The mušḫuššu (𒈲𒄭𒄊; formerly also read as sirrušu, sirrush) is a creature depicted on the reconstructed Ishtar Gate of the city of Babylon, dating to the 6th century B.C. As depicted, it is a mythological hybrid: a scaly dragon with hind legs resembling the talons of an eagle, feline forelegs, a long neck and tail, a horned head, a snake-like tongue, and a crest.
The form mušḫuššu is the Akkadian nominative of the Sumerian 𒈲𒄭𒄊 MUŠ.ḪUS, lit. "reddish snake" sometimes also translated as "fierce snake". One author, possibly following others, translates it as "splendor serpent" (𒈲 MUŠ is the Sumerian term for "serpent". The reading sir-ruššu is due to a mistransliteration in early Assyriology.).
The constellation Hydra was known in Babylonian astronomical texts as Bashmu, "the Serpent" (𒀯𒈲, MUL.dMUŠ). It was depicted as a snake drawn out long with the forepaws of a lion, no hind-legs, with wings, and with a head comparable to the mušḫuššu dragon. This monstrous serpent may have inspired the Greek Hydra.
Bel and the Dragon, a deuterocanonical Biblical text, relates a story that Koldewey thought involved a mušḫuššu/sirrush. In a temple dedicated to Bel (Nebuchadnezzar's god), priests had a "great dragon or serpent, which they of Babylon worshipped."
Daniel, the protagonist of the Book of Daniel, was confronted with this creature by the priests in the apocryphal text. (see Additions to Daniel) They challenged him to match his invisible God against their living god. Eventually, Daniel poisoned the creature.
German archeologist Robert Koldewey, who discovered the Ishtar Gate in 1902, seriously considered the notion that the sirrush was a portrayal of a real animal. He argued that its depiction in Babylonian art was consistent over many centuries, while those of mythological creatures changed, sometimes drastically, over the years. He also noted that the sirrush is shown on the Ishtar Gate alongside real animals, the lion and the rimi (aurochs), leading him to speculate the sirrush was a creature the Babylonians were familiar with.
As indicated by the Babylonian name it is a "walking serpent." A striking feature is the scaly coat and the great tail of a serpent's body. The head with the forked tongue is purely that of a serpent, and is in fact that of the horned viper, so common in Arabia, which bears the two erect horns, of which, as in the case of the bulls, only one is visible in the purely profile attitude. Behind lie two spiral combs similar to those so generously bestowed on the heads of the frequently represented Chinese dragon. The tail ends in a small curved sting. The legs are those of some high-stepping feline animal, probably a cheetah. The hinder feet are those of a strong raptorial bird (Fig. 33) with powerful claws and great horny scales. But the tarsal joint is not that of a bird but of a quadruped, and the metatarsals are not anchylosed, or only very slightly at the distal end. It is remarkable that, in spite of the scales, the animal possesses hair. Three corkscrew ringlets fall over the head near the ears, and on the neck, where a lizard's comb would be, is a long row of curls.
The creature's distinctly feline front paws seemed incongruous, and gave Koldewey some doubt. However, in 1918, he proposed that Iguanodon (a dinosaur with birdlike hindfeet) was the closest match to the sirrush (Sjögren, 1980).
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