Samizdat

"Samizdat: Publishing forbidden literature."

Tag: Ereshkigal

Kvanvig: The ilū mušīti Are the Stars of the Night

“How the actual connection between the earthly exorcist and his heavenly counterpart was imagined is vividly portrayed on an Assyrian bronze tablet from the first millennium.

A depiction of the underworld, or alternatively, a portrayal of an exorcism.<br /> Wiggermann identifies Pazuzu appearing at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar, the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin, and the lamp of Nusku. The seven celestial objects of Babylonian cosmogony are at far right, above Nusku's lamp. Earlier analysts identified the leering monster as Nergal. Virtually all subsequent scholars now follow Wiggermann. <br /> In the second register, seven exemplars of the Mesopotamian pandemonium appear to support the heavens. These composite creatures include ugallu, lion headed monsters with an apotropaic function, among others.<br /> The middle register could portray burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū, or the scene could be a typical exorcism for apkallu, who played a role in banishing demons from the ill.<br /> In this register Wiggermann identifies the lion headed monsters as ugallu and the human-appearing entity as Lulal, a “minor apotropaic god.”<br /> The lower register was formerly considered to depict the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. Wiggermann prefers Lamaštu, and he is persuasive.<br /> Lamaštu kneels upon a horse or a donkey, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, throttling snakes in each hand, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life.<br /> Note the lion pups suckling at her breast.<br /> Wiggermann considers this 1st millennium amulet a portrayal of a Lamaštu exorcism.<br /> Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.<br /> The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq.<br /> http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

A depiction of the underworld, or alternatively, a portrayal of an exorcism.
Wiggermann identifies Pazuzu appearing at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar, the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin, and the lamp of Nusku. The seven celestial objects of Babylonian cosmogony are at far right, above Nusku’s lamp. Earlier analysts identified the leering monster as Nergal. Virtually all subsequent scholars now follow Wiggermann.
In the second register, seven exemplars of the Mesopotamian pandemonium appear to support the heavens. These composite creatures include ugallu, lion headed monsters with an apotropaic function, among others.
The middle register could portray burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū, or the scene could be a typical exorcism for apkallu, who played a role in banishing demons from the ill.
In this register Wiggermann identifies the lion headed monsters as ugallu and the human-appearing entity as Lulal, a “minor apotropaic god.”
The lower register was formerly considered to depict the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. Wiggermann prefers Lamaštu, and he is persuasive.
Lamaštu kneels upon a horse or a donkey, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, throttling snakes in each hand, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life.
Note the lion pups suckling at her breast.
Wiggermann considers this 1st millennium amulet a portrayal of a Lamaštu exorcism.
Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.
The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

The image depicts the universe of an ill man. In the basement lurks the demon Lamaštu, ready to attack; in the upper room are divine figures supporting the heavens, filled with the symbols of the highest gods; in between lies the sick man on his bed with his arm stretched out toward heaven.

At his head and at his feet two figures with human bodies and fish cloaks are placed, performing a ritual. (Cf. O. Keel, Die Welt der altorientalischen Bildsymbolik und das Alte Testament, 3 ed. Darmstadt, 1984, 68f.)

One could think that these figures actually were āšipū, dressed in ritual clothes as fish-apkallus. This is hardly the case; we do not have any evidence that the āšipū used fish-cloaks as ritual dress. The depiction rather shows the presence of the transcendent apkallus in the ritual, as “guardian angels” of the sick man.

This is the actual bronze frieze of the illustration above, held in the collection of the Louvre as AO 22205.

This is the actual bronze frieze of the illustration above, held in the collection of the Louvre as AO 22205.

The apkallus appear in the rituals of the day. Twice in our material they are paired with what generally can be designated as ilū mušīti, “the gods of the night.” Both in Bīt Mēseri and in the Mīs pî ritual we will deal with below, the ritual extends over night and day.

The ilū mušīti are the stars of the night; they sometimes represent a deification of celestial constellations and planets, other times a deification of the great deities who in this case are addressed as stars. (Cf. Erica Reiner, Astral Magic in Babylonia, vol. 85, TAPhs. Philadelphia 1995, 5-6.)

“Stand by me, O Gods of the Night!

Heed my words, O gods of destinies,

Anu, Enlil, and all the great gods!

I call to you, Delebat (i.e. Venus), Lady of battles (variant has: Lady of the silence [of the night]),

I call to you, O Night, bride (veiled by?) Anu.

Pleiades, stand on my right, Kidney star, stand on my left.”

(Apotropaic Ritual, KAR 38: 12f).

The stars represent the heavenly counterpart to the earth. Just as the night among humans is divided into three watches, the stars are called massarātu ša mūši, “the watches of the night:”

“May the star itself take to you (goddess) my misery;

let the ecstatic tell you, the dream interpreter repeat to you,

let the (three) watches of the night speak to you . . .

(Apotropaic Ritual, KAR 38 rev. 24f).

May the watches of the night tell you

That I did not sleep, I did not lie down, did not groan, did not arise,

But that my tears were made my food.”

(Psalm of Penitence, Assur II, 2-4)

G. Lambert, “The Sultantepe Tablets, a Review Article,” RA 80 1959, 119-38, 127.

The stars keep watch over both those awake and those sleeping in the night. In the following prayer to the stars there is play on the connotations of “watching,” massartu / nasāru, and êru, “be awake:”

“(you) three watches of the night

you are the wakeful, watchful, sleepless, never sleeping ones–

as you are awake, watchful, sleepless, never sleeping,

you decide the fate of those awake and sleeping (alike).”

(Prayer to the Stars, KAR 58 rev. 12f.)

In several cases the stars are invoked together with two typical night deities in late Assyrian and Late Babylonian times, Girra, the god of fire, and Nusku, the god of lamp and fire.”

(Cf. J. Black and A. Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, London: 1992, 88, 145. For Nusku, cf. also D. Schwemer, Abwehrzauber und Behexung, Wiesbaden: 2007, 38, 54-5, 146, 206-7.)

