Mari pendant mask

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."

Morris Jastrow said: “Here and there we find in Babylonian-Assyrian literature faint suggestions of skepticism, but the prevailing view throughout all periods is that the dead continue in a conscious or semi-conscious state after this life is come to an end. To be sure, the condition of the dead is not one to be envied. They are condemned to inactivity, which in itself might not be regarded as an unmixed evil, but this inactivity carries with it a deprivation of all pleasures. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“Even Gilgamesh himself, the hero of the epic, half-man, half-god, whose adventures represent a strange conglomeration of dimmed historical tradition and nature myths, is depicted as being seized with the fear that he too, like Enkidu, may be dragged to the world of the dead. He seeks to fathom the mystery of death and, in the hope of escaping Aralft [the Netherworld], undertakes a long journey in quest of Ut-Napishtim, to learn from him how he had attained immortality. The latter tells Gilgamesh the story of his escape from the destructive deluge. Ut-Napishtim and his wife are filled with pity for the stranger, who has been smitten with a painful disease. They afford him relief by mystic rites, based on the incantation ritual, but they cannot cure him. Gilgamesh is told of a plant which has the power of restoring old age to youth. He seeks for it, but fails to find it, and, resigned to his fate, he returns to his home, Uruk.

“The last episode in the epic furnishes a further illustration of the sad thoughts aroused in the minds of the priests and people at the contemplation of the fate in store for those who have shuffled off the mortal coil. Gilgamesh is anxious to find out at least how his friend and companion, Enkidu, fares in Aralû. In response to his appeal, the shade of Enkidu rises before him.

““Tell me, my friend,” Gilgamesh implores, tell me the law of the earth which thou hast experienced.” Mournfully the reply comes back, “I cannot tell thee, my friend, I cannot tell thee.” Enkidu continues: Were I to tell thee the law of the earth which I have experienced, Thou would 'st sit down and weep the whole day. “There is only one thing that can make the fate of the dead less abhorrent. A proper burial with an affectionate care of the corpse ensures at least a quiet repose.”

“Such a one rests on a couch and drinks pure water,
But he whose shade has no rest in the earth, as I have seen and you will see,
His shade has no rest in the earth.
Whose shade no one cares for, as I have seen and you will see,
What is left over in the pot, remains of food
That are thrown in the street, he eats.”

“Among the Babylonians we have, as the last word on the subject, an expression of sad resignation that man must be content with the joys of this world. Death is an unmitigated evil, and the favour of the gods is shown by their willingness to save the victims as long as possible from the cold and silent grave. A deity is occasionally addressed in hymns as “the restorer of the dead to life,” but only where he saves those standing on the brink of the grave—leading them back to enjoy the warm sunlight a little longer.

“The question indeed was raised in Babylonia why after a brief existence man was condemned to eternal gloom? The answer, that is given, is depressing but most characteristic of the arrest in the development of ethical conceptions concerning the gods, in spite of certain appearances to the contrary. The gods themselves are represented, in an interesting tale, based on a nature-myth, as opposed to granting mankind immortal life, and actually having recourse to a deception, in order to prevent another favourite of Ea—the god of humanity—from attaining the desired goal.”

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site; British Museum ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago ; Iraq Museum Database ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons: online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Ideas About Life After Death in the Ancient World

Ugarit tomb

Morris Jastrow said: “The view that life continues in some form after death has ensued is so common among people on the level of primitive culture, or who have just risen above this level, that its presence in advanced religions may be regarded as a legacy bequeathed from the earliest period in the history of mankind. To the savage and the untutored all nature is instinct with life. The changes and activity that he sees about him, in the woods and fields, in the streams and mountains and in the heavens—the boundless extent of ceaseless change—he ascribes to an element which he instinctively associates with the life of which he is conscious in himself, and he interprets this life in terms applicable to himself. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“Man in the earlier stages of his development is unable to conceive of life once begun as coming to an end, just as an unsophisticated child who, when it begins to ponder on the mystery of existence, is incapable of grasping the thought of death as a total extinction of life. The doubt comes at a later stage of mental development and so, in the history of mankind, the problem involved in a discussion regarding life after death is to determine the factors that led man to question the continuance of life in some form after it had fled from the body.

“In the Old Testament it is only in the later books, like Ecclesiastes and Job, that the question is raised or suggested whether or not there is anything for man to look forward to after the breath of life has passed out of him. We may detect in certain aspects of the problem in these frankly skeptical productions of the Hebrew mind the influence—direct or indirect—of Greek philosophical thought, which early began to concern itself with this problem. Out of this doubt there arises after an interval of some centuries, on the one hand, the Jewish and Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and on the other, the belief in a resurrection of the dead in some form. In Buddhism we see the persistency of the belief that life is continuous leading to the hope of release from life, as the ideal that can be attained only by those who, after a succession of existences in which they have schooled themselves to get rid of the desire of living, have merited also by their increasing purity the rare reward of Nirvâna.

