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Mesopotamia and Canaan

Egypt Compared to Canaan and Mesopotamia

EGYPT CERTAINLY developed significant traditions of life after death; Egyptian styles and influences are found throughout Canaan. Whatever the influence, Mesopotamia and Canaan were more closely related to each other and also to ancient Israel than any of them were to Egypt. The intimate relationship starts linguistically. Whether ancient Hebrew is considered closer to Canaanite or Aramaic, it is a semitic language and, hence, much more closely related to Syrian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite dialects than to Egyptian ones. This closer relationship applies not only to language but also to mythology and culture as well.

Mesopotamian and Canaanite views of life after death were significantly more pessimistic than Egyptian ones. The Egyptian vision of ultimate felicity with the sun god in the sky vanished. Instead, the dead lived underground in estrangement from humans and gods. This more Stoic vision of the afterlife seen in The Gilgamesh Epic—the great Mesopotamian epic of loss and bereavement—was even found at Megiddo in the land of Israel. Hebrew tradition seems more closely influenced by Mesopotamian and Canaanite traditions but the presence of other semitic mythologies in the Bible is hotly debated. For one thing, it is hard to know precisely which Bible motifs are Canaanite or Mesopotamian and how deeply they affected Israel. This issue will dog every parallel that we examine.

Mesopotamia lacked the unity of Egypt. It had once been ruled by the Sumerians, whose culture and language is still something of a mystery to us. Even they do not appear to be the original inhabitants of the land, an honor which currently goes to a group known as the Ubaidians (after Tel al-Ubaid where their archeological remains were found), who established village life in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians arrived in the last quarter of the fourth millennium BCE (ca 3300-3000 BCE). They spoke an agglutinative language which has defied any and all attempts at classification; it is now considered a language isolate.

Etana, King of Kish, is the first king whose deeds were recorded; he probably ruled at the beginning of the third millennium BCE. He is described in a later document as the person who stabilized all the lands, probably meaning that he was the first empire-builder. Shortly thereafter, the city of Uruk took over the rulership of the area under a man named Lugalbanda, ancestor of Gilgamesh. The deeds of the kings of Uruk occupied the epic imagination of the Sumerians and their descendants. The Sumerians were surpassed in turn by the city of Kish, returned to power to be surpassed by Ur, and finally again by Lagash. They were conquered by semitic groups and then Sumerian rule revived for a final time (2100-1720 BCE), when Gudea of Lagash ruled and produced a famous, pious statue of himself, now synonymous with Sumerian art in the modern world. So the most famous Sumerian face comes from the very last era of Sumerian rule. Mesopotamia was indeed noticeably different from Egypt in that it was impossible to create the kind of stability and freedom from attack that the Nile River system gave the Egyptians.1

Long before the Hebrews’ entrance on the world stage, the Sumerians were supplanted by many groups of semitic-language speakers, who partly inherited the culture of their forebears and partly innovated it into their culture (ca 2300-2100 BCE). These groups sometimes use a word cognate with the Biblical word “Amorite” to describe themselves. Although they seem to have been forced out of the Arabian peninsula, the continuous change of political fortunes in Mesopotamia insured a thorough mixture of cultures. Though the semites (that is, the people who spoke semitic languages, not a race of people) inherited the writing of their forebears, they used it to express their own language. The texts of the classical period in Mesopotamia were written in a semitic language which we call “Akkadian” (after Akkad, the city of the first great semitic king, Sargon), the language name signifying the family of dialects which include most prominently Babylonian and Assyrian. These closely related tongues each became imperial languages as the political and military role of Babylonia and Assyria expanded, one at the expense of the other. As a result even the semitic texts of the area show, in their enormous variation, the development of the long history of the ancient Near East.

Climate, Geography, and the Babylonian Creation Stories

AS IN EGYPT, the geography of Mesopotamia had an effect on its religious life. Civilization in the Tigris-Euphrates valleys also depended upon rivers but less on floods than it did in Egypt. We think of these areas as arid, desert Arab locations, and much of the countryside is empty waste now. But the Tigris and Euphrates river deltas are marshy and swampy, full of reeds growing in brackish water. In Mesopotamia, floods were normally seen as evil. Good order depended upon the effective use of canals to drain swamps, irrigate crops, and avoid floods, which destroyed rather than replenished fields, as in Egypt.

As in Egypt, many creation stories developed, stressing different factors, which seemed to coexist without much logical difficulty. Most understood creation as based on the sexual reproduction of animals and humans. Others used the notion of separation and distinction to talk about creation. The most famous creation story, Enuma Elish (literally “When on high …”), combines these same factors, using more ancient traditions to produce yet another variation on the themes.2 Indeed, because this myth parallels the Canaanite and the Israelite stories of creation, it is often thought to have West Semitic origins and therefore is especially important to Biblical studies.

The Babylonian creation story parallels the arrival of civilization (i.e., city life) in the area. It depicts the universe’s beginning as a split between the god of sweet water, Apsu (the cosmic ocean above and below the earth), and the goddess of saltwater (sea), Tiamat (related to the Hebrew tehom, meaning “deep” in Gen 1:1), who were originally locked in sexual embrace.

When on high, the heaven had not been named,

Firm ground below had not been called by name,

Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter,

(And) Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all, Their waters comingling as a single body;

No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared,

When no gods, whatever had been brought into being,

Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined-

Then it was that the gods were formed within them.

(Tablet 1.1-8, ANET, 61)3

Eventually Marduk, god of Babylon, destroys Tiamat, who is brutally killed while bound, then split and refashioned into the cosmos. Warfare was part of the fabric of life in this contentious river valley, producing new order and new government. From each piece of the goddess, Marduk fashions part of the known world and from the divine blood of Tiamat’s general Kingu, Marduk makes the human race: “Out of his blood, they fashioned mankind” (Tablet 6.32, ANET, 68). The importance of blood in the Babylonian creation story mirrors the Biblical concept of blood as the location of life (See, e.g., Gen 4:10; 9:4). The Babylonian creation story concerns many important conceptions for the Mesopotamian peoples. Among them is the prominence of Mesopotamian accomplishments in civil engineering-canals, for example-in separating brackish, chaotic swamp into farmland and estuary. Central political rule produced land reclamation and expanded agriculture through irrigation but depended upon the dominance of one city-state over another. The long and incomplete history of Mesopotamian creation stories mirrors the often incomplete dominance of one group of allies over the others in the area. Certainly, the primacy of Marduk in this version was meant to demonstrate the destined role of the city of Babylon to rule by military force in the area.