Helge Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic: An Intertextual Reading, Brill, 2011, pp. 133-4.

Dalley: Apkallu-4, IDD 2011

Iconography of Deities and Demons (IDD). 

Apkallu (continued).

Type 2 Fish-cloaked Apkallu, Phenotypes.

“The fish-cloak Apkallu (12*, 33*–35, 40–66), a human figure wearing a fish-cloak suspended from the top of his head and with the head of a fish on top of his human head, corresponds to Berossos’ description of the first sage, Oannes.

Apkallu type 2, illustration 34, Stephanie Dalley, IDD. As noted by Stephanie Dalley, the fish-cloak of the puradu-fish variant of the apkallu is worn over the naked figure or a full-length flounced robe. In this depiction the apkallu cloak, as Dalley describes it, ends just below the waist. Fishtails are apparent at the knees, and the banduddu bucket appears in its usual place, the left hand.

Apkallu type 2, illustration 34, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.
As noted by Stephanie Dalley, the fish-cloak of the puradu-fish variant of the apkallu is worn over the naked figure or a full-length flounced robe.
In this depiction the apkallu cloak, as Dalley describes it, ends just below the waist. Fishtails are apparent at the knees, and the banduddu bucket appears in its usual place, the left hand.

He is always bearded and never has wings. The fish-cloak is either worn over the naked body (33*–34*, 42*, 47–48), the typical garb of the Apkallus (40, 44*), or a full-length flounced robe (52*, 55*).

Apkallu type 2, illustration 42, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.<br />  In this depiction the type 2 apkallu is the puradu-fish variant, naked, with banduddu bucket in the left hand and an indistinct object in the right.<br />  The apkallu's horned headdress has three horns, and he appears beneath the eight-pointed star typically associated with Ištar.<br />  Portrayed in an obviously supporting role, the apkallu stands behind a deity standing upon a bull, facing another divinity, probably Ištar owing to her weaponry and stance atop what appears to be a winged lion. Atypically, the inverted crescent of the Moon god Sin appears above Ištar.<br />  Both deities hold rings in their hands and appear to hold leashes controlling their mounts.<br />  They face a central sacred tree, in a typical stylization, beneath a winged conveyance.

Apkallu type 2, illustration 42, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.
In this depiction the type 2 apkallu is the puradu-fish variant, naked, with banduddu bucket in the left hand and an indistinct object in the right.
The apkallu’s horned headdress has three horns, and he appears beneath the eight-pointed star typically associated with Ištar.
Portrayed in an obviously supporting role, the apkallu stands behind a deity standing upon a bull, facing another divinity, probably Ištar owing to her weaponry and stance atop what appears to be a winged lion. Atypically, the inverted crescent of the Moon god Sin appears above Ištar.
Both deities hold rings in their hands and appear to hold leashes controlling their mounts.
They face a central sacred tree, in a typical stylization, beneath a winged conveyance.

Apkallu type 2, illustration 52, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.<br />  The puradu-fish variant apkallu in this illustration wears a full-length fish cloak. This apkallu appears to be beardless, despite Dalley's assertion that type 2 apkallu are never portrayed without beards, and he raises his right hand in the classic gesture of exorcism, though no cone is apparent. The banduddu bucket is in his left hand.<br />  An indistinct but bearded figure faces the apkallu from the right, with an irregular depiction of the sacred tree in the center.<br />  While the water flowing down into jugs from the winged conveyance at the top is seen in other examples, the sacred tree in this illustration is perhaps unique in design, depicting leaves.<br />  It is possible that this plant is not a sacred tree at all. Or it could be a sacred tree, but portrayed differently.

Apkallu type 2, illustration 52, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.
The puradu-fish variant apkallu in this illustration wears a full-length fish cloak. This apkallu appears to be beardless, despite Dalley’s assertion that type 2 apkallu are never portrayed without beards, and he raises his right hand in the classic gesture of exorcism, though no cone is apparent. The banduddu bucket is in his left hand.
An indistinct but bearded figure faces the apkallu from the right, with an irregular depiction of the sacred tree in the center.
While the water flowing down into jugs from the winged conveyance at the top is seen in other examples, the sacred tree in this illustration is perhaps unique in design, depicting leaves.
It is possible that this plant is not a sacred tree at all. Or it could be a sacred tree, but portrayed differently.

On some Late Bronze Age items the fish-cloak is full-length (52*) or ends just below the waist (34* ). The latter type is also attested on some 9th/8th cent. depictions (48, 55*; but not 64), and reaches almost to the ground on representations of the 8th/7th cent. (35, 38, 45–46, 49–51, 53–54, 58–62*).

Apkallu type 2, illustration 62, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.<br />  Dalley notes the forked beard on this paradu-fish apkallu.<br />  In all other respects, this apkallu is representative of the clay figurines which were buried in foundation boxes for apotropaic purposes.<br />  Indeed, it has to be wondered whether Dalley is astray when she describes the fish details as a cloak. Depictions like this one are clearly of a composite figure.<br />  The apkallu does not appear to be wearing a garment, as it is often portrayed elsewhere. <br />  Finally, Dalley cites this illustration as an example which includes horns, or a horned headdress. I see no horns in this case.

Apkallu type 2, illustration 62, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.
Dalley notes the forked beard on this paradu-fish apkallu.
In all other respects, this apkallu is representative of the clay figurines which were buried in foundation boxes for apotropaic purposes.
Indeed, it has to be wondered whether Dalley is astray when she describes the fish details as a cloak. Depictions like this one are clearly of a composite figure.
The apkallu does not appear to be wearing a garment, as it is often portrayed elsewhere.
Finally, Dalley cites this illustration as an example which includes horns, or a horned headdress. I see no horns in this case.

The beard is normally of the typical Assyrian shape, but is forked on 57 – 58, and 62*. The fish-cloak Apkallu rarely has two daggers tucked in at his waist (55* ).

A fish-apkallu drawn by A.H. Layard from a stone relief, one of a pair flanking a doorway in the Temple of Ninurta at Kalhu. This example is identical to illustration 55 in Dalley's article on the apkallu, which she cites for the dual daggers in his waistband. British Museum. 

