A lamassu is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted as having a human head, the body of a bull or a lion, and bird wings.
In some writings, it is portrayed to represent a female deity. A less frequently used name is shedu, which refers to the male counterpart of a lamassu. Lammasu represents the zodiacs, parent-stars or constellations.
In art, lamassu were depicted as hybrids, with bodies of either winged bulls or lions and heads of human males.
The motif of a winged animal with a human head is common to the Near East, first recorded in Ebla around 3000 BCE.
The first distinct lamassu motif appeared in Assyria during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser II as a symbol of power.
Assyrian sculpture typically placed prominent pairs of lamassu at entrances in palaces, facing the street and also internal courtyards. They were represented as “double-aspect” figures on corners, in high relief.
From the front, they appear to stand, and from the side, walk, and in earlier versions have five legs, as is apparent when viewed obliquely.
Lumasi do not generally appear as large figures in the low-relief schemes running round palace rooms, where winged genie figures are common, but they sometimes appear within narrative reliefs, apparently protecting the Assyrians.
The colossal entrance way figures were often followed by a hero grasping a wriggling lion, also colossal in scale and in high relief.
In the palace of Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin, a group of at least seven lamassu and two such heroes with lions surrounded the entrance to the “throne room“, “a concentration of figures which produced an overwhelming impression of power.”
They also appear on cylinder seals. Notable examples include those at the 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.
Several examples left in situ in northern Iraq were destroyed in the 2010s by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant when they occupied the area, as were those in the Mosul Museum.
Lamassu represent the zodiacs, parent-stars, or constellations. They are depicted as protective deities because they encompass all life within them.
In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, they are depicted as physical deities as well, which is where the lammasu iconography originates, these deities could be microcosms of their microcosmic zodiac, parent-star, or constellation.
Although lamassu had a different iconography and portrayal in the culture of Sumer, the terms “lamassu“, “alad“, and “shedu” evolved throughout the Assyro-Akkadian culture from the Sumerian culture to denote the Assyrian-winged-man-bull symbol and statues during the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Female lamassu were called “apsasû“.
The motif of the Assyrian-winged-man-bull called Aladlammu and Lamassu interchangeably is not the lamassu or alad of Sumerian origin, which were depicted with different iconography.
These monumental statues were called aladlammû or lamassu which meant “protective spirit“. In Hittite, the Sumerian form dlamma is used both as a name for the so-called “tutelary deity“, identified in certain later texts with Inara, and a title given to similar protective gods.
The lamassu is a celestial being from ancient Mesopotamian religion bearing a human head, bull’s body, sometimes with the horns and the ears of a bull, and wings.
It appears frequently in Mesopotamian art. The lamassu and shedu were household protective spirits of the common Babylonian people, becoming associated later as royal protectors, and were placed as sentinels at entrances. The Akkadians associated the god Papsukkal with a lamassu and the god Išum with shedu.
To protect houses, the lamassu were engraved in clay tablets, which were then buried under the door’s threshold. They were often placed as a pair at the entrance of palaces.
At the entrance of cities, they were sculpted in colossal size and placed as a pair, one at each side of the door of the city, that generally had doors in the surrounding wall, each one looking towards one of the cardinal points.
The ancient Jewish people were influenced by the iconography of Assyrian culture. The prophet Ezekiel wrote about a fantastic being made up of aspects of a human being, a lion, an eagle, and a bull.
Later, in the early Christian period, the four Gospels were ascribed to each of these components. When it was depicted in art, this image was called the Tetramorph.