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Desecration of the Dead, Depredations of the Dead

” … Sometimes the bodies of the Sumerians were placed in sarcophagi of clay. The earlier type was of “bath-tub” shape, round and flat-bottomed, with a rounded lid, while the later was the “slipper-shaped coffin,” which was ornamented with charms. There is a close resemblance between the “bath-tub” coffins of Sumeria and the Egyptian pottery coffins of oval shape found in Third and Fourth Dynasty tombs in rock chambers near Nuerat. Certain designs on wooden coffins, and tombs as early as the First Dynasty, have direct analogies in Babylonia.

No great tombs were erected in Sumeria. The coffins were usually laid in brick vaults below dwellings, or below temples, or in trenches outside the city walls. On the “stele of victory,” which belongs to the period of Eannatum, patesi of Lagash, the dead bodies on the battlefield are piled up in pairs quite naked, and earth is being heaped over them; this is a specimen of mound burial.

According to Herodotus the Babylonians “buried their dead in honey, and had funeral lamentations like the Egyptians.” The custom of preserving the body in this manner does not appear to have been an ancient one, and may have resulted from cultural contact with the Nile valley during the late Assyrian period. So long as the bones were undisturbed, the spirit was supposed to be assured of rest in the Underworld. This archaic belief was widespread …

… In Babylonia the return of the spirits of the dead was greatly dreaded. Ishtar once uttered the terrible threat: “I will cause the dead to rise; they will then eat and live. The dead will be more numerous than the living.”

When a foreign country was invaded, it was a common custom to break open the tombs and scatter the bones they contained. Probably it was believed, when such acts of vandalism were committed, that the offended spirits would plague their kinsfolk.

Ghosts always haunted the homes they once lived in, and were as malignant as demons. It is significant to find in this connection that the bodies of enemies who were slain in battle were not given decent burial, but mutilated and left for birds and beasts of prey to devour.

The demons that plagued the dead might also attack the living. A fragmentary narrative, which used to be referred to as the Cuthean Legend of Creation, and has been shown by Mr. L.W. King to have no connection with the struggle between Merodach and the dragon, deals with a war waged by an ancient king against a horde of evil spirits, led by “the lord of heights, lord of the Anunaki (earth spirits).” Some of the supernatural warriors had bodies like birds; others had “raven faces,” and all had been “suckled by Tiamat.”

For three years the king sent out great armies to attack the demons, but “none returned alive.” Then he decided to go forth himself to save his country from destruction. So he prepared for the conflict, and took the precaution of performing elaborate and therefore costly religious rites so as to secure the cooperation of the gods.

His expedition was successful, for he routed the supernatural army. On his return home, he recorded his great victory on tablets which were placed in the shrine of Nergal at Cuthah.

This myth may be an echo of Nergal’s raid against Eresh-ki-gal. Or, being associated with Cuthah, it may have been composed to encourage burial in that city’s sacred cemetery, which had been cleared by the famous old king of the evil demons which tormented the dead and made seasonal attacks against the living.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Magical Raiment

” … Some bodies which were laid in Sumerian graves were wrapped up in reed matting, a custom which suggests that the reeds afforded protection or imparted magical powers. Magical ceremonies were performed in Babylonian reed huts.

As we have seen, Ea revealed the “purpose” of the gods, when they resolved to send a flood, by addressing the reed hut in which Pir-napishtim lay asleep. Possibly it was believed that the dead might also have visions in their dreams which would reveal the “purpose” of demons who were preparing to attack them.

In Syria it was customary to wrap the dead in a sheep skin. As priests and gods were clad in the skins of animals from which their powers were derived, it is probable that the dead were similarly supposed to receive inspiration in their skin coverings.

The Highland seer was wrapped in a bull’s skin and left all night beside a stream so as to obtain knowledge of the future. This was a form of the Taghairm ceremony, which is referred to by Scott in his Lady of the Lake.

The belief in the magical influence of sacred clothing gave origin to the priestly robes. When David desired to ascertain what Saul intended to do he said, “Bring hither the ephod.” Then he came to know that his enemy had resolved to attack Keilah.

Elisha became a prophet when he received Elijah’s mantle.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Prehistoric Sumerian Burial Customs, Magical Talismans and Amulets

” … The conservative element in Babylonian religion is reflected by the burial customs. These did not change greatly after the Neolithic period. Prehistoric Sumerian graves resemble closely those of pre-Dynastic Egypt.

The bodies of the dead were laid on their sides in crouching posture, with a “beaker,” or “drinking cup” urn, beside the right hand. Other vessels were placed near the head. In this connection it may be noted that the magic food prepared for Gilgamesh by Pir-napishtim’s wife, when he lay asleep, was also placed near his head.

The corpse was always decked with various ornaments, including rings, necklaces, and armlets. As has been indicated, these were worn by the living as charms, and, no doubt, they served the same purpose for the dead.

This charm-wearing custom was condemned by the Hebrew teachers. On one occasion Jacob commanded his household to “put away the strange gods which were in their hand, and all the ear-rings which were in their ears; and Jacob buried them under the oak which was by Shechem.”

To Jacob, personal ornaments had quite evidently an idolatrous significance.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

The Extortionate Costs of Funerary Rites in Ancient Babylonia

” … It seems remarkable that the doctrine of Eternal Bliss, which obtained in Egypt on the one hand and in India on the other, should never have been developed among the Babylonians. Of course, our knowledge in this connection is derived from the orthodox religious texts.

Perhaps the great thinkers, whose influence can be traced in the tendencies towards monotheism which became marked at various periods, believed in a Heaven for the just and good. If they did, their teachings must have been suppressed by the mercenary priests.

It was extremely profitable for these priests to perpetuate the belief that the spirits of the dead were consigned to a gloomy Hades, where the degree of suffering which they endured depended on the manner in which their bodies were disposed of upon earth.

An orthodox funeral ceremony was costly at all times. This is made evident by the inscriptions which record the social reforms of Urukagina, the ill-fated patesi of Lagash. When he came to the throne he cut down the burial fees by more than a half.

“In the case of an ordinary burial,” writes Mr. King, “when a corpse was laid in a grave, it had been the custom for the presiding priest to demand as a fee for himself seven urns of wine or strong drink, four hundred and twenty loaves of bread, one hundred and twenty measures of corn, a garment, a kid, a bed, and a seat.”

The reformer reduced the perquisites to “three urns of wine, eighty loaves of bread, a bed, and a kid, while the fee of his (the priest’s) assistant was cut down from sixty to thirty measures of corn.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

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