Mesopotamian Funerals

procession in Ur
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."

Burial Customs in Mesopotamia

The Assyrians preserved corpses in honey.Early types of Babylonian coffins were bath-tube shaped. Later ones were slipper-shaped coffins. Those from the Persian period frequently have glazed covers with ornamental designs. The coffins may be regarded as typical of the mode of burying the dead in coffins in Babylonia and Assyria, though various other modes existed as well. Excavations in Nippur, Assyria and Babylonia have uncovered graves vaulted in by brick walls. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

Morris Jastrow said: “Proper burial is, therefore, all essential, even though it can do no more than secure peace for the dead in their cheerless abode, and protection for the living by preventing the dead from returning in gaunt forms to plague them. Libations are poured forth to them at the grave, and food offered by sorrowing relatives. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“The greatest misfortune that can happen to the dead is to be exposed to the light of day; far down into the Assyrian period we find this exemplified in the boast of Ashurbanapal that he had destroyed the tombs of the kings of Elam, and removed their bodies from their resting-place. The corpses of the Babylonians who took part in a rebellion, fomented by his treacherous brother Shamash-shumukin, Ashurbanapal scattered, so he tells us, “like thorns and thistles” over the battle-field, and gave them to dogs, and swine, and to the birds of heaven. At the close of the inscriptions on monuments recording the achievements of the rulers, and also on the so-called boundary stones, recording grants of lands, or other privileges, curses are hurled against any one who destroys the record; and as a part of these curses is almost invariably the wish that the body of that ruthless destroyer may be cast forth unburied.

“Mutilation of the corpses of foes, so frequently emphasised by Assyrian rulers, is merely another phase of this curse upon the dead. On one of our oldest pictorial monuments, portraying and describing the victory of Eannatum, the patesi of Lagash (ca . 3000 B.C.), over the people of Umma, the contrast between the careful burial of the king’s warriors, and the fate allotted to the enemy is shown by vultures flying off with heads in their beaks.

20120208-Arge_aus_Babylonien 2.jpg
Babylonian coffin

“Proper burial is, therefore, all essential, even though it can do no more than secure peace for the dead in their cheerless abode, and protection for the living by preventing the dead from returning in gaunt forms to plague them. Libations are poured forth to them at the grave, and food offered by sorrowing relatives. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“The monument is of further interest in depicting the ancient custom of burying the dead unclad, which recalls the words of Job (i., 21),“naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither,” which may be an adumbration of this custom. To this day, among Mohammedans and orthodox Jews, the body is not buried in ordinary clothes but is merely wrapped in a shroud; this custom is only a degree removed from the older custom of naked burial. Whether or not in Babylonia and Assyria this custom was also thus modified as a concession to growing refinement, we do not know, but presumably in later times the dead were covered before being consigned to the earth.

“There are also some reasons for believing that, at one time, it was customary to sew the dead in bags, or wrap them in mats of reeds. At all times, however, the modes of burial retained their simplicity. If from knowledge derived from later ages we may draw conclusions for earlier ages, it would seem that the general custom was to place the dead in a sitting or half-reclining posture, on reed mats, and to cover them with a large jar or dish, or to place them in clay compartments having the shape of bath-tubs. The usual place of burial seems to have been in vaults, often beneath the houses of the living. In later periods, we find the tubs replaced by the long slippershaped clay coffins, with an opening at one end into which the body was forced. Throughout these various customs a desire is indicated not merely to bury the body, but to imprison it safely so as to avoid the danger of a possible escape. Weapons and ornaments were placed on the graves, and also various kinds of food, though whether or not this was a common practice at all periods has not yet been determined.

The Stele of E-annatum, Patesi (and King) of Lagash (c . 2900 B.C.) Is a remarkable limestone monument carved on both sides with designs and inscriptions. It was found at Telloh in badly mutilated condition but careful study of its recovered pieces reveals that it represents the conquest of the people of Umma by Eannatum, and records the solemn agreement made between Eannatum and the people of Umma. The upper piece represents vultures flying off with the heads of the slain opponents—to illustrate their dreadful fate. These dead are shown in the second figure, while in the third others who have fallen in battle are carefully arranged in groups and a burial mound is being built over them by attendants who carry the earth for the burial in baskets placed on their heads. Traces of a ceremonial offering to the dead are to be seen in another fragment. The designs on the obverse are symbolical—the chief figure being the patron deity, Ningirsu with the eagle on two lions as the emblem of the god (see Pl. 5, Fig. 1) in his hand, and the net in which the deity has caught the enemies.

