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Category: Earth Spirits

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.

Nether Cuthah

” … In the Descent of Ishtar the Babylonian Underworld is called Cuthah.

This city had a famous cemetery, like Abydos in Egypt, where many pious and orthodox worshippers sought sepulture. The local god was Nergal, who symbolized the destructive power of the sun and the sand storm; he was a gloomy, vengeful deity, attended by the spirits of tempest, weariness, pestilence, and disease, and was propitiated because he was dreaded.

In Nether Cuthah, as Ea-bani informed Gilgamesh, the worm devoured the dead amidst the dust and thick darkness.

It is evident that this Underworld was modelled on the grave. In early times men believed that the spirits of the dead hovered in or about the place of sepulture. They were therefore provided with “houses” to protect them, in the same manner as the living were protected in their houses above the ground.

The enemies of the human ghosts were the earth spirits. Weapons were laid beside the dead in their graves so that they might wage war against demons when necessary.

The corpse was also charmed, against attack, by the magical and protecting ornaments which were worn by the living–necklaces, armlets, ear-rings, &c.

Even face paint was provided, probably as a charm against the evil eye and other subtle influences.

So long as corpses were left in their graves, the spirits of the dead were, it would appear, believed to be safe. But they required food and refreshment. Food vessels and drinking urns were therefore included in the funerary furniture, and the dead were given food offerings at regular intervals.

Once a year the living held feasts in the burial ground, and invited the ghosts to share in the repast. This custom was observed in Babylonia, and is not yet obsolete in Egypt; Moslems and Coptic Christians alike hold annual all-night feasts in their cemeteries.

[ … ]

According to Babylonian belief, the dead who were not properly buried roamed through the streets searching for food, eating refuse and drinking impure water.”

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

The Babylonian Account of the Deluge

The story of the Deluge which was related to Gilgamesh by Pir-napishtim runs as follows:–

“Hear me, O Gilgamesh, and I will make revelation regarding the hidden doings of the high gods. As thou knowest, the city of Shurippak is situated upon the bank of the Euphrates. The gods were within it: there they assembled together in council.

Anu, the father, was there, and Bel the counsellor and warrior, Ninip the messenger, and Ennugi the governor. Ea, the wise lord, sat also with them. In their hearts the gods agreed together to send a great deluge.

“Thereafter Ea made known the purpose of the divine rulers in the hut of reeds, saying: ‘O hut of reeds, hear; O wall, understand … O man of Shurippak, son of Umbara Tutu, tear down thy house and build a ship; leave all thou dost possess and save thy life, and preserve in the ship the living seed of every kind. The ship that thou wilt build must be of goodly proportions in length and height. It must be floated on the great deep.’

“I heard the command of Ea and understood, and I made answer, saying, ‘O wise lord, as thou hast said so will I do, for thy counsel is most excellent. But how shall I give reason for my doings to the young men and the elders?’

“Ea opened his mouth and said unto me, his servant: ‘What thou shalt say unto them is this…. It hath been revealed unto me that Bel doth hate me, therefore I cannot remain any longer in his domain, this city of Shurippak, so I must depart unto the domain of Ea and dwell with him…. Unto you will Bel send abundance of rain, so that you may obtain birds and fishes in plenty and have a rich harvest. But Shamash hath appointed a time for Ramman to pour down destruction from the heavens.‘”

Ea then gave instructions to Pir-napishtim how to build the ship in which he should find refuge. So far as can be gathered from the fragmentary text, it appears that this vessel was to have a deck house six stories high, with nine apartments in each story. According to another account, Ea drew a plan of the great ship upon the sand.

Pir-napishtim set to work and made a flat-bottomed vessel, which was 120 cubits wide and 120 cubits in height. He smeared it with bitumen inside and pitch outside; and on the seventh day it was ready. Then he carried out Ea’s further instructions. Continuing his narrative to Gilgamesh, he said:

“I gathered together all that I possessed, my silver and gold and seeds of every kind, and my goods also. These I placed in the ship. Then I caused to go aboard all my family and house servants, the animals of the field and the beasts of the field and the workers–every one of them I sent up.

“The god Shamash appointed the time, saying: ‘I will cause the Night Lord to send much rain and bring destruction. Then enter thou the ship and shut thy door.’

“At the appointed time the Night Lord sent at even-time much rain. I saw the beginning of the deluge and I was afraid to look up. I entered the ship and shut the door. I appointed Buzur-Kurgala, the sailor, to be captain, and put under his command the great vessel and all that it contained.