Reproduced in Schlomo Izre'el, Adapa and the South Wind: Language Has the Power of Life and Death, Eisenbrauns, 2001.

 https://books.google.co.th/books?id=MbwwROVGl7UC&pg=PA3&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false

A fish-apkallu drawn by A.H. Layard from a stone relief, one of a pair flanking a doorway in the Temple of Ninurta at Kalhu.
This example is identical to illustration 55 in Dalley’s article on the apkallu, which she cites for the dual daggers in his waistband.
British Museum. 

Reproduced in Schlomo Izre’el, Adapa and the South Wind: Language Has the Power of Life and Death, Eisenbrauns, 2001.


https://books.google.co.th/books?id=MbwwROVGl7UC&pg=PA3&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false

Occasionally the fish-cloak Apkallu wears a horned crown with a single pair of horns, shown between his brow and the fish-head, indicating the status of a minor divinity (56, 59, 62*).

Associations.

The fish-cloak Apkallu is associated with water (33*, 40, 63) and with mermen whose upper body is human, the lower half a fish; this is the kulullû who fights in Tiamat’s army in the Epic of Creation (44*, 51, 63).

Apkallu type 44.<br />  Stephanie Dalley, IDD.<br />  A puradu-fish apkallu appears to the left of the sacred tree, with two fish-men, apparently a merman and a mermaid, on the right.<br />  Wiggermann identified these composite mermen and mermaids as kullulu from textual sources.

Apkallu type 44.
Stephanie Dalley, IDD.
A puradu-fish apkallu appears to the left of the sacred tree, with two fish-men, apparently a merman and a mermaid, on the right.
Wiggermann identified these composite mermen and mermaids as kullulu from textual sources.

The fish-cloak Apkallu is found with the goat-fish, symbol of Ea (47–48, 50*); appears together with deities (40, 42*, 45–46, 48); next to a sacred tree (44* ), which is often surmounted by a winged disc (38, 42*–43, 49, 52*); with a winged disc alone supported by a kneeling figure (33*–34*); or with a priest (63 ).

Apkallu type 2, illustration 41, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.<br />  Stephanie Dalley observes that the apkallu in this illustration "may function as a filling motif in a scene with an offerings table and divine symbols."<br />  Indeed the apkallu is not the focus of this illustration at all, which appears to portray a king (or a divinity?) receiving the blessings of a beardless priest with what appears to be a whisk in his raised left hand.<br />  The king, or divinity, wears a horned cap with three tusks at the apex.<br />  This illustration is significant for its repetitive eight-rayed stars, evocative of Ištar. The seven heavenly entities of Mesopotamian cosmogony are portrayed as small circles. The god in the winged conveyance is generally considered a reference to Aššur or Marduk, though he displays the sun disc of Shamash. The inverted crescent of the Moon god Sin, and the wedge mounted upon a stand, which I believe represents Nabu, complete the upper register.<br />  On this wedge symbol, Wiggermann, The Mesopotamian Pandemonium, 2011, is mute.

Apkallu type 2, illustration 41, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.
Stephanie Dalley observes that the apkallu in this illustration “may function as a filling motif in a scene with an offerings table and divine symbols.”
Indeed the apkallu is not the focus of this illustration at all, which appears to portray a king (or a divinity?) receiving the blessings of a beardless priest with what appears to be a whisk in his raised left hand.
The king, or divinity, wears a horned cap with three tusks at the apex.
This illustration is significant for its repetitive eight-rayed stars, evocative of Ištar. The seven heavenly entities of Mesopotamian cosmogony are portrayed as small circles. The god in the winged conveyance is generally considered a reference to Aššur or Marduk, though he displays the sun disc of Shamash. The inverted crescent of the Moon god Sin, and the wedge mounted upon a stand, which I believe represents Nabu, complete the upper register.
On this wedge symbol, Wiggermann, The Mesopotamian Pandemonium, 2011, is mute.

He may function as a filling motif (sic) in a scene with an offerings table and divine symbols (41*), and in a contest scene in which a hero dominates winged scorpion men, a composite being which fights in Tiamat’s army in the Epic of Creation (50*).

Apkallu type 2, illustration 50, Stephanie Dalley, IDD. Another example of puradu-fish apkallu as a filling motif in Dalley's reference to a

Apkallu type 2, illustration 50, Stephanie Dalley, IDD.
Another example of puradu-fish apkallu as a filling motif in Dalley’s reference to a “contest scene in which a hero dominates winged scorpion men,” composite beings which fought “in Tiamat’s army in the Epic of Creation.”
Scorpion men are actually attested often in Mesopotamian art.
Wiggermann and Green call this composite being “Scorpion-tailed bird-man.” He has a human upper torso, an avian body, and a scorpion tail.
In this drawing from Dalley’s article on the Apkallu, puradu-fish apkallu can be seen beneath them.
Anthony Green, “Mischwesen. B,” Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 1994, pp. 254-5. figure 15.

Three exceptional pieces are described here in more detail. The fish-cloak Apkallu is depicted on Lamashtu-amulets as a mirror-image pair standing at a sick man’s bed (35).

