After Life: Babylonian perspective

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

 

The Views of Life After Death

The problem of immortality, we have seen, engaged the serious attention of the Babylonian theologians. While the solutions they had to offer could hardly have been satisfactory either to themselves or to the masses, it must not be supposed that the denial of immortality to man involved the total extinction of conscious vitality. Neither the people nor the leaders of religious thought ever faced the possibility of the total annihilation of what once was called into existence. Death was a passage to another kind of life, and the denial of immortality merely emphasized the impossibility of escaping the change in existence brought about by death. The gods alone do not pass from one phase of existence to the other. Death was mysterious, but not more mysterious than life.

The Babylonian religion does not transcend the stage of belief, characteristic of primitive culture everywhere, which cannot conceive of the possibility of life coming to an absolute end. Life of some kind and in some form was always presupposed. So far as man was concerned, created by some god,–Bel, Ea, Aruru, or Ishtar, according to the various traditions that were current,–no divine fiat could wipe out what was endowed with life and the power of reproduction.

No doubt, the impossibility for the individual to conceive of himself as forever deprived of consciousness, was at the bottom of the primitive theory of the perpetuity of existence in some form. Among ancient religions, Buddhism alone frees itself from this theory and unfolds a bold doctrine of the possibility of a complete annihilation. The question, however, whether the continuity of existence was a blessing or a curse was raised by many ancient nations. The Babylonians are among these who are inclined to take a gloomy view of the passage from this world to the existence in store for humanity after death, and the religious leaders were either powerless or disinclined to controvert this view.

Location and Names of the Gathering Place of the Dead.

We have already had occasion to refer to the great cave underneath the earth in which the dead were supposed to dwell, and since the earth itself was regarded as a mountain, the cave is pictured as a hollow within, or rather underneath, a mountain. A conception of this kind must have arisen among a people that was once familiar with a mountainous district. The settlers of the Euphrates Valley brought the belief with them from an earlier mountain home. The cave, moreover, points to cave-dwelling and to cave-burial as conditions that prevailed at one time among the populace, precisely as the imitation of the mountain with its caves in the case of the Egyptian pyramids, is due to similar influences. To this cave various names are assigned in the literature of the Babylonians,–some of popular origin, others reflecting scholastic views. The most common name is Aralu. We also find the term ‘house of Aralu.’ The etymology of the term is obscure. Aralu was pictured as a vast place, dark and gloomy. It is sometimes called a land, sometimes a great house. The approach to it was difficult. It lay in the lowest part of the mountain that represented the earth, not far from the hollow underneath the mountain into which the ‘Apsu’ flowed.

Surrounded by seven walls and strongly guarded, it was a place to which no living person could go and from which no mortal could ever depart after once entering it. To Aralu all went whose existence in this world had come to an end. Another name which specifies the relationship of Aralu to the world is Ekur or ‘mountain house’ of the dead. Ekur is one of the names for the earth, but is applied more particularly to that part of the mountain, also known as Kharsag-kurkura ,i.e., ‘the mountain of all lands’ where the gods were born. Before the later speculative view was developed, according to which the gods, or most of them, have their seats in heaven, it was on this mountain also that the gods were supposed to dwell. Hence Ekur became also one of the names for temple, as the seat of a god. The dwelling of the dead was regarded as a part of the ‘great mountain.’ It belonged to Ekur, and the fact that it was designated simply as Ekur, is a valuable indication that the dead were brought into close association with the gods. This association is also indicated by the later use of Aralu as the designation of the mountain within which the district of the dead, Aralu proper, lay-synonymous, therefore, with Ekur. We shall seein the course of this chapter that the dead are placed even more than the living under the direct supervision of the gods.

A third name for the nether world which conveys an important addition to the views held regarding the dead, was Shualu. Jensen, it is true, following Bertin, questions the existence of this term in Babylonian, but one does not see how the evidence of the passages in the lexicographical tablets can be set aside in the way that he proposes. Zimmern does not appear to be convinced by Jensen’s arguments and regards the question as an open one. Jensen’s method of disposing of Shualu, besides being open to serious objections, fails to account for the fact that Shualu is brought into association with various Babylonian terms and ideographs for the grave. This cannot be accidental. That the term has hitherto been found only in lexicographical tablets need not surprise us. Aralu, too, is of rare occurrence in the religious texts. The priests appear to avoid the names for the nether world, which were of ill omen, and preferred to describe the place by some epithet, as ‘land without return,’ or ‘dark dwelling, or ‘great city,’ and the like. Of such descriptive terms we have a large number. The stem underlying Shualu signifies ‘to ask.’ Shualu is a place of inquiry, and the inquiry meant is of the nature of a religious oracle. The name, accordingly, is an indication of the power accorded to the dead, to aid the living by furnishing them with answers to questions, just as the gods furnish oracles through the mediation of the priests.