More often, the Mesopotamian versions of creation included clay with the liquid that creates humanity. Fabrication out of clay is so omnipresent in Babylonian creation stories that Enuma Elish may have assumed it and simply neglected to mention clay explicitly. Made from clay, a living being is possessed of a breath-life-force (napištu, cognate with the Hebrew word nefesh). It might also contain another wind-like component, the zaqiqu. This latter was sometimes viewed in bird form and associated with dreaming because it was able to flit about and depart the body when it was asleep.4

In the Atramḥasis epic, which contains both a creation and a flood, a very interesting new aspect is developed; the nascent human is fused with an eemmu. eemmu is the standard word for ghost in Mesopotamia. In this case, however, the text does not indicate that we have a divine spirit or an immortal soul. Rather, it almost seems to imply the opposite, the human who possesses eemmu now must die. When the human dies, the eemmu takes up residence underground while the esemtu or the pagru (two words signifying “corpse”) rests in the earth.5 Thus, as in the Biblical story, the forces that combine to keep us mortal were evident in the creation story itself. Because the word eemmu comes from temum (report, instruction, wisdom), we see that mortality and wisdom are related from the first.6 Cosmology, the story of our beginnings, is a very common way to address the issue of whom we are and what our “self” is. But that is not the only way in which the Mesopotamians reflected on human identity and mortality.


IN MESOPOTAMIA, most of the gods lived in the sky, though one powerful goddess, Ereshkigal, and her consort ruled the underworld, sometimes named Cutha, while demons and fearful monsters lived in between, populating the oceans and the underground. Several stories describe trips to visit the abodes of the gods. Each exists in a variety of texts found in different locations and in different languages, and often emphasize different, indeed opposing notions.7 These stories share some characteristics of modern travel narratives, meant to tell of the fantastic sights in the world; they then move on effortlessly to reveal the structure of the universe and the afterlife.

The oldest known ritual text mentioning Adapa was actually written in the first person, with Adapa as the persona adopted by the exorcist for expelling demons. Throughout the history of Mesopotamian exorcism texts, Adapa is compared to the king in his powers and abilities.8Furthermore, he is related to the mythical apkallu figures, who are semidivinities associated with scribal guilds and easy to spot in Mesopotamian art: They are figured as anomalous creatures who combine human and fish elements, or alternatively, human and bird elements. This makes them the masters of two environments, and they are known throughout Mesopotamian literature as the sages of old. Wise Adapa, the first human being and priest of Eridu, is both an admirable man and a trustworthy guide to the afterlife as he has visited heaven and knows what is there:

Wide understanding he had perfected for him

to disclose the designs of the land.

To him he had given wisdom;

eternal life he had not given him. (ANET, 101.)

While Adapa is fishing, the south wind overturns his boat. In a fit of pique, Adapa breaks the wings of the wind. This strange locution appears to refer to a technique of exorcism, specially related to defeating the demons who cause diseases. Thus, Adapa and the “good demon” Pazuzu are called upon to defeat disease-bearing demons, whose powers are depicted as winds.9

Unfortunately every therapy has a cost. The god Anu is furious at Adapa for his impious action and instructs his gerent Ilabrat to bring Adapa before him. Adapa has the protection of Ea, who suggests to Adapa how best to dress for the occasion. Ea instructs Adapa to leave his hair unkempt and to generally signify his deep mourning, telling the heavenly gatekeepers, Tammuz and Gizida, that he is grieving for them. Furthermore, in a detail that ironically anticipates the Demeter/Persephone legend as well as Genesis, Adapa is told by Ea not to eat anything put before him while there. However, if they offer garments or oil, he may use them.

Adapa proceeds to climb the road to heaven. At the gate of the heavenly realm, Tammuz and Gizida are pleased to discover that someone commemorates them on earth. As a result, they send forward a good report to Anu, who listens to Adapa’s story and is apparently won over, at least to the point of extending the courtesies of heaven to this worthless mortal. Good manners oblige Anu to give Adapa clothes and oil, as well as the bread and water of life, which will make him immortal. Significantly these are exactly the same gifts given to the dead to keep them domesticated within the family and working for the family’s interests in the afterlife. In this context, the proffered gifts are what hospitality demands.10 Unfortunately for us humans, Adapa refuses to eat or drink, exactly as Ea has advised him. By not eating, he forgoes the chance for immortality. Adapa has inadvertently accepted rites associated with burying the dead as well as insulting the god’s hospitality in a kind of ritual double entendre, which results in humanity losing its chance for immortality, to gain funeral rites, only afterwards gaining wisdom.11

The themes of knowledge and eating fabulous elixirs of immortality are parallel to the Biblical Adam and Eve story. In the Mesopotamian story, the food of everlasting life is water and bread, obvious symbols of basic human sustenance, as are good clothing and oil. The wisdom that Adapa gains refers to his exorcistic powers. Comparably in the Biblical story wisdom is depicted as a fabulous but forbidden fruit while clothes are a later gift of God after the primal couple loses their innocence. Adam and Eve receive the power of moral discernment, which is a very great good in the Biblical story; but the result appears the same: Humans cannot live forever like gods. We cannot tell if this is so in Adapa’s case because the ancient text breaks off before the denouement of the story.

Shlomo Izre’el recently completed a full-scale study of the Adapa myth.12 For him, the relationship between gods and humans is easily understood in the myth. While animals, humans, and gods have life, only humans and gods can have wisdom and only gods can have eternal life. What humans get, instead, are divinely sanctioned rites. Perhaps wisdom serves as a consolation, which might even be understandable as a theme of the garden of Eden story in the Bible. On the other hand, the Adapa story provides us with a convincing etiology for a particular group of ritual exorcisms.


THE ETANA EPIC though even more fragmentary and inconclusive than the Adapa legend should also be explored. Etana was the famous King of Kish, described in the Sumerian King List as: “A shepherd, the one who ascended to heaven.”13 He resorts to undertaking a heavenly journey in order to find the plant of birth, hoping to remedy his childlessness. Unfortunately, the remedy is difficult to obtain because it belongs to the beautiful but dreaded goddess Inanna (Akkadian: Ishtar). Progeny was a significant way to gain “immortality” in Mesopotamian culture, as it is in ours, and miraculous plants are now seen as the stock-in-trade of Near Eastern myth and fable. Perhaps this myth makes reference to some real plant with a reputation for medicinal properties in augmenting fertility. Regardless Etana’s adventure begins with an act of compassion: He saves an eagle from imprisonment by a serpent in a pit and, in return, Etana is allowed to hitchhike a ride with the eagle to heaven. But the eagle offends Shamash, the sun god, by traversing his realm with a mortal. The Annunaki, who now serve as a council of fifty “Fates,” eat the snake’s offspring in their bird-like form.

The Etana text becomes fragmentary just as Etana becomes too heavy a burden for the eagle. Doubting that he can make the journey, Etana begins to fall. At this point, we are unable to decipher what happens to our much beset hero. Heaven is not for mortals, either alive or dead. Like Icarus, Etana is a person dangerously out of his native environment whose punishment, a fall from a great height, was tragic. Unlike the fate of Icarus, Etana’s end does not appear to be disastrous. Whatever happens next, Etana appears to have accomplished his mission, since other texts list Etana’s son and heir among the kings of Kish and no existing text reports a premature demise (ANET, p. 114).

We can perhaps interpolate some of the missing data: The eagle probably returns the favor that Etana has done for him saving Etana from his fall. Furthermore, Etana’s name has long been connected with wisdom. And it is in Wisdom Literature, the literary advice of scribes together with their knowledge of divination and exorcism, that we find the most references to heaven and hell.

