Lamassu: the Winged Guardians of Mesopotamia
Amongst my favourite pieces in the British Museum are the winged bulls/lions of Mesopotamia. Called Lamassu, these huge guardians stood for hundreds of years at the city gates or temples in Nineveh and Nimrud when Assyria had a mighty Empire, and they featured in the recent fantastic exhibition about Ashurbanipal (‘I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria.’). Around five metres high and weighing around 30 tonnes, these colossal guardians could not help but inspire awe, and indeed their primary function was to guard the cities against foes. They were also magical guardians, imbued with powers so strong that they can still be felt today.
Even after the city fell, the winged guardians remained buried beneath the desert sand where they remained for thousands of years until their rediscovery in the 1850’s. When British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard uncovered them he could not help but be impressed,
‘Wide spreading wings rose above their backs and their breasts and bodies were profusely adorned with curled hair…. More knowledge of art was shown in the outline of their limbs and in the delineation of the muscles than in any sculpture I have seen of this period.’
Just as impressive are the two legged winged guardians with the head and body of a bird or griffin. These magical guardians often stood near flowering trees and often held pine cones in their hands. The tree could be an early depiction of the Tree of Life and bears a striking resemblance to carvings seen on Armenian grave stones. Also associated with the mythical plant of birth, both symbols are linked to longevity and the higher office of kingship. We now know that the pineal gland, nestled deep inside the brain, is responsible for the excretion of the hormones melatonin and serotonin and acts as the transmitter and receiver of subtle vibrations. Was the winged bird guardian indicating some sort of higher function awareness by holding out the pine cone shaped object?
Even more intriguing are the ‘water buckets’ that the winged guardians also frequently carry. Sometimes described as handbags, these objects certainly had a ritualistic and sacred function. They could have been a repository for water, which was then administered as necessary by the pine cone as some authors have suggested, or they could have had a more profound function. Whatever their use, they certainly have a very ancient origin. At Gobekli Tepe, the oldest known temple on the planet, numerous carvings have been found of these exact same handbags. They appear on the so- called vulture stone pillar, the pillar that many researchers are now seeing as the key to unlocking the enigmatic symbolism of this incredible place. And if current dating is correct, these pillars were carved over ten thousand years ago. This indicates that a magical tradition was in operation for at least eight thousand years, over twice as long as the time span of either Judaism or Buddhism, and over five times longer than Islam.
With hindsight it is just as well maybe that Layard after his excavations at Nineveh shipped back some of the Lamassu and friezes depicting the bird winged guardians to the British Museum, where they have been looked after and preserved. As law and order deteriorated this century in Iraq, archaeologists in Mosul, modern- day Nineveh, were unable to protect the priceless objects that remained in the city, and members of Islamic State were pictured attacking the face of a winged bull with a drill in an attempt to gouge out its eyes. Happily, however, despite the devastation wrought by ISIL, indeed almost as an offshoot of it, a previously unknown Assyrian temple was discovered underground by archaeologists in a network of escape temples dug by the extremists. And the Lamassu guarding it are still intact.
The winged guardians may not have saved the Assyrian kings and people of Nineveh from their fates, but violence and destruction, foe and fire, has not managed to destroy them. They have been preserved against all odds, and still carry their magical message for us to seek out today if we choose to take heed of them.