The Old Testament supplies us with an admirable illustration of the method of obtaining oracles through the dead. Saul, when he desires to know what the outcome of a battle is to be, seeks out a sorceress, and through her calls up the dead Samuel and puts the question to him. Similarly, in the Gilgamesh epic, the hero, with the aid of Nergal, obtains a sight of Eabani and plies him with questions. The belief, therefore, in this power of the dead was common to Babylonians and Hebrews, and, no doubt, was shared by other branches of the Semites. It is natural, therefore, to find the Babylonian term Shualu paralleled by the Hebrew Sheol, which is the common designation in the Old Testament for the dwelling-place of the dead. How widespread the custom was among Babylonians of inquiring ‘through the living of the dead’ it is difficult, in default of satisfactory evidence, to say. The growing power of the priests as mediators between men and gods must have acted as a check to such practices. The priests, as the inquirers, naturally proceeded direct to the particular god whose representative they claimed to be, and the development of an elaborate ceremonial in the temples in connection with the oracles was a further factor that must have influenced the gradual abandonment of the custom, at least as an element of the “official” cult.

Moreover, the belief itself belongs in the domain of ancestor worship, and in historical times we find but little trace of such worship among the Babylonians. We may, therefore, associate the custom with the earliest period of the Babylonian religion. This view carries with it the antiquity of the term Shualu. Like Aralu and the designation Ekur, it embodies the close association of the dead with the gods. The dead not only dwell near the gods, but, like the gods, they can direct the affairs of mankind. Their answers to questions put to them have divine justification. From this view of the dead to the deification of the latter is but a short step. It does not, of course, follow, from the fact that Shualu or Sheol is the place of ‘oracles,’ that all the dead have the power to furnish oracles or can be invoked for this purpose.

Correspondingly, if we find that the Babylonians did deify their dead, it does not mean that at one time all the dead were regarded as gods. Popular legends are concerned only with the heroes, with the popular favorites–not with the great masses. Eabani, who appears to Gilgamesh, is a hero, and so is Samuel. As a matter of fact, we have so far only found evidence that the ancient rulers whose memory lingered in the minds of the people were regarded by later generations as gods. So the names of Dungi and Gudea are written on tablets that belong to the centuries immediately following their reign, with the determinative that is placed before the names of gods. Festivals were celebrated in honor of these kings, sacrifices were offered to them, and their images were placed in temples. Again, Gimil-Sin (c. 2500 B.C.), of the second dynasty of Ur, appears to have been deified during his lifetime, and there was a temple in Lagash which was named after him. No doubt other kings will be found who were similarly honored. We may expect to come across a god Hammurabi someday. Gilgamesh is, as we have seen, a historical personage whose career has been so thoroughly amalgamated with nature-myths that he ends by becoming a solar deity who is invoked in incantations.

The tendency to connect legendary and mythical incidents with ancient rulers is part and parcel of this process of deification. Of an ancient king, Sargon, a story was related how he was exposed in a boat, and, ‘knowing neither father nor mother,’ was found by a ferryman. The exploits of this king and of his successor, Naram-Sin, were incorporated in an omen text–a circumstance that again illustrates how the popular fancy connected the heroes of the past with its religious interests. Still, there is no more reason to question the historical reality of Sargon than to question the existence of Moses, because a story of his early youth is narrated in Exodus which forms a curious parallel to the Sargon legend, or to question the existence of a personage by the name of Abraham, because an Abrahamic cult arose that continues to the present day.

This close association of the dead with the gods, upon which the deification of the dead rests, may be regarded as a legacy of the earliest period of the Babylonian religion, of the time when the intercourse between the gods and the living was also direct. The belief and rites connected with the dead constitute the most conservative elements in the religion of a people. The organized cult affects the living chiefly. So far as the latter are concerned, the rise of a priesthood to whom the religious needs of the people are entrusted, removes the living from that immediate contact with the gods which we note in the traditions of every people regarding the beginnings of mankind. The priests have no power over the dead. The dead require no ‘mediator.’ Hence, those who dwell in Aralu return to the early state of mankind when gods and mankind ‘walked together.’