Wisdom, Ascent to Heaven, and Mortality

SOME OF THE references to heaven appear in technical contexts as well. In the Assyrian Dream Book, there are also a few short references to ascensions. The most famous one can be found in Column IV of the Susa tablet:

If a man ascends and the go[ds bless him: this man] will die.

If a man ascends and the gods [curse him: this man will live long.]14

The Assyrian texts follow the standard reversal pattern for these dream manuals, interpreting positive dream happenings with negative outcomes in life and vice versa. Nevertheless, we should not overlook the implication that these short texts evidently associate dying with a heavenly journey. A person who dreams of ascending to heaven will die, whereas one who is cursed in the dream will live long. However early death does not mean that the dying one will ascend to heaven; actually it means the opposite. Life in this world was believed to be cursed by the gods. The call to heaven was not the result of a normal journey after death for, in this culture, the dead went below ground. An ascent to heaven in dreams, privileged though it might have been, presaged death in real life. One sees this dilemma even in the conventions of writing in Mesopotamia and Canaan. The determinative dingir, which indicates that the word which follows was the name of a god or a theophoric name (one in which the name of the god appears), was a depiction of a star. This scribal convention only underlines this society’s notion that the heavens were where the gods were; they were the stars.15 Humans were believed to inhabit the earth until their deaths and then, even if they had visited heaven, they went below ground.

In the famous Wisdom lament, Ludlul Bel Nemeqi (“I Will Praise the God of Wisdom,”) one sees other casual references to the afterlife, heaven and hell, in a context that reiterates the limitations of life on earth. The writer of the poem, Shubshi-Meshre-Shakkan, observes that one can never divine the will of the gods:

Who can know the will of the gods in heaven?

Who can understand the plans of the underworld gods?

Where have humans learned the way of a god?

He who was alive yesterday is dead today.

One moment he is worried, the next he is boisterous.

One moment he is singing a joyful song,

A moment later he wails like a professional mourner.

Their condition changes (as quickly as) opening and shutting (the eyes).

When starving they become like corpses,

When full they oppose their god.

In good times they speak of scaling heaven,

When they are troubled they talk of going down to hell.

I am perplexed at these things; I have not been able to

understand their significance. (2.35-47; ANET, 597)

This entire poem is one of praise, as the first line tells us. But in the middle of the poem, the author tells of his terrible anomie, especially when his luck was down. Indeed, his description of the meaninglessness of life seems more convincing than his affirmation. He believes that we are silly creatures, expansive in good fortune yet heedless of the gods’ wills and depressed in bad times. The wise course, therefore, is to realize our limitations and keep a good will towards the divinity. Sickness and bad fortune are described as a kind of death itself, a motif that appears regularly in the Bible. Good fortune is salvation from the bad. In this context, Shubshi-Meshre-Shakkan uses the image of scaling heaven and going down to hell. But the phrases do not mean what they normally mean to us: All the dead go below, while only the great heroes like Etana are given a glimpse of heaven, where the gods dwell. Thus “heaven” and “hell” have no moral meaning as they do for us; they may simply be addresses. The heroes return with great wisdom because they have seen sights normally reserved for the gods. Like Etana, their wisdom was realized in the acceptance of their mortality. The themes of wisdom and mortality are unconditionally wed in the ancient Near East.

Seeing the God

IN ONE RITE, however, all cultures in the ancient Near East are united. Both Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as Canaan and later Israel, attach great importance to seeing a god face-to-face. Indeed, seeing a god seems to be the most basic purpose of a heavenly ascent. Although the gods did not usually appear to humans in Mesopotamia, rather they made their wills known by divination, the myths frequently depict men speaking to gods face-to-face. In Mesopotamia, statues of worshipers were dedicated by rich patrons at the altars of gods, so that they could eternally gaze on the divinity in statue form, give them obeisance, and bask in their presence. The large eyes of the worshipers’ statues expressed the religious importance of the cultic viewing, just as the large noses of the statues of the gods emphasized their pleasure at smelling the sacrifices humans gave them. Even as early as Sumer, wide-eyed Gudea was depicted before the goddess of Lagash:

When thou turnest thy gaze upon thy people, plenty comes to them of itself;

The pious young man whom thou guardest lives long thereby.16

So too in Ugarit, a Canaanite city on the Syrian coast, the meeting between the god and a human hero was emphasized. There were, and in some religions there still are, important rituals in which humans and gods supposedly meet on various occasions. In Israel, the populace was expected to appear before God in Jerusalem as often as three times a year. In addition the priesthood and the king also participated in various rituals of ascent to the temple at these times. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the holy of holies. He pronounced the name of God according to its letters and only the smoke of the incense prevented him from a full view of the deity. Even so, many Israelite heroes saw God. Adam and Eve and a variety of figures in Biblical history saw God face-to-face and lived because God spared them, though the penalty for this vision was explicitly death: “But,” He said, “you cannot see My face; for man shall not see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20).17


THE HEAVENS or the high mountains were believed to be the domain of the gods. Some of the heavenly gods visited the underworld as well; when they went, like Adapa and Etana, they were out of place. The underworld was considered the domain of death. Sometimes not even the gods could escape death. That is what happened to Inanna when she visited the realm of the dead underground. The most spectacular of the journey stories is The Descent of Inanna (Akkadian: Ishtar) to the underworld. Inanna decides to visit her older sister Ereshkigal, the ruler of the underworld (“From the great above, she set her mind to the great below” [line 1]). Fearing that she might come to some harm in the netherworld, Inanna instructs Ninshubur, her messenger, to wait three days and, failing any report from her, to go for help to Nippur, the city of Enlil, and plead with him not to let her remain in the underworld. If Enlil refuses to help her, Ninshubur was to go to Ur, the city of the moon god Nanna, and repeat his plea. Failing there, he was to go to Eridu, the city of Enki, the god of wisdom, who would not fail to come to her aid. The story traces not just a succession of cities but, likely as well, a ritual journey of the cult statue of the goddess. Again, wisdom is linked to the issue of mortality and immortality.

Inanna then heads off, dressed in her seven mi or “attributes,” which are objects of adornment, tools, and implements of war: the crown of the plain, the wig of her forehead, the measuring rod of lapis lazuli, the lapis necklace, the gold ring, the breastplate, the pala-garment. She decorates herself in koḥl, a luxurious, blue eye makeup.18 In current parlance, we would call them her “signature fashion statements.” Then, as she descends to the underworld, she must progressively take off each of her seven mi, until she appears naked in front of the throne of her sister. Ereshkigal promptly condemns her to death. At once, Inanna becomes a corpse, hanged from a peg to decay and fester. Simultaneously, famine and infertility strike the earth, clarifying the climatological dimension of the story.

It looks as if the Mesopotamian poets anticipated our saying: “You can’t take it with you” by millennia. We might suppose that this truism would not need stating but the ancient world knew of the wonders of Egypt, where the rulers did take it with them-everything from their possessions to their body immortalized by enbalming. And they all placed grave goods in tombs.

