Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mesopotamian Winged Genie

Figure 1 - a winged genius from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II
     I have long been fascinated with the representations of winged "geniuses" (or spirits or demons depending on the person describing the reliefs) carved on the walls of the palaces of Assyrian Kings. Sometimes they are portrayed as winged humans, while at other times they are shown as lion-headed or bird-headed humans (see figure 1).

     The iconography of these carvings is not always obvious even to expert assyriologists, but here is a summary of what is known.

     The pine cone held by the genius seems to be used to drip some sort of oil or magical "potion" on the Assyrian King or upon a sacred tree. The oil or potion is contained in the bucket held in the genius' other hand.

Figure 2 - detail of the cloak of the relief in figure 1
     The "demon" wears a fringed cloak (see figure 2) similar to the ones that Assyrian court officials are portrayed as wearing.    
When the genius is shown as a "winged human", he often wears a horned crown that designates him as "divine". Notice also the two handled dagger (a symbol of divinity) tucked into the top of the cloak (figure 2). Also note the rosette worn on a bracelet (on the arm that carries the bucket). This rosette symbolizes the divine source of the spirit's power (even if a friend of mine does jokingly refer to them as assyrian "wrist-watches", see figure 3).

     If you get a chance to view one of these reliefs up close take the time to look at them in detail. The carving of them is often exquisite. The highly detailed carving of the cloak's fringe and of the hair and beards of the human figures is remarkable. Note also how the muscles in the arms and legs are clearly delineated (perhaps too the point of looking a little unrealistic). Also look at the detail work in the feathers of the genius' wings.

Figure 3 - the bucket and "wrist watch"

     One thing to remember about these carvings is that they were once very brightly painted, so we are really not seeing them as they would have originally appeared. Given the great detail-work done on these carvings, it almost seems to be a shame to have painted them as this no doubt partially obscured the beautiful work of some great master sculptors.

Photos copyright (c) 2013 by John Freed

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