“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.