After three days, Ninshubur, as instructed earlier, alerts the gods; but as expected, only Enki stands by Inanna. He makes two fly-like creatures, the kurgarru and the kalaturru, instructing them to sprinkle the meat with the grass and water of life sixty times so that Inanna’s body will be preserved enough that it can rise, perhaps a reference to a specific funeral custom in Mesopotamia. Ereshkigal does lament the dead, as part of her regal functions. When the two mourners join her in lamentation, she is pleased and grants them a boon. The mourners then ask for the moldy meat hanging on the peg. When they sprinkle the meat, Inanna is resurrected.

However the Anunnaki, the group of scholarly ancestors who act like grim fates in assisting Ereshkigal, will not let her leave unless she arranges a hostage. She appoints Dummuzi (Akkadian: Tammuz), her husband, as a substitute for her. Dummuzi’s sister Geshtinanna (literally: wine maiden), in turn, offers to sacrifice her freedom for Dummuzi for half the year. So the two alternate time in the underworld, sharing the hostage responsibility for Inanna’s freedom. The trading of positions between Tammuz and Geshtinanna depicted the alternation of crops in the Middle East-grain (Tammuz) in the winter and spring rainy season and fruits (Geshtinanna) in the dry, summer and early fall seasons, before the rains started the cycle over again.19 Rather like the Demeter-Persephone story of Greece, this story provides a narrative that explains the agricultural year, in this case, why grain grows at a different season (winter and spring) then fruit (summer and fall). Like the Greek example too, the annual alternation of seasons and the change in flora suggest that death is a natural part of life and will surely be followed by a rebirth and reawakening.20

Inanna was a goddess but her death and return to the living were real, just as the grief for her loss was real. This suggests something about human finitude and how the continuous rhythms of nature, especially as domesticated in agriculture, overcome our limited human existence. Unlike the Greek version in the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter (which we will investigate later), there is no explicit evidence that the Mesopotamians thought that religious rites could make us come back to life after our deaths. However, there may have been rituals of immortalization which have been lost.

In this case, the explicit resurrection is directly correlated with Inanna’s astronomical counterpart. Sumerian Inanna was identified with Akkadian Ishtar. They were both identified with the planet Venus, which in turn was personified as the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman goddess of love, Venus. These mythological identifications are even older than classical antiquity. They all refer to the planet Venus, known as the morning or evening star, the third brightest object in our heavens. Unlike other stars, however, Venus did not behave in a regular and easily understandable way. Today, we know that Venus is a planet not a star. But this observable behavior made Venus an object of veneration and marvel, best explained by positing a divinity which motivated the star. In Old Assyrian texts, for example, Venus was called the star (kakkubum) and invoked as “the god of our fathers” (i-li a-ba-e-ni), an epithet of the God of the patriarchs as well.21

Not only is Venus an easily visible and observable object in the dusk and dawn sky, its absence is just as noticeable. It falls below the horizon periodically, completing five settings in eight years and inscribing the exact same five-pointed star as it crosses the horizon in each cycle. Very likely this is what occasioned the story of the descent of Inanna. Her return above the horizon after a set period of time, to take on the role of the morning and evening star, is no doubt explained by Inanna’s resurrection and reascent to her proper and glorious place in the heavens. Because of the vividness and regularity of the natural symbolism, the story also has repercussions about the possibility of resurrection and afterlife.

The Nineveh version of the Inanna text includes lines which suggest that the agricultural metaphor was being used to promise a kind of ritual revivification of the dead:

When Dummuzi rises [ellanni], and when the lapis lazuli pipe

and the carnelian ring rise with him,

When male and female mourners rise with him,

Then let the dead come up [lilunimma] and smell the incense.22

How the dead can rise and enjoy some of the goodness of this netherworld is not yet clear. For now, it is important to note that the myth, so far as we can tell, is ritually associated with commemoration of the dead rather than with any holiday of seasonal change. The notion of resurrection and afterlife is developed by analogy from the natural world, where death seems periodic and is followed by the annual rebirth of plant life. Perhaps it is fair to suggest that the pattern is an agricultural and even a feminine one, since the major characters are powerful women and the mode of continuity is cyclical. In any event, the language of “deathless-ness” is taken from the cycles of agriculture rather than the concept of fame in battle. In addition the conceptions were capable of reenactment in ritual form, normally a sign that it has special significance within a society.

Nergal and Ereshkigal, King and Queen of the Underworld

THE SAME architecture of heaven is reproduced in reverse in the fragmentary Epic of Nergal and Ereshkigal. Apparently, the drama begins when the gods seek to include Ereshkigal in their banqueting, though she cannot leave her subterranean realm. From here we learn that Nergal, who is her husband, was originally a sky god who was invited underground to become consort to the dread Queen, Ereshkigal. Just as Inanna did, Nergal has to remove his clothing when he goes through the various gates to the kingdom of the underworld. He was warned not to accept Ereshkigal’s hospitality but he is crazy about her cooking, to say nothing of her considerable skills in lovemaking. Their orgy goes on for a marathon week without interruption.

At that point he tries to escape but it is too late; the other gods force him to return, at the request of Ereshkigal. Insatiable Ereshkigal is eager for more of Nergal’s loving, so Nergal is forced to become her consort, which he does dutifully. It is she, however, who presides over the court of the Anunnaki, the “fates” who welcome and instruct each new arrival about the rules of the city. There is some evidence that this descent (and perhaps ritual return) is timed with the arrival of winter in the month of Kislimu.23 In this story both sexuality and eating insure our mortality.


THE STORY OF Gilgamesh teaches lessons about the proper use and limitation of grief. Even with the hope suggested by the descent of Inanna, the dominant advice about death and afterlife in Mesopotamian society was resignation and acceptance. The oldest recorded story centering on human life after death in the West is the story of Gilgamesh, earliest versions probably dating back to 3000 BCE and the early history of the Sumerians. The text content is nearly complete and is certainly a most poignant story, one which remains incredibly vivid and engrossing even to modern readers.24 The basic story of King Gilgamesh was gradually augmented over the millennia in Akkadian-specifically in the Babylonian and Assyrian dialects of Akkadian, as these two empires asserted power over the area. Semitic texts contain the most complete version of the epic. But the moral of the story changes radically between the various redactions of the epic.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, as we now have it, takes place on an earth situated between the world of the heavenly gods and the underworld. The hero, Gilgamesh (originally Bilgamesh), is astride two worlds: two-thirds divine, one-third human (however that could be!), ruler and king of the city of Uruk.25 His behavior at the beginning of the epic can be characterized as wild, unruly, and clearly antisocial. Even the gods are concerned. From one perspective, the epic can be understood as Gilgamesh’s education in the proper motivations and behaviors for a king.

The gods prepare Enkidu as a friend for Gilgamesh because Gilgamesh’s behavior is so unacceptable. Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s twin but also a kind of nature-child, clothed in his own hair, who can talk to the animals until a prostitute, appointed by the goddess Inanna, teaches him the secrets of human sexuality, in a weeklong pleasure orgy. But there are costs to this honeymoon dalliance. Enkidu loses his ability to live and talk with the animals, showing that skillful sexuality is a civilized, human art, not a natural one, in the eyes of the ancient Mesopotamians. After Enkidu cuts his animal hair and becomes properly educated in the ways of the civilized world, he becomes a worthy companion for Gilgamesh.