“At the dawn of day I saw rising athwart the heavens a dark cloud, and in the midst of it Ramman thundered. Nebo and Merodach went in front, speeding like emissaries over hills and plains. The cables of the ship were let loose.

“Then Ninip, the tempest god, came nigh, and the storm broke in fury before him. All the earth spirits leapt up with flaming torches and the whole land was aflare. The thunder god swept over the heavens, blotting out the sunlight and bringing thick darkness.

Rain poured down the whole day long, and the earth was covered with water; the rivers were swollen; the land was in confusion; men stumbled about in the darkness, battling with the elements.

Brothers were unable to see brothers; no man could recognize his friends…. The spirits above looked down and beheld the rising flood and were afraid: they fled away, and in the heaven of Anu they crouched like to hounds in the protecting enclosures.

“In time Ishtar, the lady of the gods, cried out distressfully, saying: ‘The elder race hath perished and turned to clay because that I have consented to evil counsel in the assembly of the gods. Alas! I have allowed my people to be destroyed. I gave being to man, but where is he? Like the offspring of fish he cumbers the deep.’

“The earth spirits were weeping with Ishtar: they sat down cowering with tightened lips and spake not; they mourned in silence.

“Six days and six nights went past, and the tempest raged over the waters which gradually covered the land. But when the seventh day came, the wind fell, the whirling waters grew peaceful, and the sea retreated. The storm was over and the rain of destruction had ceased. I looked forth. I called aloud over the waters. But all mankind had perished and turned to clay. Where fields had been I saw marshes only.

“Then I opened wide the window of the ship, and the sunlight suffused my countenance. I was dazzled and sank down weeping and the tears streamed over my face. Everywhere I looked I saw water.

“At length, land began to appear. The ship drifted towards the country of Nitsir, and then it was held fast by the mountain of Nitsir. Six days went past and the ship remained stedfast. On the seventh day I sent forth a dove, and she flew away and searched this way and that, but found no resting place, so she returned.

I then sent forth a swallow, and she returned likewise. Next I sent forth a raven, and she flew away. She saw that the waters were shrinking, and gorged and croaked and waded, but did not come back. Then I brought forth all the animals into the air of heaven.

“An offering I made on the mountain. I poured out a libation. I set up incense vessels seven by seven on heaped-up reeds and used cedar wood with incense. The gods smelt the sweet savour, and they clustered like flies about the sacrificer.

“Thereafter Ishtar (Sirtu) drew nigh. Lifting up the jewels, which the god Anu had fashioned for her according to her desire, she spake, saying: ‘Oh! these gods! I vow by the lapis lazuli gems upon my neck that I will never forget! I will remember these days for ever and ever. Let all the gods come hither to the offering, save Bel (Enlil) alone, because that he ignored my counsel, and sent a great deluge which destroyed my people.’

“But Bel Enlil came also, and when he beheld the ship he paused. His heart was filled with wrath against the gods and the spirits of heaven. Angrily he spake and said: ‘Hath one escaped? It was decreed that no human being should survive the deluge.’

“Ninip, son of Bel, spoke, saying: ‘Who hath done this save Ea alone? He knoweth all things.’

“Ea, god of the deep, opened his mouth and said unto the warrior Bel: ‘Thou art the lord of the gods, O warrior. But thou wouldst not hearken to my counsel and caused the deluge to be. Now punish the sinner for his sins and the evil doer for his evil deed, but be merciful and do not destroy all mankind. May there never again be a flood.

Let the lion come and men will decrease. May there never again be a flood. Let the leopard come and men will decrease. May there never again be a flood. Let famine come upon the land; let Ura, god of pestilence, come and snatch off mankind…. I did not reveal the secret purpose of the mighty gods, but I caused Atra-chasis (Pir-napishtim) to dream a dream in which he had knowledge of what the gods had decreed.’

“Having pondered a time over these words, Bel entered the ship alone. He grasped my hand and led me forth, even me, and he led forth my wife also, and caused her to kneel down beside me. Then he stood between us and gave his blessing.

He spoke, saying: ‘In time past Pir-napishtim was a man. Henceforth Pir-napishtim and his wife will be like unto deities, even us. Let them dwell apart beyond the river mouths.’

“Thereafter Bel carried me hither beyond the mouths of rivers.”

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

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