Another name that is of frequent occurrence in religious texts is Kigallu, which describes the nether world as a district of great extent, situated within the earth. The chief goddess of the nether world is commonly known as the ‘queen of Kigallu.’ Furthermore, Irkalla, which was interpreted by the Babylonian theologians as ‘great city’ (or ‘district’), is used both as a designation for the dwelling-place of the dead and for the consort of the queen of Aralu.

Beside the names for the nether world above discussed, a large number of epithets and metaphors are found in the religious texts. The place to which the dead go is called the ‘dark dwelling,’ ‘the land from which there is no return,’ ‘house of death,’ ‘the great city,’ ‘the deep land,’ and, since Nergal, the ruler of the lower world, was the patron of the city Cuthah (or Kutu), the name Cuthah was also used as a designation for Aralu. Lastly, it is interesting to note that in poetical usage the words for ‘grave’ were also employed to describe the nether world. The question raised by this metaphor as to the relationship between the grave and the lower world can best be discussed when we come to consider the funeral rites.

The Condition of the Dead and the Impossibility of an Escape from Aralu.

Among the remains of Babylonian literature there is a remarkable production, which furnishes us with an admirable view of the fate in store for those who have left this world. The composition is based upon a nature-myth, symbolizing the change of seasons. Ishtar, the great mother goddess, the goddess of fertility who produces vegetation, is, as we saw in the Gilgamesh epic, also the one who brings about the decline of vegetation. The change in nature that takes place after the summer solstice is passed and the crops have ripened was variously interpreted. According to one, and, as it would seem, the favorite, tradition, the goddess is represented as herself destroying the solar deity, Tammuz, whom she had chosen as a consort. Repentant and weeping, Ishtar passes to the lower world in search of her youthful husband, the symbol of the sun on its approach to the summer solstice. While Ishtar is in the lower world, all fertility ceases, in the fields, as well as in the animal kingdom. At last Ishtar reappears, and nature is joyous once more. In the Semitic Orient there are only two seasons:] winter, or the rainy season, and summer, or the dry season. The myth was, therefore, a symbol of the great contrast that the two seasons presented to one another. Under various forms and numerous disguises, we find the myth among several branches of the Semites, as well as in Egypt and among Aryans who came into contact with Semitic ideas.

A festival celebrated in honor of Tammuz by the Babylonians is one expression of many that the myth received. The designation of the sixth month as “the mission of Ishtar” is another. This myth was adapted by the theologians to illustrate the doctrines that were developed regarding the kind of existence led by the dead. The literary method adopted is the same that characterizes the elaboration of the Adapa myth and of the myths incorporated into the Gilgamesh epic. The story forms the point of departure, but its original purport is set aside to a greater or less degree, necessary modifications are introduced, and the moral or lesson is distinctly indicated. In the case of the production that we are about to consider, the story of Ishtar’s visit to the nether world is told–perhaps by a priest–to a person who seeks consolation. A dear relative has departed this life, and a survivor,–a brother, apparently, is anxious to know whether the dead will ever come back again. The situation reminds one of Gilgamesh seeking out Eabani, with this difference: that, whereas Gilgamesh, aided by Nergal, is accorded a sight of his friend, the ordinary mourner must content himself with the answer given to him. But what Gilgamesh is not permitted to hear, the mourner is told. A description is given him of how the dead fare in Aralu.

The problem, however, is somewhat different in the story of the descent of Ishtar, from the one propounded in the twelfth tablet of the Gilgamesh epic. The question uppermost in the mind of the mourner is “Will the dead return?” The condition of the dead, which is most prominent in Gilgamesh’s mind, is secondary. Both questions, however, are answered, and both answers are hopelessly sad. The nether world is joyless. Even the goddess Ishtar is badly treated upon entering it. The place is synonymous with inactivity and decay; and, though the goddess returns, the conclusion drawn is that the exception proves the inexorable rule. A goddess may escape, but mortals are doomed to everlasting sojourn, or rather imprisonment, in the realm presided over by Allatu and her consort Nergal. The tale begins with a description of the land to which Ishtar proceeds:

To the land whence there is no return, the land of darkness (?)

Ishtar, the daughter of Sin, turned her mind,

The daughter of Sin turned her mind;

To the house of darkness, the dwelling of Irkalla,

To the house whence no one issues who has once entered it.

