Blog Post #68: Controlling the Restless Dead in Mesopotamia with JoAnn Scurlock

For Halloween month, our blog posts focus on the presence of the dead among us, such as vampires, zombies, ancestors, and other types of Undead. Our authors specialize in mortuary practices across Greece, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. While the Undead are often treated superficially in popular culture, these researchers press us to think about the deeper social and spiritual meanings behind ancient beliefs and practices that attempt to manage the persistent presence of the dead amongst the living

The ancient world was an enchanted world, filled with gods, ghosts and demons.  By comparison, our own world is rather threadbare, consisting almost exclusively of spirits of beings that were once human.  Considering the amount of terror inspired by ghosts, vampires and zombies in the modern world, it is hard for us to imagine how the ancients coped with a situation in which even rocks and trees had indwelling spirits that could be troublesome, if not outright dangerous.  And when you tell people that it was typical for ancient Mesopotamians to have dead people buried under the floors of their houses, the very thought of it is enough to make them run screaming from the room. 

A map of Mesopotamia, showing ancient sites, and current day cities. The Mediterranean Sea is to the west, the Caspian Sea is to the north-east, and the Persian Gulf is to the south-east.
Figure 1 Map of Mesopotamia (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0)

Did ancient Mesopotamians believe in ghosts?  Absolutely.  And were ghosts dangerous? Yes.  They were hungry and greedy and made you sick in order to force you to give them something.  And that is the relatively harmless ones, not the spirits of those who died by violence who were literally murderous.  And then there were the spirits of people who died before their time, persons too young to get married and have children or babies that were miscarried or born dead.  Both of these were eager for the companionship of others as the same age as themselves and carried off their victims to swell their ranks, rather in the style of the Nosferatu legends as presented by Hollywood. 

So was ancient life nasty, brutish and short?  Not a bit of it.  The amount of fear generated by something is inversely proportional to how much control you have over it.  No control? Very scary.  Lots of control – what’s the problem?  Over the millennia, coping strategies were developed that not only theoretically kept problem children down to a dull roar and provided relief for the medical problems they caused, but even allowed persons in the know to make use of ghosts, and not always for nefarious purposes.  And there were ritual experts who could legally help you with whatever trouble you had or imagined you were having. 

 So, somebody in the family has died a normal death in the fullness of life surrounded by friends and relations.  The ritual of burial was designed to get both body and soul safely to the Netherworld, which could be accessed via the grave.  Once there, the ghost was kept happy with a continual round of funerary offerings.  Nothing terribly pricey, just cold water and barley gruel unless you had a favor to ask in which case you threw in a rib cut, then as now the cheapest cut of meat.  After three generations, the skeletons of the dead were a bit of a mishmash since no effort was made to separate them.  At this point, individual ghosts disappeared into an ancestral ghost who received offerings on behalf of all the ancestors of the family. 

a seal impression from ancient Sumeria shows the god Dumuzid being tortured by three galla demons in the underworld.
Figure 2 Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression showing the god Dumuzid being tortured in the underworld by galla demons (Public Domain)
The sun god Shamash sits on a chair. He wears a head covering, and long robes. He outstretches his right hand to Hammurabi, who stands before him. Hammurabi also  wears long robes, and holds his right arm to in front of his face.
Figure 3 Hammurabi before the Sun-God Shamash (Photo by Christian Larrieu, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0)

Suppose that didn’t suffice, and you were still getting migraine headaches or experiencing ringing in the ears, medical conditions blamed on ghosts.  This might not be a dead grandfather, but the ghost of some other family or even one whose family had died out, but not to worry.  In addition to the medicine which was administered, you could literally take the ghost to court, suing for justice before the sungod Šamaš.  You did not neglect him/her or, alternatively, have any obligation to him/her so why was she/he bothering you?  At this point you were inclined to be less generous, putting urine in the water you offered and tying up the ghost’s figurine to make him/her swear to stop bothering you. 

But what if there was no body to bury?  You made a cenotaph to represent the deceased and buried that instead.  And what if you lost an adolescent boy or girl?  There were special rituals in which the ghost was given a substitute wife/husband to make them happy and ensure no more young people dying.  Stillborn children? These were buried in the house, just not with the rest of the family or in special cemeteries, and attention to their souls was paid by shrines whose offerings ensured a happy afterlife. 

Finally, all ghosts, whether or not they had any living relatives. were allowed to return and feast four times a year with a particularly big feast laid out for them in mid-Summer.  This featured dried fruits and sweetened barley pudding.  Meanwhile, the family ghosts returned to visit their families and could be asked to take away ills with them when they returned to the Netherworld. 

The only real fear was that some evil witch/sorcerer would persuade some unhappy ghost to attack you.  For that possibility, there was a whole other set of rituals designed to turn the evils intended for the victim back onto the sorcerer/witch. 

So how do I know all this?  Sources for ancient Mesopotamian culture are very rich, and range from literary texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, which lays out the deluxe afterlife of stillborn children, to medical handbooks in which the diseases caused by ghosts are mentioned, even including the type of ghost that is supposed to cause a particular problem. In between are numerous magical texts that concern themselves with ghosts.  

A stamp seal showing a priest with long robes standing in front of a person possessed by evil spirits.
Figure 4 Stamp Seal from Met Museum late 8th-7th C BCE āšipu (ah-shee-pu), a priest who tended to sick people by exorcising the evil spirits that were thought to be causing their illness (Public Domain)

For details, see in particular my 788-page Ghosts Book (Scurlock, JoAnn. Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Magic and Divination III [Leiden: Brill/Styx, 2006]) and also my much more manageable CANE article on death which also has details on ancient Mesopotamian souls. (Scurlock, JoAnn. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Mesopotamian Thought. PP. 1,833-1,893 in Jack M. Sasson et al. eds. Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Vol. III: Part 8: Religion and Science [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995]) 

The hefty tome on ghosts was the subject of my dissertation.  Why ghosts?  Because there was a lot that needed doing. Because they do not frighten me. Because I do not disbelieve in ghosts, although I have never seen one.  And because if I were to encounter a ghost, I would now know exactly what to do. 

Further Resources

Scurlock, JoAnn. 2016. “Mortal and Immortal Souls, Ghosts and the (Restless) Dead in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Religion Compass 10.4, 77-82. 

Scurlock, JoAnn. 2006. Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Magic and Divination III. Leiden: Brill/Styx. 

Scurlock, JoAnn. 1995. “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Mesopotamian Thought.” PP. 1,833-1,893 in Jack M. Sasson et al. eds. Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Vol. III: Part 8: Religion and Science. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 

JoAnn Scurlock smiles at the camera. She has long, straight grey and black hair, light skin, and glasses. She wears a floral print blouse with colours of maroon, red, green, blue, and yellow.
JoAnn Scurlock

JoAnn Scurlock is an Assyriologist with a BA and PhD from the University of Chicago.  In addition to Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia, she is the author (with Burton Anderson) of Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine and A Sourcebook for Mesopotamian Medicine as well as over 120 published articles on magic, medicine, religion and law of ancient Mesopotamia and surrounding areas. 

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