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A lamassu (Cuneiform: 𒀭𒆗, AN.KAL; Sumerian: dlamma; Akkadian: lamassu), is a protective deity, often depicted with a bull or lion's body, eagle's wings, and human's head. In some writings, it is portrayed to represent a female deity. A less frequently used name is shedu (Cuneiform: 𒀭𒆘, AN.KAL×BAD; Sumerian: dalad; Akkadian, šēdu; Hebrew: שד) which refers to the male counterpart of a lamassu. See the etymology section for a full explanation of the relationship of the names.
In art lamassi (pl.) were depicted as winged bulls or lions; both forms had the heads of human males. There are still surviving figures of šêdu in bas-relief and some statues in museums. Notable examples of šêdu/lamassu held by museums include those at the British Museum, Musée du Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art and one extremely large example kept at the Oriental Institute, Chicago.
Lamassi in sculptural form are usually depicted as "double-aspect" figures, apparently possessing five separate legs (when viewed from an oblique angle).
The beast composition is powerfully evocative of strength (body of lion / bull), speed (an eagle's wings) and intelligence (human head).
- The bull demonstrates strength - in Assyrian times the wild bulls of Mesopotamia were huge beasts, up to 183cm at the shoulder, and were hunted by the kings.
- The eagle, being the most powerful bird in the sky, symbolises the king's power as he looks over those he rules
- The crowned human head represents intelligence, with the face of the Lamassu carved to represent the king who ruled at the time the sculpture was created.
The bull man helps people fight evil and chaos. He holds the gates of dawn open for the sun god Shamash and supports the sun disc. Lamassu served as a symbol for the power of the Assyrian kings who ruled that vast empire centred in northern Iraq from the 9th to 7th centuries BC.
As protective deities or genii, larger than life-size statue-blocks of lamassi were placed on either side of late Assyrian palace doorways and entrances in order to guard against the entry of evil and chaotic forces. At the entrance of cities the gatekeepers were sculpted in colossal size, and placed as a pair, one at each side of the door of the city, that generally had buttdoors in the surrounding wall, each one looking towards one of the cardinal points.
Over time it evolved into a friendly, protective demon. To protect houses the shedu were engraved in clay tablets as apotropaic objects that were buried under the door's threshold.
In art, lamassu were depicted as hybrids, winged bulls or lions with the head of a human male. There are still surviving figures of lamassu in bas-relief and some statues in museums, most notably in the British Museum in London, Musée du Louvre in Paris, National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Pergamon Museum in Berlin and the Oriental Institute, Chicago. They are generally attributed to the ancient Assyrians. The lamassu is at the opening of the city, so that everyone who enters sees it. From the front it appears to be standing and from the side walking. This was intentionally done to make it seem powerful. The lamassu in real life is very tall. In this case the lamassu is being used as a symbol of power. 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 Tilgath Pilser. A winged bull with the head of a bearded man appears on the logo of United States Forces - Iraq in reference to Iraq's ancient past.
Although "lamassu" had a different iconography and portrayal in Sumerian culture, the terms lamassu, alad, and shedu were used to denote the Assyrian-winged-man-bull symbol and statues during the Neo-Assyrian empire. Female lamassus 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".
The lamassu is a celestial being from Mesopotamian mythology, Persian, and other Iranic cultures . Human above the waist and a bull below the waist, it also has the horns and the ears of a bull. It appears frequently in Mesopotamian art, sometimes with wings. The lamassu and shedu were household protective spirits of the common Babylonian people. Later during the Babylonian period they became the protectors of kings as well always placed at the entrance. Statues of the bull-man were often used as gatekeepers. The Akkadians associated the god Papsukkal with 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.