A depiction of the underworld, or alternatively, a portrayal of an exorcism. Wiggermann identifies Pazuzu appearing at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar, the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin, and the lamp of Nusku. The seven celestial objects of Babylonian cosmogony are at far right, above Nusku's lamp. Earlier analysts identified the leering monster as Nergal. In the second register, seven exemplars of the Mesopotamian pandemonium appear to support the heavens. These composite creatures include ugallu, lion headed monsters with an apotropaic function, among others. The middle register could portray burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū, or the scene could be a typical exorcism for apkallu, who played a role in banishing demons from the ill. In this register Wiggermann identifies the lion headed monsters as ugallu and the human-appearing entity as Lulal, a “minor apotropaic god.” The lower register may depict the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse or a donkey, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lion pups suckling at her breast. Wiggermann prefers Lamaštu, and considers this 1st millennium amulet a portrayal of a Lamaštu exorcism. Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau. The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

A depiction of the underworld, or alternatively, a portrayal of an exorcism.
Wiggermann identifies Pazuzu appearing at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar, the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin, and the lamp of Nusku. The seven celestial objects of Babylonian cosmogony are at far right, above Nusku’s lamp. Earlier analysts identified the leering monster as Nergal.
In the second register, seven exemplars of the Mesopotamian pandemonium appear to support the heavens. These composite creatures include ugallu, lion headed monsters with an apotropaic function, among others.
The middle register could portray burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū, or the scene could be a typical exorcism for apkallu, who played a role in banishing demons from the ill.
In this register Wiggermann identifies the lion headed monsters as ugallu and the human-appearing entity as Lulal, a “minor apotropaic god.”
The lower register may depict the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse or a donkey, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life.
Note the lion pups suckling at her breast. Wiggermann prefers Lamaštu, and considers this 1st millennium amulet a portrayal of a Lamaštu exorcism.
Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.
The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

This is the actual bronze frieze of the illustration above, held in the collection of the Louvre as AO 22205.

This is the actual bronze frieze of the illustration above, held in the collection of the Louvre as AO 22205.

The unpublished Assyrian or Babylonian amulet-seal 63 shows a god in a winged disc above a sacred tree, which is flanked by mermen.

Approaching from the left is a priest in a tall headdress followed by the fish-cloak Apkallu, approaching a mushhushshu-dragon that bears on its back symbols of Marduk and Nabu.

Five monsters from The Mesopotamian Pandemonium (SMSR 77, 2 / 2011) courtesy of F.A.M. Wiggermann. The Akkadian mušhuššu derives from the Sumerian muš-huš,

Five monsters from The Mesopotamian Pandemonium (SMSR 77, 2 / 2011) courtesy of F.A.M. Wiggermann.
The Akkadian mušhuššu derives from the Sumerian muš-huš, “fearsome serpent,” or “snake-dragon,” an apotropaic “companion of certain gods and their ally against evil.”
F.A.M. Wiggermann, Mušhuššu, Reallexikon der Assyriologie (RLA), 1989, p. 456.

A stone tank for water, found at Assur and inscribed by Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) (40), represents the Apsu and shows repeated fish-cloak Apkallus holding cone and bucket pointing the cone toward a figure holding an overflowing vase, sculptured around the sides.

This water basin carved from a solid block of basalt was found in Nineveh near the temple of Ishtar. It is decorated with reliefs of apkallu – puradu-fish antediluvian sages. (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

 http://www.arcalog.com/image-library/museums/assyria/sennacherib/

This water basin carved from a solid block of basalt was found in Nineveh near the temple of Ishtar. It is decorated with reliefs of apkallu – puradu-fish antediluvian sages.
(Pergamon Museum, Berlin)


http://www.arcalog.com/image-library/museums/assyria/sennacherib/

This example possibly represents the sages as priests of Ea in Eridu in the Babylonian tradition. These contexts related to water are not found on Assyrian palace sculpture or ivory carving, and may belong to a Babylonian rather than an Assyrian tradition.

No Akkadian word for this type has been identified. In BARNETT 1998: pls. 360- 361 it is misleadingly described as being the god Dagon.”

Stephanie Dalley, “Apkallu,” Iconography of Deities and Demons in the Ancient Near East (IDD), Swiss National Science Foundation, University of Zurich, 2011 (text updated 2011 and illustrations updated 2007), p. 3/7.

Nakamura: the āšipu was Master of the Figurines

The Buried and Enclosed

“The multiple layers of concealment in this Neo-Assyrian figurine ritual suggest a play on the hiding and receiving powers of the earth.

In Mesopotamia, burial constituted a pervasive and important ritual idiom; people buried valuables, sacrifices, foundation offerings, caches of various materials, and their dead.

Nakamura: "By burying figurines of powerful beings, the āšipu preserves an expressed belief in a present reality of supernatural power, mythological origin and divine order."

Nakamura: “By burying figurines of powerful beings, the āšipu preserves an expressed belief in a present reality of supernatural power, mythological origin and divine order.”

Such diverse practices surely supported an equally diverse range of meanings. But in a basic sense, burial can mean to store, preserve, and put the past on hold (Harrison 2003:xi). This concept of burial holds purchase in the way in which protection relates to memory.

By burying figurines of powerful beings, the āšipu preserves an expressed belief in a present reality of supernatural power, mythological origin and divine order.

Burial keeps things hidden and protected such that preservation binds memory to a specific locality, from which it can be retrieved in the future as a given past. And this preservation of the future configures protection as survival.

It is interesting to mention here a temporal particularity in the Akkadian language that designates the “past” as lying before and the “future” as lying behind (Maul 1997:109), a stark reversal of our modern notions.

Mythology also seems to corroborate the notion that Mesopotamians “proceeded with their backs to the future,” as it were. Berossos’ Babyloniaka presents the primordial sage Oannes as having taught humans all the arts of domestic and cultural life.

Other myths regard this knowledge of the civilized arts as a gift from the god Enki (Ea). What is striking in both of these accounts is that the Mesopotamians believed that all cultural achievements — be they architecture, writing, healing, metalwork, carpentry, et cetera — were endowed to humans at the beginning of time, and this notion locates the ideal image of society in a primordial and mythological past rather than in a hopeful future (Maul 1997:109).

Furthermore, the figurines were not only buried, but also placed appropriately under the earth, in the space of the Netherworld and the apsû, the primordial freshwater ocean.

A depiction of the underworld.  Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.  In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.  The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū.  The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lion pups suckling at her breast.  Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.  The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

A depiction of the underworld.
Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.
In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.
The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū.
The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lion pups suckling at her breast.
Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.
The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

Numerous sources locate the underworld in the ground, beneath the surface of the earth (Black and Green 1992:180; Bottéro 1992:273–275). This idea follows from a traditional Mesopotamian conception of a vertical and bipolar universe where the earth, inhabited by living humans, separated the Heavens (šamû) from the Netherworld (ersętu) (Bottéro 1992:273).