To the road from which there is no return, when once it has been trodden.

To the house whose inhabitants are deprived of light.

The place where dust is their nourishment, their food clay.

They have no light, dwelling in dense darkness.

And they are clothed like birds, in a garment of feathers;

Where over gate and bolt, dust is scattered.

Ishtar, it will be observed, is here called the daughter of the moon-god, whereas in the Gilgamesh epic she appears as the daughter of Anu, the god of heaven. Both designations reflect the views developed in the schools, and prove that the story has been produced under scholastic influences. The goddess has her place in the heavens, in the planet bearing her name, and the designation of this planet as the daughter of Sin can only be understood in connection with the astronomical system, in which the moon plays so prominent a role and becomes the father of all the great gods (except Shamash) who constitute the lesser luminaries of the night.

Irkalla is one of the names for a god of the nether world, who is regarded as the associate of Allatu. The dwelling is elsewhere spoken of as a ‘great palace’ in which Allatu and her consort Nergal have their thrones. A gloomier place than the one described in these opening lines of the story cannot well be imagined. The picture reflects the popular views, and up to this point, the doctrines of the school are in agreement with the early beliefs. The description of the lower world is evidently suggested by the grave or the cave in which the dead were laid. The reference to dust and clay as the food of the dead shows that the doctrine taught in the Gilgamesh epic, of man’s being formed of clay and returning to clay, was the common one. This view helps us to understand how the words for grave came to be used as synonyms for the nether world. The dead being placed below the earth, they were actually conveyed within the realm of which Aralu was a part, and since it became customary for the Babylonians to bury their dead together, the cities of the dead that thus arose could easily be imagined to constitute the kingdom presided over by Allatu and Nergal. At this point, however, the speculations of the schools begin to diverge from the popular notions.

We may well question whether the Babylonian populace ever attempted to make clear to itself in what form the dead continued their existence. It may be that the argument from dreams, as the basis for the primitive belief in the continuation of life, in some form, after death has been too hard pressed, but certainly the appearance of the dead in the dreams of the living must have produced a profound impression, and since the dead appeared in the same form that they had while alive, the conclusion was natural that, even though the body decayed, a vague outline remained that bore the same relation to the “corpus” as the shadow to the figure casting it. Two remarkable chapters in the Old Testament illustrate this popular view prevailing in Babylonia, as to the condition of the dead in the nether world. The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel both portray the dead as having the same form that they possessed while alive. The kings have their crowns on their heads; the warriors lie with their swords girded about them. The dead Eabani, it will be recalled, appears to Gilgamesh and is at once recognized by the latter. What distinguishes the dead from the living is their inactivity.

They lie in Aralu without doing anything. Everything there is in a state of neglect and decay. The dead can speak, but the Babylonians probably believed, like the Hebrews, that the dead talk in whispers, or chirp like birds. The dead are weak, and, therefore, unless others attend to their needs, they suffer pangs of hunger, or must content themselves with ‘dust and clay’ as their food. Tender care during the last moments of life was essential to comparative well-being in Aralu. The person who goes to Aralu in sorrow and neglect will continue sorrowful and neglected.

The theologians, while accepting these views in general, passed beyond them in an important particular. They could not reconcile the evident dissolution of the body with a continuation of even a shadowy outline. When a man died, the ‘spirit,’ which, according to the animistic theory, lodged somewhere within the body and produced the manifestations of life, sought for refuge in some other substance. The ease with which birds moved from one place to another suggested these beings as the ones in which the dislodged spirit found a home. The Babylonian thinkers were not alone in developing the view that the dead assumed the form of birds. Parallels to the pictures of the dead in the story of Ishtar’s descent may be found in Egypt and elsewhere. But what is important for our purposes is the consideration that, in Babylonia at least, the view in question is not the popular one, but the result of speculations about a problem that appeals only to those who make the attempt, at least, to clarify their ideas regarding the mystery of death. The next section of the story affords us a picture of the entrance to Aralu:

When Ishtar arrived at the gate of the land without return,

She spoke to the watchman of the gate:

Ho! watchman–open thy gate.

Open thy gate that I may enter.

If thou dost not open the gate, if thou refusest me admission,

I will smash the door, break the bolt.

I will smash the threshold, force open the portals.

I will raise up the dead to eat the living

Until the dead outnumber the living.

