MESOPOTAMIAN VIEW ON THE AFTERLIFE AND UNDERWORLD
Six-point star from
Stela of Ur-Nammu The Mesopotamians were not clear about what happened in the after-life except that a ferry man transported the deceased from the grave to an Underworld, a view that persisted until Greco-Roman times. Many Mesopotamian myths depict humans searching for eternal life. In one myth a shepherd tried to reach heaven with an eagle. In another a king married a goddess. But in the end both failed to reach heaven and they joined every other dead person in the Underworld, which was known as "Land of No Return” or the "House of Shades."
The Sumerians described the Underworld as a place where “the raven utters no cries...the lion kills not, the wolf snatched not the lamb.” From the ways they cared for the dead it seems as if they believed that the Underworld was not all that different from the real world.
In The Story of Gilgamesh , the Underworld is described as a place where 1) a man with one son “lies prostrate at the foot of a wall and weeps bitterly over it,” 2) a man with two sons “dwells in a brick-structure and eats bread,” 3) a man with thee sons “drinks water out of waterskins of the deep,” 4) a man whose body has not been buried possesses “a spirit that does not rest,” and 5) a spirit with no one to take care of it “eats pieces of bread that have been thrown to it.”
Although Mesopotamia myths refer to seven Anunnaki, fierce judges of the dead who dwell in a “palace of justice,” there is no evidence the righteous could look forward to an afterlife that was any more pleasant than that of the non-righteous. Long life was considered a blessing because there was nothing much to look forward to after death.
Books: Sumerian Dictionary of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania edited by Ake W. Sjoberg (University of Pennsylvania, 1984); The Sumerians, Their History, Culture and Character by Samuel Noah Kramer (University of Chicago Press, 1963); The Ancient Near East By William Hallo and William Kelly Simpson (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971); Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture by William H. Stiebing Jr. Experts and Sources: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston; Irene Winter, professor of art history at Harvard; McGuire Gibson of Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Jeremy Black, Oriental Institute at Oxford University; Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan.
Websites and Resources: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu ; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Interent Ancient History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/ancient ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia
Proper burials and care of the dead was important to the Mesopotamians, who believed that if the dead were not well taken care of they might come back and haunt their living relatives. The dead who were not given proper burials were believed to be unable to rest in peace in the Underworld and this who were not given regular food offerings went hungry. Only the lowest of the low were denied funerals: criminals, or women who had abortions or died in childbirth.
In some city states (Surghal, El-Hibba, pre-Sargonic Nuppur) cremations were common. In others (Ur and Ashur) they were rare. When a Sumerian monarch conquered a city sometimes the first thing he did was open the graves and release the souls of the dead to drive away enemy soldiers who had not been killed.
Little is known about what Mesopotamia funerals were like. Describing the imagined funeral of a Sumerian royal, the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley wrote: "Now down the sloping passage comes a procession of people, the members of the court, soldiers, men-servants, and women, the later in all their finery of brightly-colored garments and headdresses of lapis-lazuli and silver and gold and with musicians bearing harps or lyres...Each man or woman brought a little cup...Some kind of service there must have been at the bottom of the shaft, at least it is evident that the musicians played up the last, and that each drank from the cup."
Sumerian Burial and Tombs
Incantation bowl from Nippur The Sumerians buried their dead in baskets woven from plaited twigs and in brick coffins held together with bitumen. The graves were regularly arranged, like those in cemetery lots, with streets and lanes. Some graves, dated at between 2600 and 2000 B.C., consisted of pits with two-meter-high walls lined with coarse reed matting. The dead were rapped in the reed matting or placed in coffins made of matting, wickerwork, wood or clay.
The Sumerians often buried their dead with their most prized objects. Even commoners were buried with objects they thought they would need in the Underworld. Most of the Sumerian works of art have been excavated from graves. Royal tombs have revealed treasures made with gold and precious stones while commoners were mostly buried with stone figurines.
Dead people were buried with food because it was believed that undernourished corpses would return as ghosts. Graves from the Ubaid period, dated to 5200 B.C., contained skeletons with hands crossed over their pelvis and accompanied by vessels of food and drink and weapons. Some Akkadian graves contain skeletons with their hand holding cups near their faces.
Umma al-Ajarib is the largest known Sumerian cemetery. Located about 400 kilometers south of Baghdad, it is spread out over an area of five square kilometers and is believed to contain hundreds of thousands of graves. The name of the cemetery means “Mother of Scorpions” due to the large number of scorpions that live there. Many graves have been looted by grave robbers. More would have been, some have speculated, if it weren’t for the scorpions.