And the borders of these domains were permeable, as entry to the Netherworld could be gained by way of a stairway leading down to the gate, while spirits could access the human world through cracks and holes in earth’s surface.

But importantly, the prevailing worldview of this time held that every being occupied a proper space in the world, with the lower hemisphere, symmetrical to the upper heavens, providing a discrete space and residence for the dead and other supernatural beings.

In this context, the burial of figurines of creatures from the underworld and apsû might constitute a mimetic gesture of placing or commanding such beings to their proper place in the world. This ritual practice not only reflects but reenacts the notion of an underworld located underground.

Furthermore, the strategic placement of the figurine deposits under certain architectural and household features may act to channel and focus the protective power of the beings, since they dwell in their “proper” realm.

The fact that the figurines were encased in boxes is also evocative of the important gesture of providing a “house” for the deities, and there could be no greater service rendered to a divine being than the building of his or her house (Frankfort 1978:267).

Additionally, the “immateriality” of a buried geography as an invisible, powerful presence is itself provocative.

The figurines, so installed, become effectively removed from the sensuous sphere of human–object relations. In this register of experience, they are “completed,” no longer engaging in processes of mutual constitution and becoming.

But the materiality of the figurine deposit endures and is powerful in this capacity to survive, virtually unmolested, performing its original duty; cut off from human relations, mute, blind, and restrained, they no longer strike back at human subjects, but can only direct their force to fighting off evil spirits in the Netherworld, as instructed by the āšipu.

There is a sense here of Derrida’s (1994) autonomous automaton, the animate puppet with a will of its own that yet obeys some predetermined program. By containing, concealing, and hiding these magical figures, the priest has made his mastery of their power complete.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 36-8.

Each King had his Apkallu

“The fish-figurines would seem to confirm the theory attractively put forward by Zimmern (KAT 535 ff. and subsequently ZA 35 151 ff.), that the apkallu’s, often occurring in groups of seven and sometimes identified with purādu-fish (Sumerian s u h u r . k u), represent Oannes and the other fish-like monsters who, according to Berosso’s account, taught mankind all crafts and civilization.

This depiction of a fish-apkallū (Apkallu, Abkallu) guarded the entrance to the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud. A fish's head can be seen on Apkallu's head, and its skin hangs down over the back of Apkallu's body.  Neo-Assyrian era, 865-860 BCE. From the Temple of Ninurta, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu; Biblical Calah), northern Mesopotamia, Iraq. (The British Museum, London). Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) http://www.ancient.eu/image/2708/

This depiction of a fish-apkallū (Apkallu, Abkallu) guarded the entrance to the temple of Ninurta at Nimrud. A fish’s head can be seen on Apkallu’s head, and its skin hangs down over the back of Apkallu’s body.
Neo-Assyrian era, 865-860 BCE. From the Temple of Ninurta, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu; Biblical Calah), northern Mesopotamia, Iraq. (The British Museum, London).
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)
http://www.ancient.eu/image/2708/

Furthermore, the apkallu-figurines of the ritual KAR 298 discussed by Zimmern loc. cit. (see also Gurney, AAA 22 38 ff.) are each associated with a city in Mesopotamia and addressed as ūmu; Güterbock’s suggestion that the element p i r i g in the names of three apkallu’s in our text corresponds to this ūmu and refers to their character as mythological creatures (ZA 42 10 n. 3) would thus strengthen the argument in favor of the identification of the apkallu’s with the monsters described by Berossos.

What in the Greek account clearly reflects an etiological myth finds no correspondence in any of the texts dealing with apkallu’s in Mesopotamia. The exploits of the apkallu’s, as we shall see, are on a different mythological plane.

Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.  In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.  The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū.  The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lion pups suckling at her breast.  Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.  The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.
In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.
The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū.
The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lion pups suckling at her breast.
Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.
The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

The connection between them and wisdom and the crafts lies in the term ummânu, which is one of their epithets, and to which I shall presently return.

First, however, we shall have to dispel the misconception originating with Zimmern’s article in KAT, and repeated in the discussions connected with the apkallu’s by others, namely, the assumed identity of the “wise men” — or some of them — with the early kings.

Besides a certain juggling of names inevitable when dealing with Berossos, the allusion to the “man who ascended to heaven” in the text published by Gurney, JRAS 1935 459 ff., was taken to refer to Etana, the more easily so since the phrase used in the Sumerian version, l ú a n . š è  b a . a n . e x (DU+DU) echoes the very words of the Sumerian King List: E t a n a   s i p a  l ú  a n . š è  b a . e x . d è (see Jacobsen, AS 11 p. 80: 16 f. and n. 67).

Antediluvian apkallu portrayed as fish-men, such mixed-species creatures were the teachers of men.

Antediluvian apkallu portrayed as fish-men, such mixed-species creatures were the teachers of men. Small figurines of this type were buried beneath doorways and beneath walls for prophylactic purposes, warding off evil. In some cases, they were buried in a set of seven statuettes, indicative of the so-called “Seven Sages” of Sumeria.

The view of Güterbock, ZA 42 9f., that the tradition of the apkallu’s is separate from that of the historical kings, and his assumption that the phrase “who ascended to heaven” refers to Adapa — of whom the same words are used in one of the versions of the Adapa legend (PSBA 16 [1894] 275:14, latest translation by Speiser, ANET 101 ff.) — is vindicated against his critics by the structure of the present text.

Since each personage is described by a group of at least four lines, the third and fourth lines, “[ . . . ] who ascended to heaven”, must be part of the description of the same person mentioned in the first and second lines as the purification priest of Eridu (išippu Eridu).

Because this is a well-known title of Adapa, the section must refer to him rather than to Etana. Indeed, none of the apkallu’s mentioned is himself a king, but is only associated with a famed king of old: the text states clearly that Nunpiriggaldim was the apkallu of Enmerkar, that Lu-Nanna was apkallu under Šulgi, allowing us only to conjecture that each was a noted person during a particular reign, excelling in superior wisdom — a topos later taken up by the Assyrian kings when they boast of being endowed with a wisdom equal to that of the apkallu’s.”