The entrance to the nether world is strongly guarded. From other sources we learn that there was a ‘spy’–perhaps identical with the watchman–stationed at the portal of the lower world, who reports all happenings to the queen Allatu through Namtar, the god (or spirit) of pestilence. The watchman is to prevent the living from entering, and also the dead from escaping.

The violence of Ishtar is an interesting touch in the narrative. As a goddess, she resents any opposition to her desires. Her anxiety to enter Aralu indicates that the original form of the myth, which must have represented the descent as forced and not voluntary, has been modified by the introduction of a new factor,–the search for her dead consort, Tammuz. The character of Ishtar as the goddess of war may also have influenced this portrayal of her rage. In her violence, she threatens a conflict between the dead and the living. The former will destroy the latter, as a victorious army butchers the hostile host. The watchman endeavors to pacify the enraged Ishtar:

The watchman opened his mouth and spoke.

Spoke to the great Ishtar:

Hold, O mistress, do not destroy them.

I will go and mention thy name to the queen Allatu.

Allatu is grieved upon hearing the news of Ishtar’s arrival, for Ishtar’s disappearance from the world means death.

I must weep for the masters who forsake their consorts.

I must weep for the wives who are torn from their husbands’ side.

For the children I must weep who are snatched away (?) before their time.

Go, watchman, open thy gate.

Deal with her according to the ancient laws.

The scene that follows embodies, again, views of the nether world as developed in the schools. Corresponding to the seven zones surrounding the earth, the nether world is pictured as enclosed by seven gates. Through these Ishtar must pass, before she is ushered into the presence of Allatu.

The watchman went and opened his gate.

Enter, O mistress, welcome in Cuthah.

The great house of the land without return greets thee.

Through the first gate he led her, and boldly removed the great crown from her head.

Why, O watchman, dost thou remove the great crown from my head?

Enter, O mistress, such are the laws of Allatu.

At the second gate, he removes the earrings of the goddess; at the third, her necklace is taken away, and, similarly, at each succeeding gate, a portion of her dress, the ornaments on her breast, her belt of precious stones, her bracelets, until, when the seventh gate is reached, the covering over her loins is removed, and she stands naked before Allatu. At each gate Ishtar asks the same question, why the watchman strips her, and the same answer is given.

The removal of one ornament after the other symbolizes, evidently, the gradual decay of vegetation, not, as has been supposed, that the dead enter Aralu naked.

Allatu calls upon her messenger, Namtar, to strike the goddess with disease in all parts of her body. The disease expresses the same idea as the removal of the ornaments,–decay of strength. There follows a description of the desolation on earth during Ishtar’s sojourn with Allatu. Productivity comes to a standstill.

The ox does not mount the cow, the ass does not bend over the she-ass.

Among mankind, likewise, fertility ceases. The gods lament the absence of Ishtar and the fate that overtook her. The astronomical conception of Ishtar as the planet Venus, at this point, is apparent. The gods complain.

Ishtar has descended to the earth, and has not come up.

As a planet, Ishtar’s seat is in the heavens. The disappearance of the planet has been combined with the nature-myth of the decay of vegetation. As the evening star, Venus dips down into the west, to reappear after a long interval in the east. The astral character of Ishtar dominates the latter half of the story in its present form. It is not the goddess of love and fertility nor the goddess of war who is rescued from her prison by Ea, but the planet Ishtar. Shamash is informed of the disaster by his servant, Pap-sukal. The sun-god proceeds for aid to Sin and Ea. The latter furnishes relief. The sun enters Ea’s domain every evening, and, since it is in the west that the planet sinks like the sun, the association of ideas becomes apparent which suggests Ea as the savior and the sun as the mediator.

Ea created in his wisdom a male being.

He formed Uddushu-namir, a divine servant.

Go, Uddushu-namir, to the gate of the land without return, turn thy face.

The seven gates of the land without return will be opened before thee.

Allatu will see thee and welcome thee

After her heart is pacified, her spirit brightened.

Invoke against her the name of the great gods.

Raise thy countenance, to Sukhal-ziku direct thy attention.

Come, mistress, grant me Sukhal-ziku, that I may drink therefrom.

Ea appears here again in the role of Creator. The name of the mysterious being created by Ea signifies ‘renewal of light.’ The incident, it will be seen, is wholly symbolical. A touch of mysticism has also been introduced. Sukhal-ziku is a compound of a word meaning ‘to sprinkle’ and another which may mean ‘grotto.’ Sukhal-ziku appears, therefore, to be the name for a mysterious fountain, the waters of which restore the dead to life.