Babylonian coffin

Different Funeral Customs in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia

Morris Jastrow said: “In general, it may be said, the tombs of the Babylonians and Assyrians were always exceedingly simple, and we find no indications whatever that even for monarchs elaborate structures were erected as their resting-place. Herein Babylonia and Assyria present a striking contrast to Egypt, which corresponds to the difference no less striking between the two nations in their conceptions of life after death. In Egypt, the preservation of the body was a condition essential to the well-being of the dead, whereas in Babylonia a mere burial was all-sufficient and no special care was taken to keep the body from decay. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“The elaborate mortuary ceremonial in Egypt finds no parallel in the Euphrates Valley, where the general feeling appears to be that for the dead there was not much that could be done. Such customs as were observed were prompted, as has been said, rather by a desire to protect the living from being annoyed or tortured by the shades of the unburied or neglected dead. That this fear was genuine is indicated by the belief in a class of demons, known as etimmu, which means the “shade” of a departed person. This conception is best explained as a survival of primitive beliefs found elsewhere, which among many people in a stage of primitive culture led to a widespread and complicated ancestor worship. That this worship existed in Babylonia also is highly probable, but it must have died out as part of the official cult before we reach the period for which we have documentary material; we find no references to it in the ritual texts

Sumerian Burial and Tombs

20120208-IncantationBowl Nippur.jpg
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

20120208-British Museum royal grave.jpg
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.

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
junior wife.
His beloved singer.
cup-bearer and his
beloved barber...”

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.

Mesopotamia Nether World

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.

Morris Jastrow said: “ Deep down in the bowels of the earth there was pictured a subterranean cave in which the dead are huddled together. The place is dark, gloomy, and damp, and in a poetic work it is described as a neglected and forlorn palace, where dust has been allowed to gather—a place of dense darkness where, to quote the fine paradox of Job (x., 22), “even light is as darkness.” It is a land from which there is no return, a prison in which the dead are confined for all time, or if the shade of some spirit does rise up to earth, it is for a short interval only, and merely to trouble the living. The horror that the dwelling-place of the dead inspired is illustrated by the belief that makes it also the general abode of the demons, though we have seen that they are not limited to this abode. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“Again, this dwelling-place is pictured as a great city, and, curiously enough, it is at times designated like the temple of Enlil at Nippur as E-Kur-Bad, “Mountain-house [or “temple”] of the dead.” The most common name for this abode, however, is Aralu —a term that occurs in Sumerian compositions, but may nevertheless be a good Semitic word. By the side of this term, we find other poetic names, as “the house of Tammuz,” based upon the fact that the solar god of spring and vegetation is obliged to spend half of the year in the abode of the dead, or Irkallu, which is also the designation of a god of the subterranean regions, or Cuthah—the seat of the cult of Nergal,—because of the association of Nergal, the god of pestilence and death, with the lower world. The names and metaphors all emphasise the gloomy conceptions connected with the abode of the dead.

“It was, however, inevitable that speculation by choicer minds should dwell on a theme so fascinating and important, and endeavour to bring the popular conceptions into harmony with the conclusions reached in the course of time in the temple-schools. Corresponding to the endeavour to connect with the personified powers of nature certain ethical qualities, reflecting a higher degree of moral development, we meet at least the faint inkling of the view that the gods, actuated by justice and mercy, could not condemn all alike to a fate so sad as eternal confinement in a dark cave. Besides Aralu, there was also an “Island of the Blest,” situated at the confluence of the streams, to which those were carried who had won the favour of the gods. One of these favourites is Ut-Napishtim, who was sought out by Ea, the god of humanity, as one worthy to escape from a deluge that destroyed the rest of mankind; and with Ut-Napishtim, his wife was also carried to the island, where both of them continued to lead a life not unlike that of the immortal gods. But though the theory of this possible rescue seems to have arisen at a comparatively early period, it does not appear, for some reason, to have been developed to any extent. In this respect, Babylonia presents a parallel to Greece, where we likewise find the two views, Hades for the general mass of humanity and a blessed island for the rare exceptions—the very rare exceptions—limited to those who, like Menelaos, are closely related to the gods, or, like Tiresias, favoured because of the possession of the divine gift of prophecy in an unusual degree.

“We might have supposed that, among the Babylonians, the rulers, as standing much closer to the gods than the common people, would have been singled out for the privilege of a transfer to the Island of the Blest, but this does not appear to have been the case. Like the kings and heroes of the Greek epic, they all pass to the land of no-return, to the dark dwelling underground. An exception is not even made for kings like Sargon and Naram-Sin of Akkad, or for Dungi of the Ur dynasty and his successors, and some of the rulers of Isin and Larsa, who have the sign for deity attached to their names, and some of whom had temples dedicated in their honour, just like gods. The divinity of these Babylonian kings appears to have been, as with the Seleucid rulers, a political and not a religious prerogative, and the evidence would seem to show that this political deification of kings was closely bound up with their control of Nippur as the paramount religious centre of the country. In theory, the ruler of this city was the god, Enlil, himself, and, therefore, he who had control of the city was put on a parity with the god, as his son or representative—the vicar of Enlil on earth, a kind of pontifex maximus, with the prerogatives of divinity as the symbol of his office.

