Lion-men and demons

Lion-men and demons, appearing in their developed form from the Old Babylonian period as human-bodied composite figures with the head of a lion, upright (possibly even donkey) ears and bird’s feet, are present in Mesopotamian religious art and iconography from the Akkadian period onwards (overall, the earliest examples appear to be far more purely leonine). Upon the Persian conquest of Mesopotamia, the lion man iconography passed complete into the repertoire of Achaemenid and later Seleucid art.

The lion-demon is generally depicted as having a muscular naked torso; though sometimes naked (when he has a curly lion’s tail), the lion-demon more usually wears a short kilt. Most commonly, and always in the first millennium BCE, lion-demons are shown raising one hand, in which he brandishes a dagger, whilst the other lowered hand holds a mace.

The function of the lion-man or demon seems to alter significantly over time. On Old Babylonian cylinder seals, for example, the lion-demon frequently holds a man upside-down by one leg. At the same time, the demon is commonly associated with the “god with the scimitar”, most probably to be identified with Nergal, god of the underworld – as such, he is probably an attendant spirit of Nergal and a bringer of disease and death. By the first millennium BCE Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian periods, however, the lion-man / demon figure can be safely identified with the ugallu, or “big weather creature”, a beneficent spirit that acts protectively against illness and other, evil demons. As such, small ceramic statues of the lion-demon were kept in houses and / or buried in the foundations amidst protective rituals and magical incantations. On a grander scale, figures of the lion-man / demon were included on Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs. (in the vicinity of private chambers and bathrooms?)

Select Bibliography

Ellis, R.S.

1977 “‘Lion-Men’ in Assyria”, in Finkelstein Memorial Volume, Hamden, CT, 1977, pp. 67-78.

Green, A.

1986 “The Lion-demon in the Art of Mesopotamia and Neighboring Regions”, Baghdader Mitteilungen 17 (1986), pp.141ff.

1988 “A Note on the “Lion-demon”, Iraq 50 (1988), pp.167-68.

Thomsen, M.-L.

2000 “The Identity of the Lion-Man”, in Cagni AV, Naples, 2000, pp. 1049-1063.

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