Uddushu-namir having pronounced the name of the gods before Allatu, and having thus secured their aid, his request is in the nature of an order. But the request must not be interpreted literally, as though the waters were intended for him. It is for the sake of Ishtar that he desires to have the use of Sukhal-ziku. Allatu understands Uddushu-namir’s speech in this sense, and is enraged at the order to yield up Ishtar.

Allalu, upon hearing this,

Smote her sides and bit her finger.

Thou hast demanded of me a request that should not be requested.

Come, Uddushu-namir, I will curse thee with a terrible curse.

Food from the gutters of the city be thy nourishment.

The sewers (?) of the city be thy drink.

The shadow of the wall be thy seat.

The threshold be thy dwelling.

Exile and banishment break thy strength.

The force of the curse lies in the closing words. Uddushu-namir is to be an outcast. He will not be permitted to enter either city or house, but must remain at the wall or stop at the threshold. Properly prepared food and drink are to be denied him. He shall starve or perish miserably.

But the mission of Uddushu-namir has been accomplished. Allatu may curse as she pleases; the order of Ea must be obeyed.

The goddess Allalu opened her mouth and spoke.

To Namtar, her messenger, she addressed an order:

Go, Namtar, smash the true palace.

Break down the threshold, destroy the door-posts (?).

Bring out the Anunnaki and place them on golden thrones.

Besprinkle Ishtar with the waters of life and take her from me.

Namtar obeys the order. Ishtar is led through the seven gates. At each one, the articles taken from her on her entrance are returned: at the first, the loin cloth; at the second, the bracelets and ankle rings, and so on, until she emerges in her full beauty.

The close of the story thus brings to our gaze once more Ishtar as goddess of fertility, who gradually brings vegetation, strength, and productivity back again. This curious mixture in the story of the astral Ishtar,–the creation of the astronomers,–and the popular Ishtar, is a trait which shows how the old nature-myth has been elaborated in passing through the hands of the “literati”. The various steps in the process can still be seen. In the original form, the goddess must have been forced into an exile to the nether world, the exile symbolizing the wintry season when fertility and productivity come to an end.

Ishtar is stripped of her glory. She comes to Allatu, who grieves at her approach, but imprisons her in the ‘great house,’ and refuses to yield her up, until forced to do so by order of the gods. A similar story must have been told of Tammuz, the sun-god, who is also the god of vegetation. The two stories were combined. Ishtar marries Tammuz, and then destroys him. The goddess produces fertility, but cannot maintain it. Tammuz goes to the nether world. Ishtar repents, bewails her loss, and goes to seek for her consort and to rescue him. In rage she advances to Allatu, threatens to smash the door and break the lock unless admitted. The story in this form must have ended in the restoration of Tammuz. The identification of Ishtar with the planet Venus introduced a new factor. The disappearance of the planet fitted in well with the original nature-myth. The combination of the Ishtar-Tammuz story with this factor resulted in the tale as we have it now. The enraged Ishtar is the one who seeks for her consort. The Ishtar who is forced to give up her ornaments is the old goddess who falls into the hands of Allatu.

During her absence, production comes to a standstill; decay sets in. The Ishtar who is rescued by Ea through the mediation of the ‘Renewal of Light’ is the astral Ishtar, as developed by the astronomers, and, finally, the Ishtar who receives her ornaments back again and comes to the upper world, is once more the goddess of vegetation, rescued from her exile to new glory. Up to this point, Tammuz has not been mentioned in the story. In the advice, however, that is given at the conclusion of the tale to mourners, the consort of Ishtar is introduced.

If she will not grant her redemption, turn to her [thy countenance?]

To Tammuz, her youthful consort,

Pour out pure waters, costly oil [offer him?].

The mourners are furthermore instructed to institute a formal lamentation. The Ukhati, the priestesses of Ishtar, are to sing dirges; flutes are to accompany the song. The thought intended, apparently, to be conveyed is that if Allatu will not give up the dead, the surviving relatives should endeavor to secure the good grace of Ishtar and Tammuz, who succeeded in subduing Allatu.

The closing lines are rendered obscure by a reference to the goddess Belili, who appears to be the sister of Tammuz. The reference assumes the knowledge of a tale in which the goddess was represented as breaking a costly vessel adorned with precious stones, in sign of her grief for the lost Tammuz. Suitable mourning for Tammuz, therefore, will secure the sympathy of Belili also. The story thus ends with a warning to all who mourn for their dead to remember Tammuz, to observe the rites set aside for the festival celebrated in his honor.