“We do not find that the speculations of the Babylonian and Assyrian priests ever led to any radical modification of the conceptions concerning Aralñ. It remains a gloomy place,—a tragic terminus to earthly joys, and always contemplated with horror. The refrain, running through all the lessons which the priests attached to popular myths in giving them a literary form, is that no man can hope to escape the common fate. Enkidu, who is introduced into the Gilgamesh epic and appears to be in some respects a counterpart to the Biblical Adam, is created by Aruru, the fashioner of mankind, but when slain by the wiles of the goddess Ishtar, goes to Aralfi. as the rest of mankind.”

Journeys to the Netherworld

Nergal, god the underworld

Morris Jastrow said: “In other compositions, Ishtar is described as herself proceeding to the nether world to seek out her lover and spouse, Tammuz, in order to bring the god back to earth again amidst general rejoicing that clearly symbolises the return of vegetation. May we see in this association of Ishtar with Tammuz the reason why in the later periods we do not find references to the popular festival as part of the official cult? Ishtar and Tammuz are closely related figures; both symbolise vegetation—one as the personification of the sun, the other as the personification of mother earth. The combination of Tammuz and Ishtar, as husband and wife, is merely the usual artificial attempt to combine two figures that represent the same idea—induced in this instance by the analogy of the male and female principles. There are, in fact, indications that Tammuz was, at certain places, or at an early period, regarded as a goddess and not as a god. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“The story of Tammuz’s annual journey to the nether world is paralleled by Ishtar’s descent into the realm of Nergal and Ereshkigal. The two stories embody the same myth of the change of seasons, and it is natural, therefore, that with the later predominance of the Ishtar cult, Ishtar should gradually have displaced Tammuz in the official ritual of the temples. In place of the lament for Tammuz we have the myth of Ishtar’s enforced journey to Aralti,—as the nether world was commonly termed,—and of her ultimate escape, which was recited in the temples at the festival marking the waning of the summer season; the lament for the goddess was tempered, however, by the certain hope of her return. Popular customs survive theoretical and official reconstructions of beliefs and practices through the speculations and the intellectual influence of priests. The testimony of Ezekiel is a significant witness to the persistence in the Semitic world, as late as the sixth century B.C., of the custom of bewailing the disappearance of Tammuz.

“No less significant is the spread of the Tammuz myth under various forms far beyond the confines of the Semitic world. Is it, perhaps, also significant that the Hebrew prophet describes the women of Jerusalem as practising this rite? In all religious bodies, as has already been suggested, women represent the conservative element, among whom religious customs continue in practice after they have been abandoned by men. The women—outside of their functions as priestesses—took no part, so far as we know, in the official cult of Babylonia and Assyria, as they took no such part among the ancient Hebrews. It may turn out, therefore, to be the case that in Babylonia, as in Palestine, the non-official or extra-official cult of Tammuz was maintained outside of the temples through the influence of the female population—as a popular rite, surviving from very ancient days, and having had at one time a significance equal to that which was afterwards assumed by the cult of Ishtar.

“In another regard the mourning for Tammuz is invested with a special interest. Under the form Ad6n, —a title of Tammuz signifying “lord,”—the myth passed to the Phoenicians, and thence to the Greeks, who, adapting it to their own mythology (which may also have preserved a similar myth of the change of seasons), replace Ishtar by Aphrodite. The story of Adonis and Aphrodite in any case is to be traced directly to the Sumerian-Babylonian Tammuz-Ishtar myth. The weeping for the lost sun-god is the complement to the rejoicing at the return of the sun-god in the spring—the new year’s festival—when nature awakens to new life. The weeping and the rejoicing appear to have been continued up to late days. In one form or another we find among Greeks and Romans the commemoration in the spring of the death of a god, followed by a rejoicing at his return. In view of this, the theory has been advanced that in its last analysis, the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Christ embodies a late echo of the Tammuz-Adonis myth. The “son of God” is slain to reappear as the “risen Lord,” just as in the Phrygian story of Attis and Cybele, and in the Egyptian tale of Osiris and Isis, we have another form of the same myth symbolising the change of seasons.”

Ishtar’s Descent into the Netherworld —Babylonian Version


The following is the Babylonian version of Ishtar's descent into the Underworld.
To Kurnugi, land of no return,
Ishtar daughter of Sin was determined to go;
The daugher of Sin was determined to go
To the dark house, dwelling of Erkalla's God,
To the house which those who enter cannot leave,
On the road where travelling is one-way only,
To the house where those who enter are deprived of light,
Where dust is their food, clay their bread.
They see no light, they dwell in darkness,
They are clothed like birds, with feathers.
Over the door and the bolt, dust has settled.

