Ancient History & Civilisation

Appendix 1

Ghosts, the Soul and Reincarnation

Drawings of a male and female ghost for a ritual model. The female ghost is furnished with a male partner to keep her happy and distracted; he walks respectfully behind her with his hands tied.

(picture acknowledgement app1.1)

The Akkadian word for ghost or spirit, the sometimes, somehow visible human form that survives death, is eṭemmu, which is a loanword from the older Sumerian word GEDIM with the same meaning. The latter is written with what looks like a particularly elaborate symbol but it actually consists of the cuneiform fraction ‘1/3’ next to two other signs, IŠ and TAR, one written inside the other (which we can best write as IŠxTAR). Ancient Babylonian scholars interpreted the IŠ and TAR signs as the Sumerian words for ‘dust,’ and ‘street,’ either thinking of a ghost along the lines of our ‘dust into dust,’ or perhaps rather some evanescent phenomenon. Either idea makes sense, but no one seems to have explained what the ‘1/3’ element is doing. There is also a second, closely similar sign to GEDIM, which consists of the fraction ‘2/3’ placed next to IŠxTAR. This latter sign is pronounced UDUG in Sumerian, borrowed into Akkadian as utukku, and it is the name of a particular kind of troublesome evil demon. Two similar signs for two ‘shady’ entities, a ghost and a demon.

It has occurred to me that the signs IŠxTAR – notwithstanding the ancient interpretation above, can also be understood as a ‘fancy’ writing of the Akkadian noun ištar, ‘goddess’ (that is, a female divinity, not the famous goddess Ishtar). The sign as a whole could therefore mean that a ghost is either one-third goddess in make-up, or in itself constitutes one third of a goddess. Similarly an utukku demon is either two-thirds goddess in make-up or in itself represents two-thirds of a goddess.

Simple understanding comes if we conclude that the ghost or spirit represents one third of the make-up of what was the living person, and that this is somehow equivalent to female divinity. The lost two-thirds is therefore flesh and blood.

With an utukku demon, which does not teeter on the live-and-die fulcrum, the proportion of feminine divinity is two-thirds. The remaining third, whatever that might be, cannot therefore be analogous to flesh and blood, but is alien and enduring.

Just from the cuneiform sign itself, therefore, we can infer the following suggestive equation:

man = flesh and blood + divinity

Tablet I of the Old Babylonian Atrahasis Epic describes the creation of man by the goddess Nintu out of the body of a slaughtered god. Here are the two passages in translation:

Let the one god be slaughtered

So that all the gods may be cleansed by immersion.

Let Nintu mix clay with his flesh and blood,

Let god and man be thoroughly mixed in the clay,

So that we may hear a heartbeat for the rest of time

Let there be spirit (eṭemmu) from the god’s flesh.

Let it proclaim living (man) as its sign,

So that this not be forgotten let there be spirit (eṭemmu).

Atrahasis I: 208–17

They slaughtered We-ilu, who had reason (ṭēmu),

in their assembly.

Nintu mixed clay with his flesh and blood;

For the rest [of time they heard a heartbeat],

From the flesh of the god [there was] spirit (eṭemmu).

It proclaimed living (man) as its sign,

And so that this was not forgotten [there was] spirit (eṭemmu)

Atrahasis I: 223–30

Mankind according to this account is composed of three divine constituents out of the sacrificed god We-ilu: flesh and blood and reason (ṭēmu). Clay, mixed with flesh and blood and animated by ṭēmu, generates the human spirit and institutes man’s first and never-to-be-interrupted heartbeat. After death it is only the human spirit or eṭemmu that endures, while the body – the other two-thirds of ‘clay’ – returns to the earth.

The Atrahasis passage thus articulates the idea that ṭēmu (reason) is the crucial component of eṭemmu (human spirit) at the very birth of mankind. The strange name of the sacrificed god, We-ilu, clearly embodies this idea: it is the ‘we-’ element (before ilu, ‘god’) that, added to ṭēmu, produces eṭemmu:

we + ṭēmu = eṭemmu

One of the known cuneiform source tablets for Atrahasis Tablet I actually writes weṭemmu instead of eṭemmu for spirit in this passage, which has usually been dismissed as an error, but I think it is deliberate and meaningful.

