The idea of a ghost or a spirit that “haunts” a location after its death, causes problems for the living or generally just repeats a series of actions in a never-ending loop may seem a modern idea but the truth is, the oldest cultures on the planet knew all about them. One of the oldest inhabited areas in the world is Mesopotamia and the religions of the area in ancient times knew all about disembodied beings. This makes it an ideal place to start with our history of ghosts.
Mesopotamia is part of the region known as the Ancient Near East that included ancient Egypt, Iran, Asia Minor, Cyprus and the Arabian Peninsula. Mesopotamia is now mainly covered by the countries of Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria and Kuwait. This was the area often described as the cradle of civilisation in the west with empires such as Sumer, Assyria and Babylon dominant at different and sometimes concurrent times.
There was a degree of overlap in the religions and folklore of these cultures dictated by their shared heritage and physical proximity. Many of their traditions inspired traditions that went on to be included in the mainstream religions of today including Judaism and Christianity.
Sumer was the civilisation from southern Iraq that was known to have existed in 3500BC and historians often think is even older. Sumer was notable for being the site of the early development of writing and of their ziggurats, massive pyramid-like temples that dominated their cities.
The Sumerian word for ghost was gidim, which is believed to combine the words for “to be sick” and “a demon”. These gidim were made when someone died and took on both the memory and the personality of the person who died. They were able to travel to the underworld, called Irkalla, where they held a position in society in much the way they had when alive.
Relatives of those who had died were expected to make offerings, usually food and drink that means the dead could live in better conditions. If the living ignored the dead, the gidim could inflict misfortune on them and even make them sick. In fact, many traditional medicine of the time involved dealing with illnesses created by ghosts, gods and demons.
The Babylonians started out as a small city-state centred around the city of Babylon that emerged around 1890BC. This culture was also based in the south of modern Iraq and reached its height under a leader called Hammurabi, who was known for his code of laws that inspired many law makers even until modern times.
To the Babylonians, the underworld was also called Irkalla and was ruled by a goddess called Ereshkigal and her consort Nergal. Their court was called the Anunnaki and ghosts had to travel there to receive their offerings from the living, often having to overcome obstacles to reach it. Once there, the ghost was assigned a place in society. Another court was presided by the sun god Shamash, who visited the underworld on his daily rounds, and he sometimes punished any ghosts that caused problems for the living as well as sharing out funerary offerings to ghosts who no longer had living relatives to make offerings for them.
While the Babylonian underworld was a place of monsters and demons, the ghosts lived in a manner similar to when alive. They had their own houses and met up with people they knew who were also dead along with deceased family members.
The famous story that had survived from Babylon, the Epic of Gilgamesh, involves a hero-king called Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. In a section of the tale, Enkidu dies and the adventures he has in the underworld are chronicled, along with him returning to the world of the living when Gilgamesh breaks a hole in the earth.
City of Ghosts
The myths of Sumer and of Akkad also speak of a subterranean city in the underworld called Irigal by the Sumerians and Arallu in Akkadian. This city was protected by seven walls and gates and was the home of the dead. In a story from the Akkadian tale, Descent of Ishtar, the heroine of the story passes through the seven gates in the walls in her descent to the underworld and at each had to remove clothing and jewellery until she entered the underworld naked. This was reflected in the Akkadian funerary rites, which lasted for seven days.
The underworld, or netherworld, was not viewed as “hell” as in later religions. Instead, while it was the geographic opposite of heaven, it was the place where spirits went when their bodies or graves had not had the proper ritual care given to them. It was not so much a place of punishment as somewhere ghosts ended up because the living hadn’t fulfilled their duties.
To the peoples of Ancient Mesopotamia, ghosts were simply a natural part of life, something that happened after death and was viewed as a follow on to the life they had lived before dying. Ghosts did sometimes interfere with the living and were viewed as being able to cause sickness or ill health but most of the time, given the proper rituals to remember them, they simply went about their “lives” in the underworld as they had before their deaths.