“Ishtar, when she arrived at the gate of Kurnugi,
Addressed her words to the keeper of the gate,
"Here, gatekeeper, open your gate for me,
Open your gate for me to come in!
If you do not open the gate for me to come in,
I shall shamsh the door and shatter the bolt,
I shall smash the doorpost and overturn the doors,
I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living:
The dead shall outnumber the living!"

“The gatekeeper made his voice heard and spake,
He said to great Ishtar,
"Stop, lady, do not break it down!
Let me go and report your words to queen Ereshkigal."
The gatekeeper went in and spole to Ereshkigal,
"Here she is, your sister Ishtar,
Who holds the great keppu-toy,
Stirs up the Apsu in Ea's presence."

“When Ereshkigal heard this,
Her face grew livid as cut tamarisk,
Her lips grew dark as the rim of a kuninu-vessel.
"What brings her to me? What has encited her against me?
Surely not because I drink water with the Anunnaki,
I eat clay for break, I drink muddy water for beer?
I have to weep for young men forced to abandon sweethearts.
I have to weep for girls wrenched from their lovers' laps.
For the infant child I have to weep, expelled before it's time.
Go, gatekeeper, open your gate to her.
Treat her according to the ancient rites."

Ishtar Passes Through the Gates of the Netherworld

Ishtar's descent to the Underworld

“The gatekeeper went. He opened the gate to her.
"Enter, my lady: may Kutha give you joy,
May the palace of Kurnugi be glad to see you."
He let her in through the first door,
but stripped off and took away the great crown on her head.
"Gatekeeper, why have you taken away the great crown on my head?"
"Go in, my lady. Such are the rites of the Mistress of Earth."
He let her in through the second door,
but stripped off and took away the rings in her ears.
"Gatekeeper, why have you taken away the rings in my ears?"
"Go in, my lady. Such are the rites of the Mistress of Earth."
He let her in through the third door, but stripped off and took away the beads around her neck.

“"Gatekeeper, why have you taken away the beads around my neck?"
"Go in, my lady. Such are the rites of the Mistress of Earth."
He let her in through the fourth door, but stripped off and took away the toggle-pins at her breast.
"Gatekeeper, why have you taken away the toggle-pins at my breast?"
"Go in, my lady. Such are the rites of the Mistress of Earth."
He let her in through the fifth door, but stripped off and took away the girdle of birth-stones around her waist.
"Gatekeeper, why have you taken away
the girdle of birth-stones around my waist?"
"Go in, my lady. Such are the rites of the Mistress of Earth."

“He let her in through the sixth door, but stripped off and took away the bangles on her wrists and ankles.
"Gatekeeper, why have you taken away the bangles from my wrists and ankles?"
"Go in, my lady. Such are the rites of the Mistress of Earth."
He let her in through the seventh door,
but stripped off and took away the proud garment of her body.
"Gatekeeper, why have you taken away the proud garment of my body?"
"Go in, my lady. Such are the rites of the Mistress of Earth."

Ishtar in the Netherworld

“As soon as Ishtar went down to Kurnugi,
Ereshkigal looked at her and trembled before her.
Ishtar did not deliberate, but leant over her.
Ereshkigal made her voice heard and spake,
Addressed her words to Namtar her vizier,
"Go, Namtar...Send out against her sixty diseases
] Ishtar:Disease of the eyes to her eyes,
Disease of the arms to her arms,
Diseiase of the feet to her feet,
Disease of the heart to her heart,
Disease of the head to her head,
To every part of her and to [ ]."

“After Ishtar the mistress of [ ] had gone down to Kurnugi,
No bull mounted a cow, no donkey impregnated a jenny,
No young man impregnated a girl in the street,
The young man slept in his private room,
The girl slept in the company of her friends.
Then Papsukkal, vizier of the great gods,
hung his head, his face became gloomy;
He wore mourning clothes, his hair was unkempt.
Dejected, he went and wept before Sin his father,
His tears flowed freely before king Ea.
"Ishtar has gone down to the Earth and has not come up again.
As soon as Ishtar went down to Kurnugi
No bull mounted a cow, no donkey impregnated a jenny,
No young man impregnated a girl in the street,
The young man slept in his private room,
The girl slept in the company of her friends."

“Ea, in the wisdom of his heart, created a person.
He created Good-looks the playboy.
"Come, Good-looks, set your face towards the gate of Kurnugi.
The seven gates of Kurnugi shall be opened before you.
Ereshkigal shall look at you and be glad to see you.
whe she is relaxed, her mood will lighten.
Get her to swear the oath by the great gods.
Raise your head, pay attention to the waterskin,
Saying, 'O, my lady, let them give me the waterskin, that I may drink water from it.'"