There is also interplay between the Sumerian and Akkadian words, for ṭēmu in Akkadian is connected with Sumerian DIMMA, and GEDIM with eṭemmu, although the linguistic affiliations are a conundrum. The words ṭēmu and eṭemmu, so crucially intertwined at creation, were ever after linked with one another. On such a fundamental matter there is, naturally, Babylonian textual speculation available. Let us investigate by looking over the shoulder of a learned ummānu (teacher) in about 300 BC. This is real cuneiform stuff, but nothing to be afraid of.

We find our teacher talking about the name of the disease called Hand of a Ghost, which is ŠU.GEDIM.MA in Sumerian, qāt eṭemmi in Akkadian, to a handful of advanced students. The teacher defines the nature of an eṭemmu from ‘inside’ its very name, but in a way quite different from what I have just been doing. To separate out words and ideas he uses two wedges one on top of the other exactly as we employ a colon, and adds explanations in tiny gloss script, here printed above the line. Sumerian words are in capital letters and Akkadian in italic, for it is important not to lose sight of which is which.

GEDIM is normally written with the complex sign drawn above. Here the scribe makes use of a second, much rarer sign for this word, which can be pronounced the same way, and which we differentiate as GEDIM2:  Although GEDIM™ is actually one sign made up of three wedges the teacher for present purposes considers it formed of two parts, BAR (the ‘cross’ part) and U (the single diagonal).

Here is what he wrote on the tablet:

GI-DI-IM GEDIM2 (BAR.U) : eṭemmu(GEDIM) : pe-tu-u uznē(GEŠTUGII) : BAR : pe-tu-u

UBU-UR : uz-nu : e-ṭem-me : qa-bu-ú ṭè-e-me

E : qa-bu-u : KADE-EM4-MAHI : ṭè-e-me

There are two beautiful techniques involved. The first extracts meaning in Akkadian by literally deconstructing a Sumerian sign. The second is more sophisticated: it extracts meaning in Akkadian out of the Sumerian meanings of the syllables used to spell an Akkadian word. Words in bold all occur in the commentary text; everything in brackets is me trying to make it clear for cuneiform apprentices.


(The Sumerian sign) GEDIM™ (pronounced) gi-di-im [consisting, as noted, of ‘BAR’ plus ‘U’] is the same as (Sumerian) GEDIM (eṭemmu, Akkadian ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’). The latter means pētū uznē (Akkadian ‘those that open ears’) [in the explanation the worduznē, ‘ears,’ is written with the Sumerian ideogram] GEŠTUGII (because the) BAR (part of GEDIM™ in Sumerian) means petū (Akkadian ‘to open,’ and the) U (part of GEDIM™, when pronounced) bu-ur [because U has multiple values] has the meaninguznu(Akkadian ‘ear’).


e-ṭem-me (this simple, syllabic spelling of the Akkadian word eṭemmu can itself be ‘interpreted’ as Akkadian) meaning qabū ṭēme (Akkadian for anything from ‘giving orders’ to ’speaking with intelligence). This is possible because taking the first Akkadian syllablee- as Sumerian) gives us the capital E which equates with qabū (Akkadian ‘to speak).’ In Sumerian there is a word DIMMA written with two signs together as if a single sign, one KA, the other HI, together pronounced de-em4-ma. (The Sumerian word DIMMA) means ṭēme (Akkadian ‘order, information, mind, intelligence’). The words for ghost in the two languages can be shown to mean those that open the ear and speak with intelligence.

In this deft way, using associative meaning plucked out of the heart of the signs, a true scholar teaches how the troublesome eṭemmu spirit enters the patient’s ear when he is asleep. This invasion can bring about the condition known as šinīt ṭēmi, lit. ‘changing of reason,’ which interferes with the normal pattern of a person’s mind and behaviour, as shown by this description of the condition:

If šinīt ṭēmi affects a person and the balance of his reason is disturbed, his words are strange, his faculties fail him

and he raves all the time …

Having got so far we can consider another ancient exposition, this time interpreting a medical omen. This particular omen is the first line of a great, multi-tablet compilation:

If an exorcist sees a kiln-fired brick on the way to a sick person’s house the sick person will die.