Erica Reiner, “The Etiological Myth of the “Seven Sages,” Orientalia, v. 30, No. 1, 1961, pp. 6-7.

Berossos and Chimeras

” … The point is rather that he ex­ploited convergences between Greek and Mesopotamian thought so as to present himself as the kind of man whom Hellenistic Greek audiences would have recognized as σοφός, ‘wise’, or φιλόσοφος, ‘a lover of wisdom’.

In pursuit of this goal, Berossos seems to have proceeded eclectically, one might even say, opportunistically. His account of Tiamat’s army is telling in this regard. As expected, Berossos takes inspiration from the Enūma Eliš.

But he lists many creatures that are not found in the Babylonian epic, and some at least seem specifically added to appeal to a Greek audience. What is more, Berossos fundamentally changes the tone and overall meaning of the original, transforming the list of Tiamat’s monsters into a piece of philosophical speculation in the vein of Empedocles:

(It is said that) many creatures with two faces and two chests came into being, offspring of cows, with human prows, and others again growing forth with human physique and the head of oxen, mixed beings, partly equipped with female and partly with male members (Empedocles F61 DK).

Berossos’ account offers some remarkable similarities:

There was a time, he says, when everything was [darkness and] water and that in it fabulous beings with peculiar forms came to life. For men with two wings were born and some with four wings and two faces, having one body and two heads, male and female, and double genitalia, male and female.

Other men were born, some having the legs and the horns of goats, others with the feet of horses. Yet others had the hind parts of horses, but the foreparts of men, and were hippocentaurs in form.

Bulls were also engendered having the heads of men as well as four-bodied dogs having the tails of a fish from their hind parts, dog-headed horses and men and other beings having heads and bodies of horses, but tails of fish and still other beings having forms of all sorts of wild animals.

In addition to these, there were fish and reptiles and snakes and many other marvellous creatures differing in appearance from one another. Images of these were also set up in the temple of Belos.

The parallels between Empedocles and Berossos are glaring (bull-men, two-faced crea­tures, gender confusion, etc.), but can we seriously entertain the possibility that Berossos responded to Presocratic philosophy?

The Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). A portrayal of Ishtar or Ereshkigal. In line with the descriptions of Berossos, this goddess has wings and owl's feet.  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/Burney_Relief_Babylon_-1800-1750.JPG

The Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). A portrayal of Ishtar or Ereshkigal.
In line with the descriptions of Berossos, this goddess has wings and owl’s feet.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/Burney_Relief_Babylon_-1800-1750.JPG

Allowing ourselves to contemplate this question can be a salutary exercise, but it need be no more than that: Berossos did not have to read Empedocles in order to learn about spontaneous generation. For that is what is at issue here: like Empedocles and others before him, Berossos presents his monsters as spontaneously sprung from primordial moisture: what was theogonic myth in Enūma Eliš becomes for him a question of physics.

And a hotly debated question at that: Empedocles always remained associated with the idea of primordial monsters, but already Aristotle built it into a much more far-reaching argument about purpose in nature.

[ … ]

A depiction of Nergal, patron god of Kutha.

A depiction of Nergal, patron god of Kutha.

Apollonius exploits the fact that early monsters were a source of ‘wonder’ (θάμβος), an idea which recalls Berossos’ emphasis on the miraculous nature of Tiamat’s creatures (τερατώδη, θαυμαστά). At a fairly basic level, this kind of thing was good box office.

A bas relief in the Louvre.  I am unsure what to make of these eagle-headed entities. Some old sources claim that they portray Asshur.  Others call them "genies," and note that they have wings, which is an indicator of divinity.  In this case the being tends to a tree of life, or tree of knowledge.  This bas relief is in the Louvre.  Primary publicationNimrud NW Palace I-24 = RIMA 2.0.101.023, ex. 189 (f) Collection	Nimrud, Iraq (a); British Museum, London, UK (b); Louvre Museum, Paris, France (c); Nimrud, Iraq (d); Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, USA (e); British Museum, London, UK; Louvre Museum, Paris, France (f); unlocated (g) Museum no.	Nimrud fragment no. 42 (a); BM 098061 (b); AO 22198 (c); Nimrud fragment no. 43 and 45 (d); DIA 47.181 (e) (photo: DIA); AO 19849 (f); unlocated (g) Accession no.	1903-10-10, 0002 (b) Provenience	Kalhu (mod. Nimrud) Excavation no.	 Period	Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911-612 BC) Dates referenced	Assurnasirpal2.00.00.00 Object type	other (see object remarks) Remarks	slab, relief Material	stone: limestone Language	Akkadian Overview at

I am unsure what to make of these eagle-headed entities. Some old sources claim that they portray Asshur.
Others call them “genies,” and note that they have wings, which is an indicator of divinity.
In this case the being tends to a tree of life, or tree of knowledge.
This bas relief is in the Louvre.
Primary publication Nimrud NW Palace I-24 = RIMA 2.0.101.023, ex. 189 (f)
Collection Nimrud, Iraq (a); British Museum, London, UK (b); Louvre Museum, Paris, France (c); Nimrud, Iraq (d); Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, USA (e); British Museum, London, UK; Louvre Museum, Paris, France (f); unlocated (g)
Museum no. Nimrud fragment no. 42 (a); BM 098061 (b); AO 22198 (c); Nimrud fragment no. 43 and 45 (d); DIA 47.181 (e) (photo: DIA); AO 19849 (f); unlocated (g)
Accession no. 1903-10-10, 0002 (b)
Provenience Kalhu (mod. Nimrud)
Period Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911-612 BC)
Dates referenced Assurnasirpal2.00.00.00
Material stone: limestone
Language Akkadian
Overview at <http://cdli.ucla.edu/projects/nimrud/index.html&gt;

Yet, we have seen that primordial monsters also had a more serious philosophical point. Apart from Aristotle, the Epicureans too grappled with the legacy of Empedocles’ idea, accepting spontaneous generation as an important part of their non-teleological account of the universe, but reject­ing some of its more extravagant implications.”