Ishtar Escapes from the Netherworld

“When Ereshkigal heard this,
She struck her thigh and bit her finger.
"You have made a request of me that should not have been made!
Come, Good-looks, I shall curse you with a great curse.
I shall decree for you a fate that shall never be forgotten.
Bread gleaned from the city's ploughs shall be your food,
The city drains shall be your only drinking place,
The shade of a city wall your only standing place,
Threshold steps your only sitting place,
The drunkard and the thirsty shall slap your cheek."
Ereshkigal made her voice heard and spake;
She addressed her words to Namtar her vizier,
"Go, Namtar, knock at Egalgina,
Decorate the threshold steps with coral,
Bring the Anunnaki out and seat them on golden thrones,
Sprinkle Ishtar with the waters of life and conduct her into my presence."

“Namtar went, knocked at Egalgina,
Decorated the threshold steps with coral,
Brought out the Anunnaki, seated them on golden thrones,
Sprinkled Ishtar with the waters of life and brought her to her sister.
He let her out through the first door,
and gave back to her the proud garment of her body.
He let her out through the second door,
and gave back to her the bangles for her wrists and ankles.
He let her out through the third door,
and gave back to her the girdle of birth-stones around her waist.
He let her out through the fourth door,
and gave back to her the toggle-pins at her breast.
He let her out through the fifth door,
and gave back to her the beads around her neck.
He let her out through the sixth door,
and gave back to her the rings for her ears.
He let her out through the seventh door,
and gave back to her the great crown for her head.

“"Swear that she has paid you her ransom, and give her back in exchange for him, for Dumuzi, the lover of her youth.
Wash him with pure water, anoint him with sweet oil,
Clothe him in a red robe, let the lapis lazuli pipe play.
Let the party-girls raise a loud lament."

“Then Belili tore off her jewellery,
Her lap was filled with eyestones.
Belili heard the lament for her brother, she struck the jewellery from her body,
The eyestones with which the front of the wild cow was filled.
"You shall not rob me forever of my only brother!
On the day when Dumuzi comes back up, and the lapis lazuli pipe and the
carnelian ring come up with him,
When male and female mourners come up with him,
the dead shall come up and smell the smoke of offering."

Blessed Island: Mesopotamian Heaven?

Morris Jastrow said: “In seeking a reason why the speculations of the temple-schools, regarding the mysteries of the universe, should not have led to the doctrine of a more cheerful destiny for the dead such as in the Blessed Island (to which, as we have seen, only a few favourites of the gods were admitted), we are surprised by the almost complete absence of all ethical considerations in connection with the dead.[Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“While much stress was at all times laid upon conduct agreeable to the gods (and one of the most sig-ficant members of the pantheon is Shamash, the god of justice and righteousness), the thought that good deeds will find a reward from the gods after life has ceased is absent from the religious literature of Babylonia and Assyria. There is a special pantheon for the nether world, where the dead sojourn, but there is no figure such as Osiris in the Egyptian religion, the judge of the dead, who weighs the good deeds against the bad in order to decide the destiny of the soul. To be sure, everything is done by the living to secure the favour of the gods, to appease their anger, and to regain their favour by elaborate expiatory rites, and by confession of sins, and yet all the hopes of the people are centred upon earthly happiness and present success. The gods appear to be concerned neither for the dead nor with them. Their interest, like that of their worshippers, was restricted to the living world.

“Even with so exceptional a mortal as Ut-Napishtim, who is carried to the Blessed Island, no motive is ascribed to Ea, who warns Ut-Napishtim of the coming destruction of mankind, and provides for his escape by bidding him build a ship. It is not even alleged of Ut-Napishtim that he was a faithful worshipper, much less that by exemplary conduct he merited the special favour bestowed on him. Of his Biblical counterpart, Noah, we are told that he was “perfect and righteous”—praises that are applied to only one other character in the whole range of Old Testament literature, to wit, Job. But no such encomium is passed on Ut-Napishtim, who, in another version, is designated merely as a “very clever one.”

“Had an ethical factor been introduced, in however faint a degree, we should have found a decided modification of the primitive views in regard to the fate of the dead. Perhaps there might have been a development not unlike that which took place among the Hebrews, who, starting from the same point as the Babylonians and Assyrians, reached the conclusion (as a natural corollary to the ethical transformation which the conception of their national deity, Jahweh, underwent) that a god of justice and mercy extended his protection to the dead as well as to the living, and that those who suffered injustice in this world would find a compensatory reward in the next.