The outcome of a patient’s condition can thus be foretold from what he happens to pass by in the street before he even gets to the house! What he sees is not an obvious ‘bad sign,’ such as encountering a violent road accident on the way to an exam might appear to us. It is something very different and very Mesopotamian. Another brilliant Babylonian had the most interesting ideas about what it really meant. Here most words are Sumerian ideograms, so I have included the Akkadian readings in brackets:

The omen:

šumma (DIŠ) agurru (SIG4.AL.ÙR.RA) īmur (IGI) murṣu (GIG) imāt (UG7)

There follow three separate explanations lines.

Explanation 1:

kayyān (SAG.ÚS) normal meaning (Akkadian kayyān)

The first interpretation is that the text means what it says: the exorcist sees a baked brick. Babylon was full of baked bricks and there must be some focal point here, such as the doctor treading on a sharp upturned fragment, which hurt him through his sandal, or seeing a brick dangerously dislodged from a wall. This would be discussed, but not recorded, for it is obvious.

Explanation 2:

šá-niš amēlu (LÚ) šá ina hur-sa-an i-tu-ra
A : me-e : GUR : ta-a-ra
Secondly it means a man who returned from the river-ordeal (Akkadian amēlu šá ina hursān itūra)

The second interpretation is deeper; the brick is interpreted as a man who has survived the water ordeal, a primitive legal device not unlike the medieval European stool, which establishes guilt or otherwise by dunking. This meaning is accomplished by a very sophisticated device. The Akkadian word for baked brick is agurru. This word is not written here syllabically but with the Sumerian ideogram with the same meaning, SIG4.AL.ÙR.RA. The commentator supplies the Babylonian equivalent agurru, takes the syllables ‘a’ and ‘gur’ from it and uses their Sumerian meanings. Sumerian A is ‘water,’ and Sumerian GUR is ‘to return,’ thus allowing the Akkadian paraphrase, ‘returned from the water.’

Explanation 3:

šal-šiš arītu (MUNUS.PEŠ4) : A ma-ru :
ki-irkìr (GUR4) : ka-ra-ṣa
Thirdly it means a pregnant woman (Akkadian arītu)

To show that the brick can mean a pregnant woman requires further mental dexterity. The teacher returns to the ‘a’ and ‘gur’ of agurru, ‘brick,’ and supplies different Sumerian meanings. Sumerian A, in addition to ‘water,’ can mean ‘semen’ and ‘son.’ Starting with GUR, the homophonic tendencies of cuneiform mean that there are several quite different-looking ‘gur’ signs, including GUR4, which is the one he chooses. This sign GUR4 can itself be pronounced in more than one way: when pronounced ‘kir,’ as shown by the gloss ki-ir, it corresponds to the Akkadian verb karāṣu, ‘to nip off a piece of clay,’ a verb which tellingly is used of the creation of mankind in Akkadian mythological compositions. Thus we arrive at ‘one who is making a son out of basic clay.’

The teacher who produced this deft display of cuneiform exegesis was of rare ability. There is, however, more to be explained. What should we take from his interpretations of the brick in the street as passers by? The hurrying doctor would be unaware that he had bypassed an ordeal survivor or a pregnant woman (for a pregnant woman who had to be publically outdoors would certainly dress modestly). The force of the explanation is that he saw a man who had evaded death – cheating the underworld assistants of a body who were waiting to claim him as he drowned – or a woman in the very process of engendering new life. Either means that the death of the patient is required in compensation. The clear implication, although this point too is apparently nowhere articulated in ancient Mesopotamian writings, is that for a new life to come into the world someone first must die. There is a simple beauty about this idea, which, to me, is irresistible. I imagine that contemplation of it could be a great solace to many people who are aware that they are soon to die.

To me this discloses an unacknowledged Mesopotamian system of reincarnation. The bodiless, personality-bearing one-third matter that remains after death – equal in some way to female divinity – sustains the eṭemmu spirit in a recyclable state until needed for a new birth. It suggests the underlying conception of a finite number of human spirits in circulation, reflecting the idea that the material of life, like any other natural resource, and especially water, is not boundless. It does seem hard to divorce this spirit from what is usually referred to, in common understanding, as a soul.

