Death burial and the underworld

1) What shapes your arrival in the underworld

1) You can take it with you:
The first and most difficult concept to accept about Sumerian mortality is that you can be buried with statues and gifts and that they can be there for you in the underworld as if by magic. In western culture we hear time and again that you can’t take it with you. That materialism, though instinctual, isn’t right. To the Sumerians materialism had it’s place in the order of the universe. You wanted to be buried as a king with many offerings and gifts.

“If I’m wrong, then I’ll shrug my shoulders, but if you’re wrong you could be miserable for all eternity.” This statement has been used by some as a means to frighten them into converting to one religion or other with an afterlife, and it works equally well in Sumerian religion. If a Sumerian isn’t buried with the proper respect or offerings then their afterlife could be impoverished for all eternity.

As with the objects on a Sumerian’s altar, the objects that they are buried with have a spiritual presence. They are in effect real in the afterlife. As such it is a good idea to provide for one’s self in the afterlife with servants, wealth, and items of comfort. These things allow the person a measure of comfort in the afterlife as well as providing them with the means to be useful and productive in the afterlife.

An artist might choose to be buried with artist supplies. The spirit of those objects would arrive with them in the afterlife. Someone who was not provided with offerings, at death or after, would be poor in the afterlife. For this reason a modern Sumerian might choose to provide objects that they want to have in the afterlife.

2) Offerings
In ancient Sumer the dead were usually buried close to home. There would be a wing of the house where the dead were buried. Offerings could be made to the dead in these rooms and these offerings would arrive in the underworld for the use of dead loved ones.

In the epic of Gilgamesh Gilgamesh had the opportunity to speak to his dead companion Enkidu. He asked a number of questions about people in the afterlife. Many of the things that he heard from his friend have led later scholars to think that the dead are doomed to misery. This was meant to teach a lesson however. The continued existence of the dead is people are dependent on several factors. Some of them are controllable and some aren’t.

If people had many children they could expect to have their children provide offerings for them. There were several ways that the offerings could be given. An offering could be placed directly into the grave after burial, but those left behind did not have to go this rout. They could dedicate the offerings to an image of the deceased and that would work as well.

In modern times many people would rather forget the dead. In Sumer they did not have that luxury. They knew that dead who were buried poorly and then not given offerings would return to the land of the living as Gidim. These covetous ghosts could do physical harm to the living even going so far as to possess them by entering through the ear.

Haunting the living as an impoverished or vengeful Gidim is not the worst thing that could happen to a person at burial. The dead in Sumer were always buried. They were never cremated except in the most extreme of cases. A person whose body was cremated did not go to the land of the dead. They, like the smoke and fire that consumed them, would go up to heaven.

Being barred from the underworld and going up to heaven was considered the worst thing that could happen to a person when they died. Heaven was a perfectly decent place for the gods to be, but it simply was not where the dead belonged. That was not the proper order of the universe. Being Cremated was worse even than being doomed to walk the living world. The best thing that could happen is to get a place near the feet of Ereshkigal. These facts help to tear down the preconception that the Sumerian afterlife was abysmal.

Many Reconstructionists in our era don’t have large families to provide offerings for them. Likewise many do not have parents who are members of their religion to give offerings to. Their parents, not being Sumerian, might not even appreciate an offering. That judgment call should be made with care.

3) How you die
How you die is something you have some control over. If you smoke constantly you are more likely to die from cancer, but then again you are also more likely to die in a fire. A person who drives too fast might die in an accident, but might also have a heart attack. Even a person attempting to commit suicide could mess it up and then end up dying another way.

In essence your death is not something you have total control over. You can influence it one way or another, but you cannot have utter control over it. Death is just an instant though. It is better to prepare to be dead than to prepare to die. In order to better prepare for death it is best to strive for life.

As we live we experience things that become a part of us. A nurturing upbringing might lead to a person becoming kind, or perhaps spoiled. Death, as an often defining life experience, also leaves a mark on the soul. The way that a person dies is a clear indicator of what condition that they will be in when they arrive in the afterlife.