This episode is one of the few places in myth where female sexuality is associated with culture rather than nature. Inanna is portrayed as a provocative woman throughout but one who has powerful boons to give humanity.26 Gilgamesh and Enkidu eventually become friends. The imagery suggesting marriage between them is so strong that many scholars see an explicit homosexual union to be part of their relationship, though no sexual act is explicitly described in the myth. At the very least, their relationship is homoerotic. But against the homosexual interpretation of the text is the unabashed explicitness of the depiction of heterosexual sex. Given the lack of embarrassment in describing heterosexual acts, the silence of the text about any explicit homosexual relationship between them probably means us to understand that the relationship was a deep, male-bonded, homoerotic friendship, which gives way to Gilgamesh’s heterosexual duties as king.27

At first, Enkidu provides Gilgamesh with heroic diversions and quests. The epic narrates several of these adventures binding their friendship, but their pillaging also incurs the powerful wrath of Inanna, after Gilgamesh spurns her flirtatious advances and the two kill her protected bull. Gilgamesh’s spurning of Inanna’s advances is a puzzling narrative in which Ishtar proposes marriage to the hero. At first he demurs, saying he could not possibly afford the bride price (6.22-28). But then, he launches into a long insulting harangue of the goddess, listing the many lovers whom she has loved, abandoned, and worse (6.58-63). He details the various punishments that befell her various lovers when she tired of them.

There may have been something more sinister involved as well. To have accepted the marriage proposal may have trapped Gilgamesh in the same situation of Nergal, the god of the underworld, Geshtinanna and Dummuzi (Tammuz), who must stay underground as substitute hostages for Inanna.28 Inanna’s proposal of marriage might very well result in Gilgamesh having permanent responsibilities underground. He would be hidden from human view and unable to complete his mission. In any event, it certainly valorizes the male realm of war and fame over against the realm of marriage and family and suggests that fame in battle is even better than immortality below ground, a theme that appears again in The Odyssey. 29

Ironically, in later versions of the story, Gilgamesh becomes an underworld ruler himself, though that story is not included in the epic. However other versions do show that over the long history of stories about this hero, many contradictory sides of these themes were explored. Regardless at this point in the story, the goddess vows that one of our heroes will die and that hero turns out to be Enkidu.

After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find the remedy for death. Before his death, Enkidu has a dream in which his final destination is described. The place to which the dead go is “the House of Darkness,” or “the House of Dust,” a place of no return:

He leads me to the House of Darkness,

    The abode of Irkalla,

To the house which none leave who have entered it,

On the road from which there is no way back,

To the house wherein the dwellers are bereft of light,

Where dust is their fare and clay their food.

They are clothed like birds, with wings for garments,

And see no light, residing in darkness.

In the House of Dust, which I entered,

I looked at [rulers], their crowns put away;

I [saw] princes, those (born to) the crown,

    who had ruled the land from the days of yore.


In the underworld, Enkidu is transformed into a bird-like creature, similar to some of the Apkallu, which we know means that he has become an eemmu, a ghost.

Gilgamesh’s beloved friend Enkidu dies, not honorably in battle, but is struck down by disease. Through his death we learn the fate that the Mesopotamians believed awaits all of us in death. Gilgamesh laments his friend in a set piece which is probably a good example of a funeral lamentation, what the Mesopotamians referred to as “honoring the dead.”

The grief-stricken were expected to lay aside their good garments, to remove their head-covering, and go about unkempt, unbathed, and un-groomed. Fasting also plays a role in public sorrow, as does flagellation and laceration. But after the end of the official mourning period, there were ceremonies of purification and return to normal dress and grooming.

With Enkidu’s obsequies completed, Gilgamesh sets out to find immortality. The funeral has not really brought Gilgamesh peace of mind. Because he still grieves for the loss of his friend, his battle companion Enkidu, he frames a new quest, to find a way to restore him to life. But he also grieves for himself for he now knows and understands that his fate will be the same.

For Gilgamesh, his friend’s demise is the beginning of wisdom. At the beginning of the epic he encouraged Enkidu with the brave words that we should all fight bravely for only the gods live forever. Since we all die, we must seek fame before we go to the grim kingdom. He had clearly known that death was a danger in their combats but had not understood exactly what death would mean. Now, with his friend gone, he begins to realize that life means eternal loss. By the end of the epic, he learns what he has already stated at the beginning but without full understanding: Only the gods live forever. Death is the lot of humanity. It is one thing to know about death in the abstract; it is another thing to affirm it after the death of a loved one with the parallel recognition that we too must die. Gilgamesh thus comes to knowledge of his state of mortality. For the ancient Near Eastern mind, wisdom and mortality were two fundamental aspects of the human predicament, two sides of the same coin. The Biblical story of Adam and Eve says the same.

Strangely enough, Gilgamesh learns this from the human Utnapishtim, who has been rewarded by the gods with immortality because of his conservation efforts. He is a Babylonian Noah who built an ark to protect humans and animals from the flood. Utnapishtim has avoided going to the underworld as an eemmu. But the epic does not thereby dissolve in a logical morass, because myth typically moves forward by playing with opposing forces. We must accept that the human Utnapishtim casually has attained what the whole epic is saying is impossible for humanity. We can sympathize with the frustrated Gilgamesh who cannot get what Utnapishtim has-immortality. Thus, Utnapishtim belongs undeniably to the transcendent realm, though he started as a man, while Gilgamesh belongs to our realm, where age and death take their toll.

In a seemingly playful way, Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to a trial by ordeal in which Gilgamesh can earn the immortality that he is seeking. Utnapishtim dares Gilgamesh to stay awake for a week. But Gilgamesh comically and miserably fails, falling asleep almost as soon as the suggestion is offered and sleeping an entire week away. So unconscious is he of the time that the week has to be measured for him in the moldy remains of his uneaten meals. Seven days of bread stand in front of him, each in a more decayed condition. Perhaps this is a reference to funeral offerings. Nevertheless the plot contains the observation that the need to sleep and eat are two things which make us mortal, an observation that will later fuel ascetic disciplines designed to mimic immortality in other cultures.

The Gilgamesh Epic, as myth and literature, served in its own day as the quintessential guide for grieving to the inhabitants of Mesopotamia. For us as well who can hardly be unmoved by its stark elegance, the epic illustrates one means of coping with the inherently human problem of moral meaning that always eludes us in grief-inevitably raising the question of one’s own and others’ mortality-and ending with quiet acceptance. With such a universal and longlasting theme, it is no wonder that the different recensions seem to put slightly different emphases on the story. Both the Sumerian and the Babylonian texts picture Gilgamesh seeking to immortalize his name as he goes out to fight. The Babylonian version concentrates on the problem of mortality in comparison to the immortality of the gods.31

The refrain of the barmaid goddess Sidduri, from the old Babylonian edition, expresses this resignation most clearly in her famous carpe diem speech:

As for you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,

Make merry day and night.

Of each day make a feast of rejoicing,

Day and night dance and play!

