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Blessing genius

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Castor Marie-Jose

Protective genii are supernatural beings who watch over humans or buildings and ward off evil spirits. This winged genius, along with one directly opposite, guarded the gates of the city of Khorsabad. It blessed all those who passed by it with water sprinkled from a pine cone.

A protective and blessing genius

The site of Khorsabad (called Dur-Sharrukin in antiquity), which was excavated between 1843 and 1854 by Paul-Emile Botta and Victor Place, yielded orthostats, carved slabs of stone that protected and adorned the bases of brick walls. This monumental winged genius, represented frontally, was placed in the inner passage of one of the city gates. Another genius was located directly opposite. Both stood immediately behind the pair of winged bulls with human heads that guarded the gate. Like other genii placed at certain entrances to the palace, this one has a protective role. However it also performed a blessing function: from the pine cone, which could be shaken, liquid drawn from a little bucket was sprinkled over the passageway and those who passed along it.

A monumental sculpture

This colossal figure carved in high relief depicts a winged, bearded genius, shown frontally as far as the waist and in profile below. He holds a pine cone in his right hand and a small metal vessel (or situla) in his left hand.
The face, framed by a curly beard, is surmounted by a tiara adorned with two pairs of horns. Over the figure's short tunic is a fringed cape, which covers the right shoulder and left leg. Two pairs of wings emerge from the back and spread symmetrically on either side of the body. His arms and forearms are adorned with rings and bracelets. He wears sandals, which cover his heels.
On the base of this sculpture is a game of tick-tack-toe, scratched into it in ancient times, probably by sentries passing the time while on duty at the gate.

Genii: between the human and the divine?

Genii, depicted as bulls with human heads, men with birds' heads, and winged men, figure prominently in Assyrian mythology. They are creatures endowed with powers superior to those of human beings, yet they are not great deities, although they are sometimes represented with some of their attributes, for example, the horned tiara here. These supernatural beings had the power to ward off evil spirits. The genius seen here had an essentially protective role: it defended the gates and walls of the city. However, it was also a blessing genius, which held holy water and sprinkled it on visitors with a pine cone. Genii are often depicted in Assyrian art, especially in ceremonial scenes where they are shown pollinating the sacred palm tree.

Technical description

  • Blessing genius

    Neo-Assyrian period, circa 721-705 BC (reign of Sargon II)

    Third gate of the palace of Sargon II, Khorsabad (ancient Dur-Sharrukin), Iraq

  • Bas-relief of gypseous alabaster

    H. 4.09 m; L. 2.36 m; D. 0.75 m

  • Victor Place excavations, 1852-54

    AO 19863

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia, Assyria. Khorsabad
    Room 4

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