Bearing in mind the tentative character of any interpretation for the closing lines, we may mention Jeremias’ supposition that it is a deceased sister who addresses her sorrowing brother at the end of the story.

My only brother, let me not perish.

On the day of Tammuz, play for me on the flute of lapis lazuli,

together with the lyre of pearl play for me.

Together let the professional dirge singers, male and female, play for me,

That the dead may arise and inhale the incense of offerings.

The lines impress one as snatches from a dirge, sung or recited in memory of the dead, and introduced here as an appropriate illustration of the conclusion to be drawn from the tale. At all events, the consolation that the mourner receives lies in this thought, the dead can hear the lamentation. The survivors are called upon not to forget the dead. When the festival of Tammuz comes, let them combine with the weeping for the god, a dirge in memory of the dead. Let them pray to Ishtar and Tammuz. If remembered by the living, the dead will at least enjoy the offerings made to them, regain, as it were, a temporary sense of life; but more cannot with certainty be hoped for.

The outlook for the dead, it will be seen, is not hopeful. Their condition is at best a tolerable one. What we may glean from other sources but confirms the general impression, conveyed by the opening and closing lines of the Ishtar story, or makes the picture a still gloomier one. The day of death is a day of sorrow, ‘the day without mercy.’ The word for corpse conveys the idea that things have ‘come to an end.’ Whenever death is referred to in the literature, it is described as an unmitigated evil. A dirge introduced into an impressive hymn to Nergal laments the fate of him who

… has descended to the breast of the earth,

Satiated, [he has gone] to the land of the dead.

Full of lament on the day that he encountered sorrow,

In the month which does not bring to completion the year,

On the road of destruction for mankind,

To the wailing-place (?),

The hero [has gone], to the distant invisible land.

We must not be misled by an epithet bestowed upon several gods, Marduk, Ninib, and Gula, of ‘the restorer of the dead to life,’ into the belief that the dead could be brought back from Aralu. These epithets appear chiefly in incantations and hymns addressed to the gods for some specific purpose, such as deliverance of a sufferer from disease. The gods are appealed to against the demons, whose grasp means death. Ninib and Gula are viewed as gods of healing. To be cured through their aid was to be snatched from the jaws of death. Moreover, Ninib and Marduk, as solar deities, symbolize the sun of spring, which brings about the revivification of nature. The return of vegetation suggests the thought that Ninib and Marduk have filled with new life what appeared to be dead. The trees that seemed entirely dead blossom forth; the bare earth is covered with verdure. Similarly, the suffering individual stricken with disease could be awakened to new life. It is this ‘restoration’ which lies in the power of the gods, but once a man has been carried off to Aralu, no god can bring him back to this earth.

An apparent exception to the rule, according to which all mankind eventually comes to Aralu, is formed by Parnapishtim and his wife, who dwell in a place vaguely described as ‘distant,’ situated at the ‘confluence of the streams.’ The place, as was pointed out in a previous chapter, lies in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf, and, since it can only be reached by water, the natural conclusion is that it is an island. The temptation is strong to compare the dwelling of Parnapishtim with the belief found among the Greeks and other nations, of ‘an island of the blessed.’ This has been done by Jeremiasand others. However, we must bear in mind that the point in Parnapishtim’s narrative is that he and his wife do “not die”. They are removed to the distant place by the gods and continue to live there. Again, we do not learn of any other person who inhabits this island. If to these considerations we add, that the name Parnapishtim signifies ‘offspring of life,’ that his wife’s name is not mentioned, that we are not told what becomes of his family and servants, who are also saved from the deluge, it is evident that the incident of Parnapishtim’s escape is an allegory, introduced into the story as a dramatic means of teaching the doctrine which we have seen dominates the tale,–that man, ordinarily, cannot secure immortal life.