People who leave behind loved ones often have visions and dreams of the dead as they were continuing on as though nothing happened. If they die from a wasting disease they might be ill, but still hanging on. A person who had been shot might be slowly recovering from a wound.

A traumatic death might leave traumatic marks on the soul, while a violent but sudden death might actually be preferable in the way that the death is instantaneous. When you are told that your dead loved ones did not suffer, this is what makes the loss easier to bare.

4) How you lived
Your life is not meaningless. It doesn’t simply boil down to the guided application of resources and a roll of the dice for what kind of death you will have. A person can die well, and be buried well by people who continue to give offerings and still not have a happy afterlife. The way that you behaved in life does matter.

Part of the fate that the gods decree for us is our place in the afterlife. As we live some of the gods keep a record of what we do. When we die the gods are told of how we upset the order of the universe, or how we helped maintain it. The gods are told about how we lived within the Sumerian moral code, and how we honored the gods in life.

Keep in mind that the Sumerian moral code is similar to the Christian version of the Ten Commandments, but at the same time there are important differences. The Sumerians had a slightly different mind set to the wandering herders who became the Jews, and a particularly different mind set to the cultures that shaped western culture into what it is today. Most notable here is that the gods are not all of one mind. They get along better than many pantheons, but they still have disagreements and different ways of looking at the world.

Once you get into the underworld there are other more obvious ways that the way that you lived will impact you. The people that you knew before they died have memories, and they have had time to get used to the underworld. Additionally, the people you knew who are still alive have the ability to leave you sacrifices. Being kind to others can therefore be simply a practical investment.

2) The history of the dragon Kur

The underworld is a vast and complicated realm with many confusing myths and rules. It’s rules are relatively consistent, but they need to be pieced together from many differing sources. The history of Kur is a complicated tangle of myths. Attempts were made to remove bias from the myths and to keep in mind the few basic rules of the underworld, but there is no guarantee that the interpretation presented here is indeed the right one.

The underworld has several rules that must be obeyed even by the gods. The first of these rules is that an unfair balance must always be struck between the land of the living and the land of the dead. This balance is commonly called the conservation of death. None can return to the land of the living without providing a replacement in the land of the dead. The opposite does not hold true. People can die without the land of the dead needing to provide a replacement in the land of the living.

The next rule is one that only the gods need to follow. None can rule in both An and Kur. This rule can be seen in the prelude to Gilgamesh, it can be seen in the later myth of Ereshkigal and Nergal, and it can be seen in the myth of Inanna’s descent to the underworld.

The third rule is that the living must respect the dead while in their presence. This rule is why the living go to the land of the dead in mourners clothing and in whispered silence. This rule is a matter of courtesy, but one that is strictly enforced. Likewise when the dead come to the land of the living they must obey our hospitality laws.

Kur, like Ki, An, Apsu, and others, is not just the name of a realm, but also the name of the spirit that personifies it. Kur lies outside of the Anki, that is to say out side of the universe. Within the Apsu the universe, Anki, was created and it split apart into the land the air and the sky. Each of these realms were ruled by a god. The Sumerians envisioned Kur as lying under the land of the living as people are buried under the ground and so the gates of the underworld lead downwards.

Within the realm of An was a beautiful young woman by the name of Ereshkigal. She was taken by Kur to be the bride of the underworld. Enki, whose mother was the Apsu, and who made his home in the great deep, sailed to her rescue. The dragon Kur made the waters turbulent in an effort to stop Enki, but Enki made his way to Ereshkigal and placed her upon the throne of the underworld.

Ereshkigal made her home in the underworld and grew to adulthood in that land. Ereshkigal could not return to the realm of An because not even the gods were allowed to rule in both the land of the living and the land of the dead.

She took the bull of heaven, Gugalanna, as her husband. Together she and the bull had a child Ninazu. Some scholars also believe that the gate keeper Neti and the god of death Namtar were also her children. Namtar served as her minister deciding ultimately who would be privileged with the opportunity to go into the queen’s presence.

Ninazu fathered Ningishzida, the god of the dawn. Ningishzida’s tragic fate was to die, but he knew a clever way out. He would build a throne that would take him from the land of the dead to the land of the living. This throne was near to the throne of Ereshkigal’s and he would use it to return to life for half of the day. It is presumably through this chair that Ninazu was able to return to the land of the living without having someone stay behind in his stead.

