamassu composed of five legs of a bull. When viewed from the side, it appears to be walking; when viewed from the front, it appears to be standing. There are colossi of Lamassu that show four legs of a bull. They come in different sizes. Some of colossi of Lamassu are 16 feet tall and weigh approximately 40 tons. They usually contain inscriptions in cuneiform scripts which describe the accomplishments of a king who in his reign the colossus was built.
Lamassu was considered by the Assyrians as a protective guardian of their houses, palaces, gateways, and cities. It also symbolized as a sign of Assyrian power which was displayed to foreign dignitaries and ambassadors. There is no historical evidence showing that Lamassu was worshipped as a god. Indeed, most of the sculptures were placed at gateways, palaces, underneath the houses, and not in the temples.
There are several archaeologists who for the first time excavated in the northern Iraq in the nineteenth century when most of the Middle East was under domination of the Ottoman Empire. These archaeologist used the Bible as a starting point because of references to the Assyrian Kings and the city of Nineveh which was the last Assyrian capital before the fall of the Assyrian Empire at 612 B.C.
The first man who undertook archaeological research and excavation in Mosul (a city in northern Iraq which is located within outskirts of Nineveh) was Claudius Rich who was a British resident in Baghdad (present-day capital of Iraq) from 1808 until 1821. His discoveries have been stored in the British Museum's Mesopotamia Collection. Dr. Paul-Emile Botta was a French consul in Mosul who also excavated in Mosul and its surroundings. Botta is credited with finding the palace of the Assyrian King Sargon II, which was built around 710 B.C. Most of Botta's discoveries are stored in the Louver Museum in Paris. Although he found colossi of Lamassu in the palace of Sargon II, in present-day Khorsabad, because of transposition problems, they were not able to transfer them to the Louver Museum. In 1849, Henry Rawlinson, who was a British resident of Baghdad, bought the sculptures of Lamassu and transferred them to the British Museum. One of these colossi is presently in the University of Chicago at the Oriental Institute Museum.
Henry Layard, British lawyer and archeologist, and an Assyrian archeologist, Hormuzd Rassam, are credited with most of Assyrian sculptures that are presently in the following museums: Baghdad, Mosul, and British. They found many colossi of Lamassu in Nimrud in the palace of Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal (883-859 B.C.). They also discovered palace of made another Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 B.C.), and palace of Assyrian King Sennacherib (704-680).
Most of today's Assyrians have a sculpture of Lamassu in their house. Also many Assyrian organizations, magazines, TV programs, and Web sites use an image of Lamassu. However, present-day use of Lamassu is not for purpose of what their Assyrian ancestors used it, it is used as a sign of linkage to and identification to their ancestors. Indeed, most Assyrians do not use the name of Lamassu, they use "Assyrian Guardian." However, the name of "Lamassu" does appear in Assyrian poems, especially poems written by Assyrian poets from the homeland and as a name for businesses.
||1. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, by Michael Roaf. Equinox (Oxford) Ltd. Facts on File, Inc., New York, NY. 1990.
||2. Assyrian Sculpture by Julian Reads. The Trustees of the British Museum. Harvard University Press. Cambridge; Massachusetts. 1983. Reprinted 1994.
||3. Odyssey, The Lamassu's Tale, by Karen L. Wilson, Director, Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. September /October 1999.