Let your garments be sparkling fresh

Your head be washed; bathe in water.

Pay heed to a little one that holds on to your hand.

Let a spouse delight in your bosom,

For this is the task of a [woman.]32

Sidduri tells Gilgamesh, in effect, to give up his life of adventuring, settle down, marry, and have children. Immortality is not achievable for humanity in this strict, three-tiered world. This version of the epic counsels its readers to appreciate life and not to hope for more of life’s pleasures after death. It also says that although manly feats bring renown, maturity brings the steadiness of a householder. We find a quite similar sentiment expressed in Ecclesiastes 9:7-10.

Without the twelfth tablet, though, the story of Gilgamesh is framed with an inclusio: the beginning and end are an identical paean to glorious Uruk, the city Gilgamesh rules. The consolation for Gilgamesh is the city-the human accomplishments of city building, government, law, and sexuality (which is a civilized pleasure to be taken in great quantities in the story)-that is solace against the loss of friends and the knowledge of death. And that is what all who read the epic story in its various Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian versions, were to learn as well. Both the beginning and the ending of the poem glorify the city of Uruk and, through this city, the major cultural achievement attained in the fertile crescent. It is from this achievement that we mark the beginning of civilization:

Observe its walls, whose upper hem is like bronze;

behold its inner wall, which no work can equal.

Touch the stone threshold, which is ancient;

draw near the Eanna, dwelling-place of the goddess Ishtar,

a work no king among later kings can match.

Ascend the walls of Uruk, walk around the top,

inspect the base, view the brickwork.

Is not the very core made of oven-fired bricks?

As for its foundation, was it not laid down by the seven Sages?

One part is city, one part orchard, and one part claypits.

Three parts including the claypits make up Uruk.33

Implicit in the reactions of Gilgamesh to the death of his friend Enkidu are the same psychological stages of mourning which we perceive in ourselves. For instance, Gilgamesh goes through the stages of grief that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross notices in terminal cancer patients facing the prospect of their own death in her book On Death and Dying. It seems important to note then that this myth could well have served therapeutic functions for the society that read it, exemplifying both the fear and despair of losing friends and even a desperate attempt to get them back. Like the myth of Orpheus in the Greek world, our heroes and we ourselves fail to achieve immortality or to avoid loss. Stories like this teach its readers that, in the end, acceptance and resignation, followed by reattachment to life and enjoyment of its benefits, is the only proper outcome of grief.34

At the same time, the epic suffers from the Kübler-Ross dilemma we spoke of in the introduction. Just as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross herself eventually espouses both sides of the immortality debate, so does Mesopotamian culture when it makes Gilgamesh lord of the Underworld as well as the hero who learns to look at death soberly. It alternately asks us to live without denial and offers us Gilgamesh the god as an exemplar of helpful denial.

The Bible has deep affinities, both similarities and intriguing contrasts, with The Gilgamesh Epic. On the issue of life after death, the Bible is almost silent, yet the silence of the Hebrew Bible seems, like the Gilgamesh Epic, to imply a deep agreement that the proper concern of humanity is this life, not the next. The most intriguing affinities are hence found in Genesis the prehistory of the Bible, the story of creation, Adam and Eve, and the events leading to the election of Abraham. And since the story of Adam and Eve is deeply important to the Biblical notion of mortality and afterlife in Judaism, when such concepts arise, we are compelled to look at the comparisons and contrasts between The Gilgamesh Epic and the Hebrew Bible. Both the Bible and The Gilgamesh Epicare highly glossed, palimpsest texts-that is, texts which have been written and overwritten through many different generations and versions to reach their present form. Indeed, the theory of the Bible’s evolution from a series of different voices or documents seems most closely paralleled to the well-attested evolution of The Gilgamesh Epic.35

The Twelfth Tablet

THE NAGGING problem of The Gilgamesh Epic is the last tablet, Tablet 12, and associated individual legends of the two heroes. The eleventh tablet ends with the repetition of the first lines of the story, emphasizing the importance and beauty of the city of Ur. This inclusio has defined the length and breadth of the epic for the modern reader. Yet the ancient epic was originally separate incidents and even in its compiled form it contained a puzzling last tablet that has significant consequences for the notion of life after death. Tablet 12, however, seems to modern readers like an appendix to the epic, likely being translated into Akkadian directly from the far more ancient Sumerian.36 It was appended to the epic because it describes conditions in the afterlife, where Gilgamesh goes to preside over the shades of the dead. Notice, however, that Gilgamesh does not go to heaven where the gods are, or to the ends of the earth, where Utnapishtim and his wife live.

In this final episode, Gilgamesh tries to retrieve two important magical gifts, a pikku and a mikku, which Inanna had given him for having protected the magical tree in her garden which she was saving to construct her bed and chair. The two objects have not been definitely identified, though they are sometimes assumed to be a drum and drumstick or a mallet and a ball. In any event, they are used in recreational play and get a good workout on their first day. On the second day, they fall into the underworld. Enkidu sets off to retrieve them and disappears, ignoring the advice that Gilgamesh has given him about the correct behavior as an interloper in the underworld. Enkidu sees an underworld quite consonant with the one already described to us. It is particularly important to notice the bird-like dead, who are there and who will be present in Canaan as well.

Gilgamesh petitions the gods for Enkidu’s safe return. The god Enki agrees to seek the help of the sun god Utu, who returns at dawn bringing up Enkidu’s shade. When he comes face-to-face with Enkidu, the two great friends embrace. But Enkidu warns Gilgamesh that he does not have good news. The afterlife is not pleasant; it is a gloomy and melancholy place where all the fine things of life rot. The most one can say is that there is justice in the next world.

A tablet from Ur provides even more information about the care of the dead, as this tablet continues beyond where the previous abruptly breaks off. Enkidu reports that the shades of Sumer and Akkad have been overrun by those of the Amorites, who have been persecuting them. According to George, this clearly alludes to the collapse of the Third Dynasty of Ur under pressure from the Amorite and Elamite invasions.37 This particular development may well be a local variation of the larger story. When Gilgamesh finds out that his own ancestors are included in this persecution, he vows to correct the situation. He institutes mourning rites for his ancestors and fashions images of them. The strongest message of piety for the dead is being offered here. But the incident itself is out of chronological order for the epic as Enkidu is alive again and is trapped in the underworld. The lesson was considered more important than the chronology.

A further incident, the death of Gilgamesh, is much easier to understand with the newer, more complete text from Tell Haddad.38 It continued to exist as a separate story, likely because it was used in funeral lamentations. Enlil tells us that Gilgamesh must die, even though he is partly divine. Though he will descend to the netherworld, he will be commemorated by annual funeral wrestling games. He will rule in the underworld. Then we witness the death of Gilgamesh, who suffers terribly from a disease before he succumbs. His deeds are recounted and the value of the knowledge he learned from Utnapishtim (Sumerian: Ziusudra) about mortality and the flood is emphasized. Then the lamentations are chanted, the funeral rituals are celebrated, the entombment is accomplished, and the memorial images are set up, followed by the first of the annual games.