Eridu in southern Iraq contains a Sumerian burial ground that covers an area of about one square kilometer. About a thousand graves have been excavated there so far. In the 2nd millennium it became common to place deceased family members in a pit or a brick vault buried beneath the house where the family lived. One reason for this is that it made care of the dead easier.
Tombs of Sumerian Royals
The Royal Tombs at Ur (circa 2600 B.C.) consisted of a vaulted or domed chamber at the bottom of a deep pit, which was a approached from the outside by a ramp. The largest chambers were stepped or sloped shafts as deep as 30 feet underground and 40 by 28 feet.
The royal tombs of Ur contained musical instruments and draft animals yoked to carts. In Ashur the tombs were below a large palace and the dead were placed in stone sarcophagi. The deceased was placed in wooden coffins or placed on a wooden bier, and provided with clothing, games, weapons, treasures and vessels with food and drink.
Rich rulers were buried with precious objects for a trip to the afterlife. Queen Pu-abi was buried in the most elaborate Mesopotamian tomb ever found. It contained jewelry, seashells with cosmetics, a four-foot gold drinking straw, pins, wreaths, diadems, gold tweezers, translucent alabaster bowls, foodstuffs and weapons. Sacrificed and buried with her were oxen, handmaidens, musicians and servants. She was identified by a cylinder seal pinned to her sleeve.
Some of the most spectacular Sumerian art was unearthed from the grave of Queen Pu-abi, a 4,600-year-old site excavated by British archaeologist Leonard's Woolleys' team in Ur. The pieces found there included lyres decorated with golden bull heads and a wiglike helmet of gold described above as well as earrings, necklaces, a gold dagger with a filigree sheath, a toilet box with a shell relief of lion eating a wild goat, inlaid wooden furniture, a golden tumbler, cups and bowls, and tools and weapons made of copper, gold and silver.
Queen Pu-abi was buried, wearing, a necklace of gold and lapi lazuli, 10 gold rings, garters of gold and lapis lazuli, and a striking cape made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, agate and carnelian beads. She was buried with 11 other women, presumably her attendants.
Queen Pu-abi’s headdress was made of gold ribbons, carnelian and lapis lazuli beads, bands of gold leaves, all surmounted by a high comb of silver with eight-petaled gold rosettes, symbols of goddess Inana.
Archaeologists working at the Queen Pu-abi site also unearthed a mosaic with figures made from limestone, muscle shell and mother of pearl, on a lapis background that shows a military procession with troops driving their chariots over captured enemies.
Human Sacrifice at Royal Burials
from the royal graves The individuals buried in the royal tombs in Ur and Kish were buried with six to 73 “attendants,” who appear to have been ritually killed and interred along with the deceased. The attendants were elaborately dressed and interred in a crouching position, as if waiting to provide service. Chambers with the “attendants” were placed in positions in relation to the royal chamber that were indicative of their occupations: guards, musicians, grooms, charioteers.
The oldest evidence of mass killings and human sacrifice was found in 1926 in a tomb in Ur, dated to around 4000 B.C. The remains of aristocrats and commoners who had been killed with blows from behind were laid out in rows. Hundreds of graves dating to 2500 B.C. containing human sacrifice victims have been found at Ur and are thought to have been related to deaths of Mesopotamian kings.
Uruk plate When a king or queen died it seems that servants, musicians and family members of kings and queens were killed and buried with them. According to a Sumerian saga The Story of Gilgamesh , King Gilgamesh of Uruk was buried with much of his family.
His beloved son
His beloved favorite wife and
His beloved singer.
cup-bearer and his
Mesopotamian Care of the Dead
The dead were believed to have the power to bless and curse their descendants and brings them or deny them children. Therefore their graves were tended and regular offerings of milk, butter, grain and beer were made to them on perhaps a monthly basis.
One cuneiform tablet described the care an Assyrian king gave his father read: “In royal oil, I caused him to rest in goodly fashion. The opening of the sarcophagus, the place of rest, I sealed with strong bronze and uttered a powerful spell over it. Vessels of gold, silver and all the [accessories] of the grave, his royal ornaments which he loves, I displayed them before Shamash [the sun god] and placed them in the grave with the father, my begetter. I presented presents to the princely Anunnaki [judges] and the (other) gods that inhabit the underworld.”
Nimrud Royal Tombs
Stela of Ur-Nammu In 1988 Iraqi archaeologist Muzahem Hussein uncovered two 8th century B.C. tombs under the royal palace in Nimrud. He discovered the site when he realized he was standing on some great vaults while putting some bricks back in place After two weeks of clearing away dirt and debris he caught his first glimpse of gold.