Dumuzid tortured in the underworld

Death, Heaven and the Story of Tammuz and Ningishzida

Morris Jastrow said: “The story, as is so frequently the case, is composite. A lament for the disappearance of the two gods of vegetation—Tammuz and Ningishzida—is interlaced with a story of a certain Adapa, who is summoned to appear before Anu, the god of heaven, for having, while fishing, broken the wings of the south-wind, so that for seven days that wind did not blow. At the suggestion of Ea, Adapa dons a mourning garb before coming into the presence of Anu, and is told to answer, when asked why he had done so, that he is mourning for two deities who have disappeared from earth. He is further cautioned against drinking the waters of death, or eating the food of death that will be offered him when he comes before the council of the gods. Adapa faithfully carries out the instructions, but Tammuz and Ningishzida, the guardians at the gate of the heavens, are moved by pity when they learn from Adapa that he is mourning for their own removal from earth, and decide to offer him food of life and water of life. Adapa, ignorant of the substitution, refuses both, and thus forfeits immortal life. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“The tale implies that, while Tammuz and Ningishzida are distressed at Adapa’s error, Anu, the head of the pantheon, experiences a sense of relief, in the assurance that man is not destined to receive the boon of the gods—immortality. The tale belongs to the same class as the famous one in the third chapter of Genesis, where, to be sure, Adam is punished for disobedience to the divine command, but there is a decided trace of the belief that the gods do not wish men to be immortal in the fear uttered (Genesis iii., 22) by Jahweh-Elohim that man, having tasted of the tree of knowledge, “may find his way to the tree of life and live for ever.”

“The two tales—of Adapa and of Adam—certainly stand in some relation to each other. Both are intended as an answer to the question why man is not immortal. They issue from a common source. The Biblical tale has been stripped almost entirely of its mythical aspects, as is the case with other tales in the early chapters of Genesis which may be traced back to Babylonian prototypes, but the real contrast between the two is the introduction of the ethical factor in the Hebrew version. Jahweh-Elohim, like Anu, does not desire man to be immortal, but the Hebrew writer justifies this attitude by Adam’s disobedience, whereas the Babylonian in order to answer the question is forced to have recourse to a deception practised upon man; Adapa obeys and yet is punished. That is the gist of the Babylonian tale, which so well illustrates the absence of an ethical factor in the current views regarding life after death.”

Gods and the Mesopotamia Nether World

Morris Jastrow said: “The gods who are placed in control of Aralû partake of the same gloomy and forbidding character as the abode over which they rule. At the head stands the god of pestilence and death, Nergal, identified in astrology with the ill-omened planet Mars, whose centre of worship, Cuthah, became, as we have seen, one of the designations of the nether world. By the side of Nergal stands his consort Ereshkigal (or Allatu)—the Proserpine of Babylonian mythology,—as forbidding in her nature as he is, and who appears to have been, originally, the presiding genius of Aralñ with whom Nergal is subsequently associated. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“A myth describes how Nergal invaded the domain of Ereshkigal, and forced her to yield her dominion to him. The gods are depicted as holding a feast to which all come except Ereshkigal. She sends her grim messenger Namtar—that is, the “demon of plague”—to the gods, among whom there is one, Nergal, who fails to pay him a proper respect. When Ereshkigal hears of this, she is enraged and demands the death of Nergal. The latter, undaunted, proceeds to the abode of the angry goddess, encouraged to do so apparently by Enlil and the gods of the pantheon. A gang of fourteen demons, whose names indicate the tortures and misery inflicted by Nergal, accompany the latter. He stations them at the gates of Eresh-kigal’s domain so as to prevent her escape.

“A violent scene ensues when Nergal and Ereshkigal meet. Nergal drags the goddess from her throne by the hair, overpowers her, and threatens to kill her. Ereshkigal pleads for mercy, and agrees to share with him her dominion. “Do not kill me, my brother! Let me tell thee something.” Nergal desists and Ereshkigal continues: “Be my husband and I will be thy wife. /I will grant thee sovereignty in the wide earth, entrusting to thee the tablet of wisdom./ Thou shalt be master, and I the mistress.” In this way the myth endeavours to account for the existence of two rulers in Aralu, but one may doubt that a union so inauspiciously begun was very happy.

“Another myth, again portraying the change of seasons, describes the entrance of Ishtar, the goddess of vegetation, into the domain of Ereshkigal. The gradual decay of the summer season is symbolised by the piece of clothing, or ornament, which Ishtar is obliged to hand to the guardian at each of the seven gates leading to the presence of Ereshkigal, until, when Ishtar appears at last before her sister, she stands there entirely naked. All trace of vegetation has disappeared, and nature is bare when the wintry season appears and storms set in. In a rage Ereshkigal flies at her sister Ishtar, and orders her messenger Namtar to keep the goddess a prisoner in her palace, from which she is released, however, after some time, by an envoy of Ea. While Ishtar is in the nether world, all life and fertility cease on earth—a clear indication of the meaning of the myth.

“The gods mourn her departure. Shamash the sun-god laments before Sin and Ea:
Ishtar has descended into the earth and is not come up.
Since Ishtar is gone to the land of no-return,
The bull cares not for the cow, the ass cares not for the jenny,
The man cares not for the maid in the market,
The man sleeps in his place,
The wife sleeps alone.

