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Old Screeds

A Possible Liontaur on an Ancient Assyrian Seal [28 Dec 15] A centaur? An urmahlullu? Or something else?

Edward T. Newell was born in 1886 as the heir to the Bain Wagon fortune. He attended Yale and there realized his life's purpose as a numismatist. Perhaps the greatest coin collector of his age, he also had a collection of ancient Egyptian and Assyrian seals, and it is that collection that brings him to our attention.

In 1934, an archaologist of the Near East named Hans Henning von der Osten, affiliated with the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, wrote a book cataloging all of the seals in Newell's collection, titled with admirable clarity, "Ancient Oriental Seals in the Collection of Mr. Edward T. Newell" (available as a free PDF download at that link). Of singular interest to fans of wemics, liontaurs, and urmahlullus is Seal 544:

Here's what van der Osten had to say about 544:

"Seal with a domed back, perforated lengthwise, and a nearly square base, 20x10 mm. A centaur is holding a branch. A second branch appears above his back. Before him is a small crescent." (page 73). "Human and animal combinations of still other sorts occur. ... On North Syrian seals Nos. 543 and 547, an animal-headed demon appears; on No. 544, a centaur with branches." (page 90)

Additionally, von der Osten puts this seal in a group he calls "North Syrian," a catch-all category he calls "unsatisfactory." It ranges in time from 1,000 BC to the start of the Common Era, and from Palestine through Syria into Asia Minor.

Naturally, a primary question arises: "Is this a centaur or a liontaur?" The quality of the scan of the photographic plate in the book is low. The legs are basically sticks, so ... maybe they are horse-like? But the legs end in ... bifurcated talons? So ... more like lion's claws? The tail has an odd kink ... because a horse tail hangs down? Because there was not enough room on the seal for it to go straight? And while I have heard of a tradition of Assyrian liontaurs, or lion centaurs, or urmahlullu, I have not heard that equine centaurs appear in the Assyrian mythology. In the ancient world, those are Greek.

But look at the way the hind legs bend. Is that a hint?

Could be either one, I guess.

So what is this seal? Could it be a wemic dual-wielding palm fronds in a battle against a hawk? I say ... sure, why not!

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