The first tomb was still sealed and contained a woman who was 50 or so and a collection of beautiful jewelry and semiprecious stones. A second tomb, about 100 meters away, contained the two women, perhaps queens. They were placed in the same sarcophagus one on top of the other, wrapped in embroidered linen and covered with gold jewelry. One of the women had been dried and smoked at temperatures of 300 to 500 degrees, the first evidence of mummification-like practices in Mesopotamia.
The second tomb contained a curse, threatening the person who opened the grave of Queen Yaba (wife of powerful Tiglthpilese II (744-727 B.C.) with eternal thirst and restlessness, with a specific warning about placing another corpse inside. The curse was written before the second corpse was placed inside. The two women inside were 30 to 35 years of age, with the second being buried 20 to 50 year after the first. The first is thought to be Queen Yaba. The other is thought to be the person identified by a gold bowl found inside the sarcophagus that reads: “Atilia, queen of Sargon, king of Assyria: who rule from 721 ro 705 B.C.”
A third tomb excavated in 1989 had been looted but looters missed an antechamber that contained three bronze coffins: 1) one with six people, a young adult, three children, a baby and a fetus.; 2) another with a young woman, with a gold crown, thought to have been a queen; and 3) a third with a 55- to 60-year-old man, and a golden vessel that appears to have identified him as a powerful general that served under served several kings.
The treasure was on display for just a few months before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when it was packed away for protection and put in a vault beneath Baghdad’s central bank . Though the bank was bombed, burned and flooded during the 2003 invasion of Iraq the treasure reportedly was undamaged.
Ancient Mesopotamians wore bell-shaped amulets to ward off the evil eye. Babylonian fortunetellers used astrology and haruspicy (searching for omens in the entrails of animals) to predict the future. A cuneiform calendar dated at 850 B.C., consisting of daily instructions for the 7th month of the year read: “Avoid eating garlic in the second day or risk a death in the family.”
Babylonians read the viscera of slaughtered animals to make state decisions about international trade and warfare. Psychological evaluations were often based the places of moles, the way a person walked, mannerisms and speech. Predictions were made based on the formations of bird flock in the sky and the patterns created when oil was added to water. [Parrinder Op. Cit]
The superstition that spilling salt is bad luck and the custom of throwing salt over one's could cancel bad luck was practiced by the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians and later the Romans and Greeks. It is believed to have been practiced since 3500 B.C.
Amulet to ward off plague The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Jews, Christians, Gauls and Britons all dispensed curse tablets used placate "unquiet" graves and call up the spirits of the underworld to make trouble.
Greek curse objects were used to call ghosts from the underworld to bring suffering on one's enemies. They were often buried with the dead who were believed to have the power to pass them on to a party that could carry them out. Curses buried with people who died young were thought to be able to reach their destination quicker.
One Mesopotamian curse inscribed on a bowl read that it wishes the victim's "tongue may dry up in his mouth...that his legs may dry up, that sulfur and fire may burn him, that his body may be struck by scalding water that he may be chocked, estranged, and disturbed in the eyes of all who see him, and that he may be banned, broken, lost, finished, vanquished, and that he may die, and that a flame may seize him.”
The second tomb found under the Nimrud Palace contained a curse, threatening the person who opened the grave of Queen Yaba (wife of powerful Tiglthpilese II (744-727 B.C.) with eternal thirst and restlessness, with a specific warning about placing another corpse inside. The curse was written before the second corpse was placed inside.
Book: Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World by John Gager, professor or religion at Princeton (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Babylonian Astrology and Constellations
Cuneiform planisphere Astrology as we know it originated in Babylon. It developed out of the belief that since the Gods in the heavens ruled man's fate, the stars could reveal fortunes and the notion that the motions of the stars and planets control the fate of people on earth. The motions of the stars and planets are mainly the result of the earth’s movement around the sun, which causes: 1) the sun to move eastward against the background of the constellations; 2) the planets and moon to shift around the sky; and 3) causes different constellations to rise from the horizon at sunset different times of the year.
In ancient times astrology and astronomy were the same thing. The Babylonians were the first people to apply myths to constellations and astrology and describe the 12 signs of the zodiac. The Egyptians refined the Babylonian system of astrology and the Greeks shaped it into its modern form. The Greeks and Romans borrowed some of their myths from the Babylonians and invented their own. The word astrology (and astronomy) are derived from the Greek word for "star."
