Winged Genii is the conventional term for a recurring motif in the iconography of Assyrian sculpture. Winged genies are usually bearded male figures sporting birds' wings. The Genii are a reappearing trait in ancient Assyrian art, and are displayed most prominently in palaces or places of royalty. The two most notable places where the genius existed were Ashurnasirpal II’s palace Kalhu and Sargon II’s palace Dur-Sharrukin.
Variations of style
They appear in the reliefs of the walls and throughout the temples and palaces in a wide variety of ways. There are three common stylistic tendencies in reliefs with genii. First there are bearded, winged figures wearing a horned helmet. Next there are bearded, winged figures wearing a diadem instead of helmet. Finally there are winged, muscular, male figures with bird heads. They are usually adorned with rosettes on their diadem and/or wrists. Most often they are wearing a short sleeved, knee-length tunic with a tasseled hem. Over the tunic is an ankle length fringed shawl that covers the near leg, wraps around the body and drapes the left should, with the end hanging down the back to the waist.
These genii have all been interpreted as beings known as antediluvian sages or apkallus in Akkadian. They were beings that existed during a godlike generation of humanity. These beings were closely associated with the god Enki. During the antediluvian age humanity was “covered” or more commonly referred to as the great flood, and the inhabitants were purified and roamed the earth as invisible genii. There are also other references to the apkallus as being purified humans that were sent to Apsû, the underground sweet water realm of Enki/Ea by Marduk the ruler god.
Aside from their wardrobe, the genii were created with several different functioning symbols. Several genii are shown carrying a small quadruped. This small creature, possibly a fawn or gazelle, had been interpreted as being a representation of a scapegoat. This creature was used to contain the spirit of an exorcised demon. The genii would hold the quadruped to show its supernatural protective powers for the king and his people. The other interpretation of this symbol lies with it association with abundance. The genii shown holding the quadruped represents the divine reasoning for the kingdom's abundance and protection over said abundance. Other genii are shown holding what appear to be a pine cone and a pail. These two elements are commonly associated with the Tree of Life. Many interpretations have stated that the depiction is of the genii fertilizing the tree and tending to it. Other interpretations place the pine cone as an object known as a mu-li-la, and in conjunction with the pail, is used to avert evil forces whether real or supernatural. Another interpretation stated that the tree and sun above it represent the distinction between heaven and earth. Some theories state that these symbols are directly related to the cult of Assur, where the sun symbolizes Shamash the sun god and the tree symbolizes Assur himself. Therefore, it is inferred that the genii protecting the tree represent the supernatural forces that the Assyrians believed were protecting the earth and more importantly the Assyrian Empire.
Similarity to the king
Due to the ornate nature of the kings and genii, there are many times in which the distinction between the king and a genie are impossible. They are dressed in identical clothes and if the genie has no wings there is nothing separating it from a human. Both genii and the king would wear earrings made of a single conical-tipped pendant suspended from a crescent. Also if a genie was bearded there would be nothing different from a beard on that of a human. The standard beard of a human consisted three layers, and the genie would have the same as well. Variations of beards later on do exist, but still do not distinguish the genii from the king.
Cross culture influence
Winged genii co-existed with numerous other mythological hybrids in the Early Iron Age art of Assyria and Asia Minor. They influenced Archaic Greece during its "orientalizing period", resulting in the hybrid creatures of Greek mythology such as the Chimera, the Griffin or Pegasus and, in the case of the "winged man", Talos. The orientalizing period has its origin in Early Iron Age (9th century BC) Crete, where bearded and winged figures clearly inspired by Assyrian templates are found engraved in bronze bowls and other artefacts.
The "winged man" also makes an appearance among the Chayot of Ezekiel's Merkabah vision, and via Revelation 4:7 becomes the symbol of Matthew the Evangelist. The Seraphim of Isaiah (6:1–3) have six wings each.
Pollinating winged genie, kept at the Yale University Art Gallery
- Collins, Paul (2006). "An Assyrian-Style Ivory Plaque from Hansalu, Iran". Metropolitan Museum Journal. 41: 22.
- Atac, Mehment-Ali (March 2006). "Visual Formula and Meaning in Neo Assyrian Relief Sculpture". The Art Bullitin. 88 (1): 97.
- Collins, Paul (2006). "An Assyrian-Style Ivory Plaque from Hansalu, Iran". Metropolitan Museum Journal. 41: 27.
- Grace, Fredrick (March 1940). "An Assyrian Winged Genius". Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum. 9 (2): 25–26.
- Collins, Paul (2006). "An Assyrian-Style Ivory Plaque from Hansalu, Iran". Metropolitan Museum Journal. 41: 23.
- Pendlebury, John D. (1991). The "orientalizing" period in Greek art. The Archaeology of Crete. p. 336.