Archive for January, 2014

January 30, 2014

haunted by the lamassu

One day last week I woke up with a song in my head. That happens quite a lot, waking up with a song knocking around my head, though strangely enough I never remember what I was dreaming about when that it happens. Anyway, this particular earworm was hard to shift, and it kept popping into my head for days.

Mesopotamia by the B52s

I didn’t think much about it, though (because earworms are just like that), until a couple of days ago, when I suddenly kept coming across images of the same mythical creature, popping up all over the internet for no reason at all. There it was on Pinterest, and there on Tumblr and there on some random blog I’d never looked at before… And where did these beasts originate from? From Mesopotamia (six or eight thousand years ago / they laid / down the law / Ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah haa)

Well, you know me. I like to pay attention to patterns. So on Tuesday, on something of a whim, I decided to go and visit those mythical creatures. Being in London I can do that, go and visit mythical creatures, because they live in the British Museum.

(Actually, you don’t need to go to the British Museum to visit mythical creatures, you can find places to visit them all over the world, and not just in museums.)

There are actually two types of lamassu on show at the British Museum, some with lions’ bodies and some with bulls’ bodies, but oddly none of the captions attached to the displays refer to them by their proper name — they’re just called “human-headed winged lions” (or bulls), which is a bit of a mouthful and rather boring, especially as the lamassu were considered important — they stood at the entrance to the most important temples and the gates of the city, that’s not a job you give to just any old creature.

This one is described as a “winged male sphinx” — although he obviously has the same characteristics as the other lamassu (but on a smaller scale):

According to the Mesopotamia website (which is actually run by the British Museum), lamassus “were there to frighten away the forces of chaos.”

I like the idea of a totem to frighten away chaos, not that I believe it would actually work (it didn’t work for the Mesopotamians against Alexander the Great!), but it’s a comforting idea. The world always feels chaotic, full of randomness, uncertainty, life in flux: the only true constant is change, as they say.

And yet, amazingly, these giant stone creatures are still here, hundreds, thousands of years later, solid and everlasting.

feet the size of my head

[Zeitgeisty side note: I found out while writing this that Lamassu is also the name used by a company that makes Bitcoin ATMs. I still don’t really understand how Bitcoin works, but it’s a fun coincidence.]

One of the information boards mentioned that originally they would have been painted bright colours, as would the buildings they were attached to. That must have been a sight to see. Actually, it makes me think — nowadays cities are a visual overload, with imagery all over the place in the form of advertising, architectural embellishment, landscaping, graffiti etc. but is that really such a new thing? Imagine living in a place where all the buildings were covered in brightly painted intricate carvings, you’d end up feeling the same visual overload, wouldn’t you. But imagine having some of these guys on buildings today.

This is an ugallu, a protective storm-bringer, he looks pretty bad-ass here, someone you’d want on your side:

This is The Queen of the Night, who could be Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, or it might be Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld, or hey, maybe it was someone else entirely! They don’t really know. But it just goes to show, owls have always been trendy:

This is just the light switch in one of the rooms. I was amused by the notion that someone could plunge Khorsabad into darkness — just like one of the gods.

I had a look at quite a lot of other stuff in the museum, including a number of old favourites (I never get tired of the Enlightenment Gallery), but I was looking for one tiny little object I saw in the museum once, which I’ve never managed to find again since. I was beginning to think I’d dreamed it up, but I just found it online. It’s a teeny engraved gem from the Roman empire, picturing a grasshopper playing the flute for a butterfly. How magical is that? I wonder, was it from a now-forgotten myth? A folk tale? An in-joke or a visual pun? We’ll probably never know (so we can make up our own stories), but it reminds me of The Butterfly Ball.

Anyway, I’m going to leave you with the B52s again, here’s a camptastic live performance of Mesopotamia live in 1990. Gold trousers! Tiny silver dresses! Huge beehives! Shadow-dancing! I’m totally sure the lamassu would approve.