I cannot help but wonder if the netherworld depicted in the famous myth entitled the Descent of Ishtar, an ultra-depressing limbo, is not where the spirits all waited until, so to speak, there was a summons:

To the gloomy house, seat of the netherworld,

To the house which none leaves who enters,

To the road whose journey has no return,

To the house whose entrances are bereft of light,

Where dust is their sustenance and clay their food.

They see no light but dwell in darkness,

They are clothed like birds in wings for garments,

And dust has gathered on the door and bolt.

The Descent of Ishtar to the Netherworld: 4–11

Admittedly the poem tells us that no one can get out and there is certainly a very strict and overbearing gatekeeper always there, but perhaps the system was primarily organised to keep the great masses there until they were called for, to be let out one by one. Gates, after all, work in two directions.

Mesopotamian rituals concerned with the dead and indeed all texts to do with ghosts make it clear that they are supposed to stay quiet and peaceful in the Netherworld, but it is never explained what they are supposed to be doing there or what they are waiting for. There was no moral assessment of a person’s life ahead of them, no punishment or reward, and certainly no choice between a heaven and a hell; the Mesopotamians never had that set of problems. But if there were no destination beyond the waiting, what were they waiting for, if not for the call to step back on the great cycle of birth and death, as and when there was a vacancy?

Ishtar, trying to get in to look for her dead lover, is refused entry by this gatekeeper so she shouts at him:

“Gatekeeper! Open your gate for me!

Open your gate that I may enter!

If you will not open the gate that I may enter,

I will break down the frame, I will topple the doors.

I will raise up the dead to devour the living,

The dead shall outnumber the living!”

The Descent of Ishtar to the Netherworld: 14–20

Normally one pictures this outcome as a sort of Hollywood zombie movie, but I wonder whether the real fear was not that if all the sojourners in the Land-of-No-Return were let out at once the delicate, calibrated balance between life and death would be irredeemably destroyed.

The one-third and two-third divine component of the spirit and the demon is reminiscent of the description of the heroic Gilgamesh and his personal genesis:

Gilgamesh was his name from the day he was born

Two-thirds of him a god but a third of him human.

Gilgamesh I: 47–48

Gilgamesh = one-third humanity + two-thirds male divinity

While king lists are uncertain about the parentage of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, the Old Babylonian version of his story gives his mother as the goddess Ninsun, while his father is sometimes recorded as Lugalbanda, a mortal who in time had to be elevated to divinity as Ninsun’s husband. The divine-to-mortal balance of Gilgamesh’s make-up is thus out of sync with mythological tradition; it is perhaps because he was alive and not dead that the divine element is male (ilu not ištaru). The tripartite division in Gilgamesh’s case now makes sense if it is reckoned, as in the Atrahasis story, that he, too, is composed of flesh, blood and spirit, but it is back to front in that the god contributes flesh and blood and man the spirit. At any rate this hybrid quality in Gilgamesh was obviously instantly apparent – almost like a smell – to beings who were themselves a mixture, such as the scorpion-folk (half-man, half-scorpion) on duty at Mount Māšu, the mountain of sunrise:

There were scorpion-men guarding the gate,

Whose terror was dread and glance was death,

Whose radiance was terrifying, enveloping the uplands –

At both sunrise and sunset they guard the sun –

Gilgamesh saw them and his face grew dark with fear and dread,

He collected his wits and drew near their presence.

The scorpion-man called to his female:

“He who has come to us, flesh of the gods is his body.”

The scorpion-man’s female answered him:

“Two-thirds of him are god but a third of him is human.”

Gilgamesh IX: 42–51

One final point concerns the name of the boatman Ur-Shanabi, who ferried Gilgamesh across the cosmic ocean at the border of the world to meet Utnapishti, the Babylonian Noah. Ancient Babylonian scholars analysed this name as Man-of-God-Ea, because ur in Sumerian means ‘man,’ and shanabi is ‘40,’ which is a mystic god number that can be used to write Ea’s name. On the other hand shanabi also means ‘two-thirds,’ so the boatman’s name could be equally well be understood as Two-Thirds-Man. Perhaps he too was a ‘mixed-up’ sort of chap, but it wouldn’t do to argue with the heads of the Babylon Academy too often.

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