At this time the twin brothers Lugal-irra and Meslamta-Ea, more commonly known as Nergal, guarded the gate between the land of the living and the land of the dead. He and his twin brother have been confused with one another often through history, and Nergal may in fact be the other brother instead.

One day Inanna was provoked by Gilgamesh and decided instead to send the bull of heaven after him. An attempted to persuade Inanna not to take this course of action, but she insisted. The bull of heaven was sadly slain by Gilgamesh. His body was desecrated, his rear leg was torn off, and his head was offered as a sacrifice to Gilgamesh’s personal god.

Several plotting Galla demons convinced Inanna to go down to the underworld to conduct Gugalana’s funeral and attempt to take the throne of the underworld while she was at it. Ereshkigal was understandably upset at having the one responsible for her husband’s death conduct the funeral. Her anger only grew when Inanna took the throne. Her husband’s memory had been completely disrespected.

Inanna’s time on the throne was short. By sitting upon the throne she had attempted to take power in both heaven and the underworld. She was struck dead by the gods. Ereshkigal hung her corpse on a meat hook next to the throne as a punishment.

Inanna had arranged for this eventuality and had her servant go to various gods to see if they would help her. The only god who did was Enki. The god of magic fashioned two funeral priests out of the clay from under his finger tips. He then gave each of these figures the food and water of life.

The funerary priests traveled to the underworld and mourned Ereshkigal’s loss giving compassion where none had given it before. This moved the queen, who promised the priests anything that they wanted. The priests asked for the corpse of Inanna. Ereshkigal was upset, but gave them what they desired.

Inanna was returned to life, but was forced to have someone go to the underworld in her place. Her husband Dumuzi had not properly mourned her, so she decided that he would remain in the land of the dead instead of her. Dumuzi’s sister Geshtin-anna chose to spend half of the year in the underworld instead of her brother. This sacrifice drove the seasons.

Eventually Gilgamesh died as all mortals do. He had lived a good life and he was beloved by the gods. His destiny was to die and this had been ordained by the seven who decree fate, but they decided to add one last twist when he got to the underworld. He would be placed in a position of honor above all other mortals.

Hoping to cheer Ereshkigal up the gods threw a party. Ereshkigal could not come to heaven, but she could send Namtar up instead of her. While there he would accept her presents and bring back food. This greatly pleased the queen of the underworld who was still mourning the death of her husband.

Namtar had all of the gods in heaven bow before him symbolically showing that even they respected the power of death. Nergal refused to bow showing that he had no fear of death. Namtar, as the god of death, was enraged by this and reported this to his queen. When he returned to heaven he could not find Nergal.

Nergal decided to lay siege to the underworld and take dominion over that land. He gathered together a small army of demons and constructed a chair like the one Ninazu owned and marched upon the gates of Ganzer.

When he reached Ereshkigal’s throne in the underworld he took the queen to bed and she fell in love with him. After several days of passion, Nergal snuck off back to the land of the living where his actions were well known. In order to escape the land of the dead he had built a chair such as the one used by Ningishzida.

Ereshkigal was enraged at having been taken advantage of and threatened to unleash the dead to consume the living if Nergal was not returned to the underworld to become her husband. Nergal accepted his fate and became the king of the underworld. His power was second only to Ereshkigal herself. Ninazu, who had been attended by a dragon, lost this dragon to Nergal when he lost his place to Nergal. There was tension between the two gods, but no outright conflicts have yet broken out.

3) Geography of Kur

Urugal: It is here that Ereshkigal’s great throne resides as well as the throne of her husband Nergal. That makes this the capital and most important city of the underworld. It is in fact the only city mentioned being in the underworld. There may be other cities in the underworld, if there are we know nothing about them.

The word Urugal derives from Uru meaning city, and Gal meaning great. Urugal therefore means great city. It is there that most of the dead reside. If one keeps in mind that the dead are expected to continue using the skills that they learned in life, you can imagine how great the city must be.