If there is any connection between the island where Parnapishtim dwells and the Greek conception of ‘an island of the blessed,’ it is a trace of foreign influence in Babylonian mythology. There is nothing to show that among the Babylonians, either among the populace or in the schools, a belief arose in a ‘paradise’ whither privileged persons were transported after death, nor is any distinction made by them between the good and the bad, so far as the future habitation is concerned. All mankind, kings and subjects, virtuous and wicked, go to Aralu. Those who have obtained the good will of the gods receive their reward in this world, by a life of happiness and of good health. The gods can ward off disease, or, rather, since disease (as all ills and misfortunes) is a punishment sent by some god or demon, forgiveness can be secured, the proof of which will consist in the restoration of the sick to health, but the moment that death ensues the control of the gods ends. To the Babylonians, the words of the Psalmist “who praises thee, O God, in Sheol?” came home with terrible force. They expressed, admirably, the Babylonian view of the limitations of divine power. The dead do not praise the gods, simply because it would be useless. The concern of the gods is with the living.

We are fortunate in possessing a pictorial representation of the nether world that confirms the view to be derived from a study of the religious literature. A number of years ago, Clermont-Ganneau directed attention to a remarkable bronze tablet which was purchased at Hamath in northern Syria. The art was clearly Babylonian, and there was no reason to question the genuineness of the production. Quite recently a duplicate has been found at Zurghul, in Babylonia, so that all suspicions are removed. The bronze tablet contains on the one side, the figure of a monster with a lion-like face and body, but provided with huge wings.

Standing erect, his head rises above the tablet, his fore legs rest on the edge, and the demon is thus represented in the attitude of looking over to the other side of the tablet. At the side of the monster, are two heads of hideous appearance.

The illustrations on the reverse are devoted to a portrayal of a funeral ceremony, and of the general aspects of the nether world. There are five distinct divisions, marked off from one another by four heavy lines drawn across the tablet. In the first division appear the symbols of the chief gods of the Assyrian pantheon, Marduk, Nabu, Sin, Ishtar, Shamash, Ramman, etc. These gods, as inhabiting the heaven, are placed at the head of the tablet. Next come seven evil spirits figured as various animals, who, as inferior to the gods, and perhaps also as messengers of the latter, are assigned a place midway between heaven and earth. In the third section, there is pictured the funeral ceremony proper. A dead body lies on a couch. Two rather strange figures, but apparently priests, have taken up a position, one at each end of the funeral bier, performing some rite of purification. One of the priests has a robe of fish scales and is bearded; the other is smooth-faced and clothed in a long garment. Censers are placed near the priests. The latter appear at the same time to be protecting the body against two demons whose threatening gestures suggest that they are endeavoring to secure possession of the dead.

These demons may be the special messengers of the gods of the nether world, who have brought about the death of their victim. Below this scene, we come to a view of the nether world. The division is much larger than any of the others. Two hideous figures dominate the scene; both of fantastic shape, and evidently so portrayed as to suggest the horror of the nether world. One of these figures stands erect in a menacing attitude; the other is resting in a kneeling position on a horse. The second figure is a representation of the chief goddess of the nether world–Allatu. The demon at her side would then be the special messenger of this goddess, Namtar. The goddess has her two arms extended, in the act of strangling a serpent. The act symbolizes her strength. Her face is that of a lioness, and she is suckling two young lions at her breasts. If it be recalled that Nergal, the chief god of the lower world, is also pictured as a lion, it seems but natural to conclude that the monster covering the one side of the tablet is none other than the consort of Allatu, the heads on either side of him representing his attendants. At the left side of Allatu are a series of objects,–a jar, bowl, an arrowhead (?), a trident, which, as being buried with the dead, are symbols of the grave. The goddess and the demon at her side direct their gaze towards these objects.

The nether world reaches down to the Apsu,–the ‘deep’ that flows underneath the earth. This is indicated in the design by placing the horse, on which the goddess rests, in a bark. The bark, again, is of fantastic shape, the one end terminating in the head of a serpent, the other in that of some other animal,–perhaps a bull. The bark reaches into the fifth division, which is a picture of flowing water with fish swimming from the left to the right, as an indication of the direction in which the water flows. At the verge of the water stand two trees. What these trees symbolize is not known, and there are other details in the third and fourth sections that still escape us. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note: (_a_) that the sections represent in a general way the divisions of the universe, the heavens, the atmosphere, the earth, the nether world, and the deep; (_b_) that the nether world is in the interior of the earth, reaching down to Apsu; and (_c_) that this interior is pictured as a place full of horrors, and is presided over by gods and demons of great strength and fierceness.

REFERENCE:

TITLE: THE RELIGION OF BABYLONIA AND ASSYRIA (1893)

BY: MORRIS JASTROW, Jr., PH.D.

CONTRIBUTOR: Staff

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