“Ea creates a mysterious being, Asushu-namir, whom he dispatches to the nether world to bring the goddess back to earth. The messenger of Ea is clearly a counterpart of Tammuz, the solar god of the spring, who brings new life to mother earth. Ishtar is sprinkled with the water of life by Asushu-namir and, as she is led out of her prison, each piece of clothing or ornament is returned to her in passing from one gate to the other, until she emerges in all her former glory and splendour. The tale forming originally, perhaps, part of the cult of Tammuz, and recited at the season commemorating the snatching away of the youthful god, illustrates again the hopelessness of escape from the nether world for ordinary mortals. Ishtar can be released from her imprisonment when the spring comes. Tammuz, too, is revived and returns to the world; but alas for mankind, doomed to eternal imprisonment in the “land of no-retum”! The tale ends with a suggestion of hope that “in the days of Tammuz,” that is at the lament for Tammuz (which here assumes the character of a general lament for the dead), the dead, roused by the plaints of the living, may rise and enjoy the incense offered to them—but that is all. They cannot be brought back to earth and sunlight.

“The messengers and attendants of Nergal and Ereshkigal are the demons whom we have met in the incantation rituals. They are the precursors of all kinds of misery and ills to mankind, sent as messengers from the nether world to plague men, women, and children with disease, stirring up strife and rivalry in the world, separating brother from brother, defrauding the labourer of the fruits of his labour, and spreading havoc and misery on all sides; depicted as ferocious and terrifying creatures, ruthless and eternally bent on mischief and evil. The association of these demons with the world where no life is, further emphasises the view held of the fate of the dead. With such beings as their gaolers what hope was there for those who were imprisoned in the great cavern? If conscious of their state, as they appear to have been, what emotion could they have but that of perpetual terror?”

Lack of Judgement About Good and Evil in the Mesopotamian Afterlife

Morris Jastrow said: “The absence of the ethical factor in the conception of life after death, preventing, as we have seen, the rise of a doctrine of retribution for the wicked, and belief in a better fate for those who had lived a virtuous and godly life, had at least a compensation in not leading to any dogma of actual bodily sufferings for the dead. The dead were at all events secure from the demons who came up to plague the living, but whose duty so far as the dead were concerned seemed to be limited to keeping the departed shades in their prison. Nor did the gods of the upper world concern themselves with the dead, and while in the descriptions of Nergal and Ereshkigal and their attendants we have all the elements needed for the revelation of the tortures of hell, so vividly portrayed by Christian and Mohammedan theologians, so long as Aralu remained the abode of all the dead, it was free from the cries of the condemned—a gloomy but a silent habitation. A hell full of tortures is the counterpart of a heaven full of joys. The Babylonian-Assyrian religion had neither the one nor the other; and the natural consequence was the doctrine that what happiness man may desire must be secured in this world. It was now or never. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 ]

“This lesson is actually drawn in a version of the Gilgamesh epic, which, be it remembered, dates from the period of Hammurabi. The hero, smitten with disease and fearing death, is discouraged by the gods themselves in his quest of life, and in his desire to escape the fate of his companion Enkidu. Shamash, the sun-god, tells him:“Gilgamesh, whither hurriest thou? The life that thou seekest thou wilt not find.” Sabitu, a maiden, dwelling on the seacoast, to whom Gilgamesh goes, tells him the same. In reply to the following greeting of the hero: Now, O Sabitu, that I see thy countenance, May I not see death which I fear!

“Sabitu imparts to him a guidance for life: Gilgamesh, whither hurriest thou?
The life that thou seekest thou wilt not find.
When the gods created man,
They fixed death for mankind.
Life they took in their own hand.
Thou, O Gilgamesh, let thy belly be filled!
Day and night be merry,
Daily celebrate a feast,
Day and night dance and make merry!
Clean be thy clothes,
Thy head be washed, bathe in water!
Look joyfully on the child that grasps thy hand,
Be happy with the wife in thine arms!

“This is the philosophy of those whom Isaiah (xxii., 13) denounces as indifferent to the future: “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we must die.” “Like an echo of the Babylonian poem the refrain of Ecclesiastes rings in our ears: “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat, and that his soul should enjoy his labour. / All go to one place,” says Ecclesiastes (iii., 20). / All are of the dust and all turn to dust. Vanity, vanity—all is vanity.”

“Almost the very words of the Babylonian poem are found in a famous passage of Ecclesiastes (ix., 7-9): “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry heart. Let thy garments be always white, and let thy head not lack ointment. Live joyfully with thy wife whom thou lovest, all the days of thy life of vanity which he has given thee under the sun—for this is thy portion.

“The pious Hebrew mind found the corrective to this view of life in the conception of a stern but just god, acting according to self-imposed standards of right and wrong, whose rule extends beyond the grave. This attitude finds expression in the numerous additions that were made to Ecclesiastes in order to counteract the frankly cynical teachings of the original work, and to tone down its undisguised skepticism.

““Know,” says one of these glossators,
that for all these things God will bring thee unto judgment” (xi., 9).
The conclusion of the whole matter,” says another,
is to fear God and keep his commandments ” (xii., 13).
A good name,” says a third,
is better than precious ointment” (vii., i).

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, 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.

Last updated September 2018

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