Johannes Haubold, “The Wisdom of the Chaldaeans: Reading Berossos, Babyloniaca Book 1,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, pp. 37-9.

Nergal the Destroyer

“The library of Nineveh contained the copy of a tablet which, according to its concluding lines, was originally written for the great temple of Nergal at Cutha. The words of the text are put in the mouth of Nergal the destroyer, who is represented as sending out the hosts of the ancient brood of chaos to their destruction.

Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.  In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.  The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld.  The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lions suckling at her breast.  Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.  The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.
In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.
The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld.
The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lions suckling at her breast.
Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.
The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

Nergal is identified with Nerra, the plague-god, who smites them with pestilence, or rather with Ner, the terrible “king who gives not peace to his country, the shepherd who grants no favour to his people.”

We are first told how the armies of chaos came into existence.

“On a tablet none wrote, none disclosed, and no bodies or brushwood were produced in the land; and there was none whom I approached.

Warriors with the body of a bird of the valley, men with the faces of ravens, did the great gods create. In the ground did the gods create their city. Tiamat (the dragon of chaos) suckled them. Their progeny (sasur) the mistress of the gods created.

In the midst of the mountains they grew up and became heroes and increased in number. Seven kings, brethren, appeared and begat children. Six thousand in number were their peoples. The god Banini their father was king; their mother was the queen Melili.”

It was the subjects and the offspring of these semi-human heroes whom the god Ner was deputed to destroy.

The reverse side of the god Nergal,  drawn by Faucher-Gudin. This is the back of the bronze plate above; the animal-head of the god appears in relief at the top of the illustration. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

The reverse side of the god Nergal, drawn by Faucher-Gudin. This is the back of the bronze plate above; the animal-head of the god appears in relief at the top of the illustration.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0018

It is clear that the legend of Cutha agrees with Berossos in the main facts, however much it may differ in details. In both alike, we have a first creation of living beings, and these beings are of a composite nature, and the nurselings of Tiamat or Chaos.

"Bird men" are depicted.

“Bird men” are depicted.

In both alike, the whole brood is exterminated by the gods of light. A curious point in connection with the legend is the description of chaos as a time when writing was as yet unknown and records unkept. Perhaps we may see in this an allusion to the fact that the Babylonian histories of the pre-human period were supposed to have been composed by the gods.

The date to which the legend in its present form may be assigned is difficult to determine. The inscription is in Semitic only, like the other creation-tablets, and therefore cannot belong to the pre-Semitic age. It belongs, moreover, to an epoch when the unification of the deities of Babylonia had already taken place, and the circle of “the great gods” was complete.

Ea, Istar, Zamama, Anunit, even Nebo and “Samas the warrior,” are all referred to in it. We must therefore place its composition after the rise not only of the hymns of Sippara, but also of the celebrity of the Semitic god of Borsippa.

On the other hand, the reference to the pateśi or priest-king in the concluding lines seems to prevent us from assigning too late a date to the poem. Perhaps we shall not be far wrong in ascribing it to the era of Khammuragas.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 372-4.

Elder and Younger Bel

The Bel of this legend, who has settled the places of the Sun and the Moon in the sky, is not the Babylonian Bel, but the older Bel of Nipur, from whom Merodach, the Bel of Babylon, had afterwards to be distinguished.

The Accadian original of the poem belongs to a very early epoch, before the rise of Babylon, when the supreme Bel of the Semitic inhabitants of Babylonia was still the god whom the Accadians called Mul-lilla, “the lord of the lower world.”

This Bel or Mul-lilla fades into the background as the Semitic element in Babylonian religion became stronger and the influence of Babylon greater, though the part that he played in astronomical and cosmological lore, as well as his local cult at Nipur, kept his memory alive; while the dreaded visitants of night, the demoniac lilu and lilat or lilith, from the lower world, preserved a faint memory of the spirits of which he had once been the chief.

Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). The figure in the relief was sometimes identified with Lilith, based on a misreading of an outdated translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Modern research has identified the figure as either Ishtar or Ereshkigal. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/Burney_Relief_Babylon_-1800-1750.JPG

Burney Relief, Babylon (1800-1750 BCE). The figure in the relief was sometimes identified with Lilith, based on a misreading of an outdated translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Modern research has identified the figure as either Ishtar or Ereshkigal.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/19/Burney_Relief_Babylon_-1800-1750.JPG

 One by one, however, the attributes that had formerly attached to the older Bel were absorbed by the younger Bel of Babylon.

It was almost as it was in Greece, where the older gods were dethroned by their own offspring; in the Babylonia of Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidos, it was the younger gods–Merodach, Sin and Samas–to whom vows were the most often made and prayer the most often ascended.

Such was the latest result of the local character of Babylonian worship: the younger gods were the gods of the younger Babylonian cities, and the god of Babylon, though he might be termed “the first-born of the gods,” was in one sense the youngest of them all.

The title, however, “first-born of the gods” was of the same nature as the other title, “prince of the world,” bestowed upon him by his grateful worshippers. It meant little else than that Babylon stood at the head of the world, and that its god must therefore be the first-born, not of one primeval deity, but of all the primeval deities acknowledged in Chaldea.

According to the earlier faith, he was the first-born of Ea only. Ea was god of the deep, both of the atmospheric deep upon which the world floats, and of that watery deep, the Okeanos of Homer, which surrounds the earth like a coiled serpent.

All streams and rivers were subject to his sway, for they flowed into that Persian Gulf which the ignorance of the primitive Chaldean imagined to be the ocean-stream itself. It was from the Persian Gulf that tradition conceived the culture and civilisation of Babylonia to have come, and Ea was therefore lord of wisdom as well as lord of the deep.

His son Merodach was the minister of his counsels, by whom the commands of wisdom were carried into practice. Merodach was thus the active side of his father Ea; to use the language of Gnosticism, he was the practical activity that emanates from wisdom.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, p. 103-4.

