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Lamassu: Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient world was full of incredible creatures. In this lesson, we are going to check out the lamassu, see where it came from and explore its role in ancient societies.

The Lamassu

Imagine that you needed to protect your home from evil magic or the supernatural forces of chaos. What would you do? Well, one option might be posting a giant bull with the head of a human and wings of an eagle outside your door. That might work.

In the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia, this fearsome creature was known as the lamassu. Lamassu were supernatural spirits, sometimes called demons or genies depending on which language you're translating from, who served to protect the gods, as well as the important human structures. Lamassu always had the body (and therefore strength) of a bull, but the head (and therefore intelligence) of a human. They very often had wings of eagles as well. If that doesn't keep evil off your doormat, nothing will.

Mesopotamian lamassu
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History of the Lamassu

The lamassu is clearly an intriguing creature, but where does it come from? The earliest examples of something bearing this resemblance dates back to the Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia. The Sumerians recognized a protective deity named Lama, or Lamassu, with a female human form who was a servant of the gods.

The lamassu as we know it appeared a little later, in the Assyrian culture between the 9th and 7th centuries BCE. The Assyrians envisioned a protective spirit that was part bull and part human (and sometimes part eagle). Instead of being female, this spirit was male, with a nice, long Assyrian beard. It's worth noting that there were female lamassu as well, which are called ''apsasu''. After the Assyrians, the Achaemenid Empire of Persia also widely embraced this figure and its protective function.

It's worth noting that the lamassu may have had some important impacts on Western civilization. The Greeks later told stories of various monsters that were part human and part something else, and the ancient Hebrews also recorded lamassu-like creatures that were part lion, eagle, bull and human. After the death of Christ centuries later, the four Gospels were each associated with one of these four animals (Matthew is the winged man, Mark is the lion, Luke is the ox or bull, and John is the eagle).

Appearances of the Lamassu

So, how exactly did one get a lamassu to protect their dwelling? The strongest evidence we have for this comes from the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid empires. In both places, the palace of the king was often guarded with a pair of massive lamassu, generally carved from single blocks of stone. Anybody entering the palace would have to pass between these fearsome guardians, reminding them of the king's power. From what we can tell, it seems that these sculptures were believed to protect the palace and king from evil supernatural forces as well. In some cases, the lamassu statues were accompanied by plaques extolling the virtues of the king and threatening curses upon any who would wish to harm him.

9th-century Assyrian lamassu from the ancient palace of Nimrud
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