The text is unfortunately too fragmentary to provide answers to the many questions we wish to ask. Gilgamesh witnesses the rewards for proper burial: He sees a scene in the underworld where all banquet together without rank or social privilege, which is also mentioned in several other texts. We shall return to the banqueting motif later, because it is an important ritual to commemorate the dead in Mesopotamia and Canaan. Many have assumed that the magical objects in the twelfth tablet also have a cultic importance in the preparation and disposition of the dead or in the funeral games thereafter. What is undeniable is that Gilgamesh, after his death, can be depicted as a judge of the underworld. And that is quite a contrast to the lesson he is taught by Sidduri in the old Babylonian version.

Motifs Compared

IN IMPORTANT ways, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are a couple, similar to the primal couple Adam and Eve in the Bible, ironically almost the “Adam and Steve” of televangelist polemics against homosexuality. But these similarities only underline the interesting contrasts. Enkidu was created covered with shaggy hair “like a woman” (1.2.36) and looks like Nisaba, the goddess of grain. He roams naked, like the primal couple in the Bible, paralleling their innocence by conversing with animals, with whom he enjoys enormous sympathy. Like Adam and Eve, he leads an idyllic, childlike existence, though he is more like a willful two-year-old than they are.

Enkidu’s education is not exactly like the education of the Biblical primal couple. In order to tame his wildness, the shepherds and Gilgamesh send a prostitute to him. Innocence ends at puberty; it is time to learn the technology of civilization.

And the result is quite similar to Adam and Eve’s temptation. After his first, weeklong, sexual encounter, Enkidu is described as wise and godlike: “You are wise, Enkidu, you have become like a god” (1.4.34). The conelusion is drawn that wisdom is divine, and we can share it with the gods. But, to it is melded the knowledge of our own mortality in both stories. In addition, Enkidu is saddened to discover that the animals now run from him. The lesson then is: When we are young, we are like animals in our innocence but we become wise when we recognize our own mortality. In the Bible, the original couple is innocent and free, though they become like gods, knowing good and evil, as a result of their disobedience. They evidently have sex in the garden in their innocent state (Gen 2:24), as marriage is validated before the fall. So sexuality is coupled with innocence here, part of nature not culture.

The parallels between the Gilgamesh story and the Adam and Eve story support the notion that the original intent of the Biblical story was just like the Gilgamesh story-to see the “fall” both as unfortunate, in the sense that innocence was lost, and as fortunate, at least in respect to the notion that humanity gains from it the knowledge of good and evil, which is godlike. In both accounts, we see a developmental psychology at work: Childhood is idyllic but maturity brings wisdom. On the other hand, the obvious and open sexuality of the Gilgamesh account is absent in the biblical account. The notion that a temple prostitute could be the medium of positive revelation is abhorent to the Bible. The specifics of the sexual act are also deleted from the Bible, leaving only the pale reference in Hebrew to carnal knowledge and marriage. However the motifs of the knowledge of mortality and the fall from natural innocence are strikingly similar, as scholar after scholar has pointed out.39

The most obvious comparison between the two stories is in the flood narrative. Even the motif of sending out birds to spy out dry ground is present in both. They are so similar as to leave little doubt that the Biblical account borrowed liberally from its Near Eastern milieu in presenting it, though possibly not directly from The Gilgamesh Epic itself. One striking difference between the two narratives is in the reason for the destruction of the world. In the Babylonian version, the reason seems to be overpopulation, as the gods grow discontented over the noise that humanity is making. In the Biblical account, God must destroy humanity because of the sin of ḥamas, violence, as it is called in Hebrew. The theme of a magical plant is also common to the two stories, as indeed it was in many of the previous ones. Through pharmacology, this plant links the themes of knowledge and eternal life. In the Bible, the plants are the tree of the knowlege of good and evil and the tree of life. In Gilgamesh, the plant is one that rejuvenates the old. Humanity is denied the full benefits of both in each case. In addition, the snake in both stories serves as the villain who prevents a totally happy outcome. In shedding his skin, he receives rejuvenation which Gilgamesh desires.

But the Bible and The Gilgamesh Epic part company radically in their mythical depiction of civilization. For the epic, civilization is truly comfort against mortality. But the Bible sees civilized life as the beginning of corruption. The temples of Mesopotamia with their ziggurat towers become in the Bible the tower of Babel. That tower is a sin against God, another example of humanity’s trying to make itself like God. And the enterprise inevitably fails. So too, the victory of the agriculturalist Cain over the pastoralist Abel is seen as an act of murder. No doubt, we see in these stories a mythic portrayal of the original pastoral ideal with its freedom, sadly replaced by city life in the rise of civilized life, sedentary life as the destruction of the idolized Hebrew past of herding.

Both narratives deal with the human institution of marriage. In the Biblical version, the separation of Eve from Adam explains the institution of marriage (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh,” Gen 2:24). Furthermore, the punishments that God administers to Adam and Eve suggest that marriage is the normal state of postlapsarian humanity.40

The Gilgamesh Epic also represents a kind of developmental story of a hero who begins his career as a rebellious teenager acting out his hostility. Through various stages of his life, he learns how to behave in civilization. When he returns home after his failed quest, we know that he will fulfill his role as adult and father. But, while for the Hebrews marriage advances the claims of civilization, in Mesopotamia it is more ambiguous. Even more, marriage advances the counterclaims of human love and cultural innovations over against the divine realm. Inanna (Akkadian: Ishtar), the goddess of love and war is, in some ways, the protectress of human cultural life, in that the arts of love are civilizing and in other ways inimical to human cultural life. But she is “the goddess testosterone,” governing lust and war. Inanna is everywhere depicted as both kindly and ferocious in demeanor, a terrible ambiguity that follows this goddess in every avatar, from the Indian goddess Kali-Durga through Babylonian Ishtar and Canaanite ’Anat.41 This no doubt is meant to demonstrate the power of human emotion: Love and attraction are destructive as well as constructive, viewed as a natural and supernatural force as well as a human emotion. Love leads to romance, but when thwarted, it leads to jealousy and war. The same themes are emphasized in The Iliad.

Furthermore, Ishtar’s immortality is no guarantee of her constancy; rather her open and aggressive sexuality is accompanied by an unacceptable inconstancy, which seems to be her most salient trait. Does that mean that this vibrant, sexually explicit culture also contained a rather large mythological warning against unbridled sexuality? Perhaps, though it is not clear what social realities lie behind this notion. It could be a story that maintains that arranged marriages are preferable to relationships dependent upon desire alone. But in any case, immortality with Ishtar was neither a permanent nor honorable position. In the end, one would be reduced to some animal existence, as when she tired of the shepherd husband and arranged for him to be killed by the wolf, or the gardener husband, who was transformed into a mole. This represents a return to a state before knowledge was achieved as an ironic punishment. Perhaps the Akkadian and Hebrew versions share a common male complaint that they are trapped into unwise unions or even marriage because of their sexual attraction to women, and that unbridled sexual attraction is foolishness, as the proverbs of all ancient Near Eastern nations make so clear. This is hardly what our culture would conclude but it seems to underlie the ancient mythological view of the institution of marriage.

