October 2019

The World of Sumerian Ghosts - Our Halloween Special

Hi there. It’s autumn, finally. Time to wrap yourself in a soft and cozy sweater and sip the occasional cup of tea or coffee – whichever you prefer. Days are getting shorter and the woods show their utmost beauty before they hide their bare stems in the fog. October comes and just before it goes, it’s time for …? Exactly, for Halloween – the last day of the month, the day when the dead supposedly leave their graves to haunt us.

But what are those ghosts doing the remaining 364 days of the year? Where are they? And how did they get there in the first place? All the religions have an answer for this final and unanswerable question of mankind. In the world of Esemtu, the world of Sumerian mythology, there is, just as in the Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology, the underworld. As the Greek Hades, Irkalla lies somewhere deep beyond the surface of the earth and, like Hades, which is ruled by the god of the underworld of the same name, Irkalla is ruled by a god as well - a goddess to be more precise, named Ereshkigal. She is married to Nergal, the god of death and diseases. This efficient couple manages their world and with her husband’s help, Ereshkigal makes sure that there is never a shortage of new dwellers in her realm.

In all the ancient mythologies, the dead are said to go to the underworld after their death. According to Sumerian mythology, they are picked up by the sun god Utu travelling in his Magillum boat around the earth. At that point, they change their outward appearance and become bird-like creatures or ghosts. By the way, you can get a glimpse at the process in Esemtu Vol. 1. At the end of each day, the Magillum boat disappears into the underworld, where the dead souls have to face Ereshkigal and her judges.

And at this point, we see the big difference between Sumerian mythology and its Egyptian, Greek and Roman counterparts. Whereas Osiris, Hades or Pluto judge the lives of the dead and elevate them to life in a paradise-like state or condemn them to hell, Ereshkigal evaluates the number of memories the dead leave on earth. One major indicator that a dead person is well remembered is the way they are buried. We can assume that a king or a celebrity is remembered by more people and receives a more elaborate funeral than a lonely shepherd living with only his sheep on their pasture most time of the year. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t matter what the dead are remembered for, as long as they are remembered. However, Irkalla isn’t a very idyllic place either. There is no Elysium, no happy hunting grounds where milk and honey flow. Unfortunately, apart from the river of the underworld and Ereshkigal’s lavish palace, the only thing in the underworld is dust.

As I said, there are two different groups of dead people in Irkalla. Those who are still remembered on earth and those who aren’t. As long as there are memories, relatives who think of them and pay their respect at their graves, stories that are told or memoirs that are still read, the bird-like soul dwells in the fields around Ereshkigal’s palace and has access to the water of the river. They form a small city there, staying together with their families, chatting to each other and watching the comings and goings of the place. And there is a lot of traffic going on. Of course, there are the newbies - those who just died and have to find their place in Irkalla. But then there are also those who go through the process of being forgotten, whose graves remain unattended to, who are no longer spoken or thought of. As soon as this happens, they have to leave the community around the palace and move to the “Fields of the Edimmu”. This means that they lose their senses and their ability to talk – it’s the final death.

So, can you blame the ghosts for wanting to come back just for one night a year and see or at least get a feeling of what is going on up here?

Happy Halloween!


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