Seize the Day

“Death in Mesopotamian religious thought did not mean the total extinction of the individual, only of the physical self and of those qualities of a person that made him productive and attractive to other human beings (Bottéro 1992: 268– 86).

A recognizable winged spirit, resembling a dove, passed to the netherworld. This was a dreary, sombre domain ruled by a pitiless hierarchy of deities and demons. There the spirit languished, often in hunger, thirst and misery, unless family or friends remembered to leave offerings of food and drink for the spirit to partake of and prayed for the spirit’s rest and contentment (Foster 1996: 403):

Dust is their sustenance and clay their food,

They see no light but dwell in darkness,

They are clothed like birds in wings for garments,

And dust has gathered on the door and bolt.

A Sumerian poem recounting a visit to the netherworld refers to the dependence of the dead upon the living (Foster 2001: 141):

Did you see the ghost of him who has no one to make funerary offerings?

I saw him. He eats table scraps and bread crusts thrown into the street.

Ghosts and spectres of the dead could trouble the living, sometimes for no apparent reason, sometimes because they had not been properly interred or were discontented because of some human action or neglect. The city Cutha, in northern Babylonia, was considered the city of the dead and the centre of the cult of death.

The netherworld was organized like an earthly or heavenly kingdom, surrounded by walls with seven gates (Lambert 1990). A popular Mesopotamian poem (Dalley 1989: 163–81; Foster 1996: 410–28) told how the netherworld had once been ruled by a queen alone, Ereshkigal, but that she eventually found a husband, Nergal or Erra.

In one version of the story, he forces himself into the netherworld by violence and threatens her into submission. In another, he breaks her loneliness and sexual frustration with a passionate relationship that finally results in their marriage.

The gods of heaven and netherworld, separated, according to the Babylonian Epic of Creation, into two groups of 600 each, could not visit each other, though they could exchange messengers. Even the great gods feared the netherworld, which barred countless human dead from swarming onto the earth to devour the living in their eternal, unsatiated hunger.

The dead entered the netherworld naked and relinquished all hope of returning to life. How their ghosts escaped to plague the living is not clear. Various Mesopotamian stories told of human beings who learned what happened after a person died.

In one, the Sumerian hero Enkidu volunteered in a fit of bravado to go down to the netherworld to retrieve a favourite athletic object of the king, Gilgamesh. This was apparently a stick and a ball or puck that had fallen down there at the pleas of the people who were oppressed by the violent game that made use of them. The losers resented Gilgamesh’s bullying tactics in the game.

Enkidu recognized his relatives and saw certain distinctions among the dead: heroes were treated better than common folk, for example, and stillborn children had a sort of play area with miniature furniture. He barely escaped alive and forgot in the stress of the moment to bring back the objects (Foster 2001: 129–43).

Much later, an Assyrian dignitary described a vision of the netherworld that included an array of monsters, composites of humans and animals in shape. He, like Enkidu, recognized a dead spirit, but fled in an ecstasy of terror and grief, narrowly escaping permanent confinement (Foster 1996: 715–22):

He darted out into the street like an arrow and scooped up dirt from alley and square in his mouth, all the while setting up a frightful clamor, ‘Woe! Alas! Why have you ordained this for me?’

Mesopotamians honoured the dead of their families with a regular ceremony of remembrance and offering. Dead and sometimes even living kings were accorded divine honours and observances in special sanctuaries. Rulers and other powerful people could be buried in lavish tombs with grave gifts, perhaps more as a splendid way of dying than out of hope that they would need such gifts in the afterlife.

Some Sumerian rulers had chariots, animals and even court attendants buried with them; Assyrian queens might be buried with their finest jewelry. Clay or metal vessels might hold food, drink and cosmetics. Burial might be in vaults in royal palaces, under the floor of homes (especially for children) or in cemeteries outside the city.

Graves were not marked on the surface, so far as is known, and funerary inscriptions, naming the deceased or invoking blessings upon them from future descendants or passers-by, were very rare. One literary text describes an excavation to open an ancient tomb and the horrible shock the investigators felt when they beheld and reflected on the fate in store for them (Foster 1996: 436).

One of the major literary achievements of ancient Mesopotamia, the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh (George 1999; Foster 2001), tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who sought immortal life. This was based on older Sumerian poems about various episodes in Gilgamesh’s life.

In the epic, Gilgamesh’s beloved friend, the wild man Enkidu, dies as the result of an expedition to achieve eternal fame for Gilgamesh by slaying a distant monster and cutting down a great tree. Terrified of dying himself, Gilgamesh abandons all in a desperate quest to find the survivor of the flood, Utanapishtim, to ask him his secret of immortality.

Gilgamesh eventually reaches Utanapishtim after unexampled heroism and hardships, not to mention the timely intervention of several kind-hearted women, but learns that his hope is vain – Utanapishtim was granted immortality for surviving the flood, but this was a one-time event that would not be repeated for Gilgamesh’s sake.

Neither he nor any other human being had any hope of achieving immortality. This poem was popular in learned circles; manuscripts have turned up throughout Mesopotamia, and from Syria and Asia Minor, dating to a time span of 1500 years.

There was no Mesopotamian paradise, no return of the soul in another body for another life, no judgement, and no sense that death might eventually end in a final consummation. Some Mesopotamians responded to this outlook by suggesting that the good for a human being was to enjoy life, love, family and vitality while they were within reach, for even a modest life was better than a grand death, as a tavern keeper advises Gilgamesh (Foster 2001: 75):

When the gods created mankind,

They established death for mankind,

And withheld eternal life for themselves.

As for you, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,

Always be happy, night and day.

Make every day a delight,

Night and day play and dance.

Your clothes should be clean,

Your head should be washed,

You should bathe in water,

Look proudly on the little one holding your hand,

Let your mate be always blissful in your loins,

This, then, is the work of mankind.”

Benjamin R. Foster, “Mesopotamia,” in John R. Hinnels, ed., A Handbook of Ancient Religions, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 188-90.