As the sun dips over the horizon Ninazu, the god of the dawn, travel into the underworld. Presumably Utu, the god of the sun, goes with him. This means that the luminous glow of the sun can be seen coming from Ereshkigal’s city. A wonder to behold.

There is a large courtyard beyond Ereshkigal’s throne room as a barrier between her inner sanctum and the main city. In order to go from the main city through the court yard, and into Ereshkigal’s presence one needs to get the approval of Namtar. This is one of the main services that any of the ministers of the gods provide.

Beyond the city of Urugal are wastelands where the less fortunate among the dead are forced to eat dust. This stark contrast to the great city is what the myths about the underworld are warning us about. Provide for your future and the future of those loved ones that have passed away or you will not have a comfortable eternity to look forward to.

Ganzer: The land of the living and the land of the dead need to be kept apart. There are dead who would return to consume the living, and there are powers that the living could steal from the dead. The fortress guarding the border between the world of the living and the world of the dead is called Ganzer.

The underworld needs a fortress that is strong, because occasionally some of the more powerful gods attempt to break in. Inanna had the strength to rip open the gates, and threatened to do so in one myth. Nergal, being powerful but not as powerful as Inanna, took a small force of demons to force the gates of the underworld.

For most the grave is the gateway that leads to the underworld. It is how the soul gets from the land of the living to the land of the dead. The grave is fitted with offerings for the dead to take with them into the underworld. These offerings would include offerings for the gatekeepers.

Ganzer has seven gates guarded by seven gate keepers. Another version of the fortress has it that there are fourteen gates. The chief of these gate keepers is the minor god Neti in any version. The gates are often described as being bound or locked with a cord.

Id-Kura: The river of the underworld or the man eating river. This is a river that pulls people from the living realm to the land of the dead. The word Id-Kura translates roughly as Id, River, with Kur, meaning underworld, and ra meaning flood.

It plays a strong part in the myth where Enlil is condemned to death and the myth where the child Damu falls into the river. It was understood in these myths that the river would lead into a cave and from there the river would lead directly into the underworld.

Though the river bears some passing similarities to the Greek river Styx, it should be pointed out that we don’t actually know that they are in fact connected. We do know that the Greeks borrowed several elements from Sumerian mythology.

4) The Restless Dead

The dead can take many forms and follow some specific rules depending upon what form that they take. An understanding of what they are and why they do the things that they do will bring a better understanding of how to deal with them, and how to avoid upsetting them.

Gidim: In ancient Sumer there was a fear of ghosts, but this was not the child like fear that we have come to associate with the fear of ghosts. There was no belief that all ghosts were evil. Gidim were simply the shades of people who had died. They were one form that the dead could take when they passed into death.

Gidim, like any spirit in ancient Sumer, had both a good side and a bad side. When a person was not buried with offerings, or if a person was not buried at all then they could not make it into the underworld. The Gidim were said to make their homes in the ruins of cities that were ancient even in those times.

When a Gidim, by choice or not, walks in the world of the living, they have some ability to force their will upon the living. They can enter the bodies of the living through the ear and take control. They can cause pain or sickness to the living. The dead would do this in order to get revenge upon the living for ignoring them or for dishonoring their memories. Gidim could be protected against by enchanted ear jewelry. Sorcerers could protect against them or use them to act upon others.

Vampires: There were times when gods such as Ereshkigal, Nergal, or Inanna threatened to break down the gates of the underworld and let the dead consume the living. The word vampire didn’t come into usage until millennia after the fall of Sumer, but the concept was remarkably similar.

Vampires were restricted from doing things such as breaking into the house of a member of the living, or from coming out during the day because they were constricted by the laws of hospitality and other similar laws governing the behavior of the dead.

Obviously the Sumerians did not call them vampires, but they didn’t call the dead who consume the living much of anything else either. Vampire is just as good of a word as any, but there are a few important differences between them and the modern concept of vampires.

Crosses are a Christian concept based upon a roman form of torture and execution, and as such do not relate to Sumerian vampires. Garlic as a ward against vampires comes to us from Egypt. In Egypt spirits could be driven away by bad smells.