The names and shapes of many the constellations are believed to date to Sumerian times because the animals and figures chosen held a prominent place in their lives. It is thought that if the constellations originated with the the Egyptians were would ibises, jackals, crocodiles and hippos—animals in their environment—rather than goats and bulls. If they came from India why isn’t there a tiger or a monkey. To the Assyrians the constellation Capricorn was munaxa (the goat fish).
The Greeks added names of heroes to the constellations. The Romans took these and gave them the Latin names we use today. Ptolemy listed 48 constellations. His list included ones in the southern hemisphere, which he and the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans couldn’t see.
Book: Astrology: A History by Peter Whitfield (Abrams, 2001).
Signs of the Zodiac
moon worship seal The zodiac (a Greek word meaning “circle of animals”) were devised by the Neo-Babylonians. The 12 signs of zodiac correspond to 12 constellations which the sun passes through in successive months and are more or less directly overhead at noon on the equator in the course of year.
The idea of a horoscope—defined as the point of the sun’s path that happens to be rising over the eastern horizon—was developed over time. Medical astrologers were the first people to divide the sky into signs of the zodiac, with each sign having power over a particular part of the body. The 12 signs (starting at the vernal equinox) are Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. The closest constellation to the sun at the time of one’s birth determines a person’s zodiac sign.
The time periods for each sign were created so long that gradual changes in the Earth's axis and rotation have altered the positions of constellations so that the period for Capricorns is December 22 to January 20 even though an eclipse on January 1 would be in Sagittarius.
Astrologers divide the 24-hour-day into 12 "houses," which are used to describe the position of the planets, moon and sun in relations to the constellations and stars. The planets have special meaning. Venus influences love; Jupiter makes one powerful; and Saturn makes one sluggish in part because it traveled so slowly across the sky. The calculations were difficult and complex and the word mathematician was coined to describe an astrologer.
Mesopotamian Time and Calendars
The were various Sumerian calenders. Ones with 12 months of 30 days, which added up to 360 day years, soon fell out of synch with the season so extra months were added every few years. The Eblaite calendar affixed a different name to every year that commemorated a great event. The year 2480 B.C., for example, is referred to as Dis mu til Mari ki (the Year of the defeat of Mari).
The Babylonians are often given credit for devising the first calendars, and with them the first conception of time an entity. They developed the used the 360-day year—divided into 12 lunar months of 30 days (real lunar months are 29½ days)—devised by the Sumerians and introduced the seven day week, corresponding to the four waning and waxing periods of the lunar cycle. The ancients Egyptians adopted the 12-month system to their calendar. The ancient Hindus, Chinese, and Egyptians, all used 365-day calendars.
The Babylonians stuck stubbornly to the lunar calendar to define the year even though 12 lunar months did not equal one year. In 432 B.C., the Greeks introduced the so-called Metonic cycle in which every 19 years seven of the years had thirteen months and 12 years had 12 months. These kept the seasons in synch with the year and the roughly kept the days and months of the Metonic year in synch with those on the lunar calendar. The Metonic calendar was too complicated for everyday use and used mostly by astronomers.
feast The Mesopotamians had a lot of festivals. There were regular feasts during the new moon and full moon and on the seventh and fifteenth day of the month. The were also special feast days for individual deities. The biggest event of all was New Year's Day.
The earliest known New Year's festival was celebrated in Babylon around 2000 B.C. in March during the vernal equinox. The celebration, as recorded on cuneiform tablets, lasted for 111 days and featured ritual bathing and hymn singing by priests, parying to Marduk for plentiful crops, parades with costumed dancers, seed-sowing ceremonies, and rubbing a beheaded ram against a shrine. The festival was called Kuppura ("Day of Atonement"). The Jewish holiday Yom Kippur also means "Day of Atonement."
Ceremonies and rituals included re-enactments of divine marriages, prayer hymns addressed to the kings, recitation of the creation myths, ritual bathing by the king, royal procession on the land and water and of course lots of feasting and barley beer drinking. The climax of the Babylonian New year festival was when the head priest at the Marduk temple removed his insignia and slapped the king in the face. If tears flowed it meant Marduk was pleased and it would be a good year. [Parrinder, Op. Cit]
The Babylonian king prostrated himself in front of a Marduk statue and was slapped in the to expunge his sins. There were also large celebrations in the streets. Singing crowds who came from all over Mesopotamia carried images of gods and placed them on boats on the Euphrates and then carried them in chariots to a special temple in the northern part of the city.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine and New York Times articles, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011