Lastly, we review briefly the central issue of mortality in these two stories. We will have an occasion to compare Gilgamesh with Genesis and Homer’s epics in more detail in following chapters. But, for the moment, we should note some additional similarities between Genesis and Gilgamesh which we need to unpack. Both The Gilgamesh Epic and the Genesis account of creation centrally involve the acquisition of knowledge and the explanation of death. The Gilgamesh Epic is concerned with the issue of death and the recognition that it is a constant in human life. Gilgamesh wearies himself greatly searching for a solution to the problem, only to realize that he knew it all along: Death must come to all. The narrative is really about his coming to understand what mortality means, a recognition that is the essence of the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. That wisdom makes him, finally, the king he ought to have been in the beginning.

The Bible too faces the issue of death, albeit obliquely, at the beginning of Genesis. The Bible, to be sure, notes that death is the consequence for disobedience. We could have lived innocently in the garden as intelligent animals, had we not disobeyed the command not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the emphasis of the story shifts. In the Biblical account, it is the coming to moral knowledge that takes up all the narrative space of the story. And the reason for this is simple to see. The Bible is primarily concerned with the depiction of a covenant between God and humanity. In order for the covenant to have any significance, humanity has to be divinely aware of the differences between good and evil and make a conscious choice for good. The moral vision of Genesis replaces the quest for immortality in The Gilgamesh Epic as the central concern of the narrative.

We do not wish to denigrate either The Gilgamesh Epic or the Genesis account. Each has a grandeur and a subtlety that come from its use of mythological motifs to arrange and order human life in a chaotic world. But the human worlds of culture which they create are quite different. The Gilgamesh Epic shows us a sophisticated and civilized world, at home in great urban centers, and proud of its own accomplishments. The Bible, which borrows and uses the motifs for its own purposes, shows us a world reluctantly civilized and aware of the dangers of civilization. The Biblical world is devoid of the competing powers that populate The Gilgamesh Epic. God rules everything; even the fall must somehow be according to His plan. The conflict then comes in God’s constant struggle against chaos.

The Afterlife in Mesopotamia

THE SPIRITS OF the dead, the eemmu, after preparing themselves properly for their journey, set out towards the netherworld. As with all travelers in the ancient world, however, they are in for some adventures and dangers. They must pass through a demon-infested steppe and then cross the Khubur River. They may obtain help from Silushi (or Silulim) or Khumut-Tabal (literally: Quick, take [me] there!). The latter is a boatman somewhat like Charon of Greek mythology. When the eemmu reach the city of the dead, they must receive permission to enter from each of the seven gatekeepers, who guard seven walls, one inside each other, making the city invulnerable. Likely, however, it was just as important to keep the dead in, as to keep others out, because the dead were believed to cause enormous mischief on earth. The worst eventuality was to be denied entrance, the result of unatoned violent deaths or incomplete funeral arrangements. Evidently they must forfeit all their attributes, clothing, and possessions at the gates, as Inanna did. Sometimes the journey incorporated navigating the apsu (the sweet waters under the earth and the second of the three nether regions of Mesopotamian cosmology), and sometimes this was believed to be the path that babies take to be born. The dead supposedly travel back this way to visit their families for remembrance rites as well.

Alternatively, the netherworld which was so far to travel for the spirits, could be thought of as underground, just beneath our feet. A foundation trench might reach it, and in fact Gilgamesh is once pictured as almost touching it with the tips of his fingers. This detail may reflect Mesopotamian burial practices, which used below-ground family tombs for those who could afford them, joining an entire family in death. It also ensured, by proper care and rituals, that the ghosts who slept in the graves were never disturbed. If they were disturbed, trouble would befall the family members still on the earth.

Like Hades, the underworld was rather gloomy, a consequence of its belowground construction. But the sun god (Akkadian: Shamash; Sumerian: Utu) visited at night as he circled under the earth. The city of the dead was a well-ordered place, where the dead ate and drank at least sufficiently to their needs. Evidently, this was paradise enough for the ancient serfs, but sometimes they imagined the ranks reversed so the aristocracy waited on the serfs. This city was presided over by the now familiar Nergal and Ereshkigal, the king and queen of the Underworld, living in a marvelous lapis lazuli palace, and who dressed for every fine occasion. They had a great bureaucracy available to them when they held court, clearly a reflection of imperial political life on earth. The most famous of the royal retainers were the grim Annunaki. But there were others as well. Here is the account of the dream visit of Assyrian Prince Kummu:

I saw Namtar, the vizier of the netherworld … and a man stood before him. He (Namtar) was grasping the hair of his head in his left hand and a dagger in his right … Namtartu, his wife, had the head of a kuribu [Hebrew: cherub, not a baby Eros figure as in Valentine’s Day cards but a griffon-like creature, like the creatures depicted on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon]; the hands and the feet were human. Death had the head of a dragon; his hands were human … Khummut-Tabal, ferryman of the underworld, had the head of an anzu-bird; his four hands and feet … Bidu (Nedu), door-opener, had the head of a lion; his hands were human, his feet those of a bird…. There was a man-his body was black as pitch; his face resembled that of the anzu-bird (and) he was dressed in a red cloak. In his left hand he was carrying a bow; in his right hand, he was grasping a dagger (and) he trampled a snake [with] (his) left foot. When I raised my eyes, there was valiant Nergal sitting on a royal thone, crowned with the royal tiara, grasping in both his hands two grim maces, each with two … heads…. The Anunnaki, great gods, knelt to (his) right and left.42

The anzu-bird was a horrifying griffon-like creature that inhabited the underworld and sometimes served as a kind of angel of death. Also present below ground was Geshtinanna, the fruit maiden we met before as the sister of Dummuzi/Tammuz; she was also known in Akkadian as Belet-Seri and Dimpikug, the wife of Ningishzida (also called Gishzida or Gizzida, often the chair-bearer of the netherworld). His job was, typically, to check the names of the new arrivals against the roster so that uninvited guests like Prince Kummu or the dreaming Enkidu could be recognized and turned away. But some have crashed the party, usually by means of prophetic dreams, to report the details of the final disposition of the dead.

This scenario was not the only possibility, however, as we have already seen that Gilgamesh himself is sometimes pictured as holding court down below. Scurlock suggests that Gilgamesh’s court may have been one of equity, where cases of civil damage were finally adjudicated in the afterlife.43 Additionally, the sun god Shamash was also pictured as a judge in the underworld, as his daily circuit brings him there on his return trip. Shamash seems to confine his interest in ghosts who were pestering the living but also oversaw funeral offerings, making sure everyone received his proper due. None of these courts had the systematic role in rewarding good and punishing evil that we envision heaven and hell to hold in our culture.

Kispu: The Mesopotamian Cult of the Dead

ERESHIKIGAL’S kingdom offered a parsimonious sufficiency, but the welfare of the departed depended on the generosity of the survivors. Perhaps the Mesopotamian afterlife is best thought of as a kind of imprisonment, where the relatives are responsible for the care of the prisoner, as in many underdeveloped countries even today. A badly treated prisoner could be expected to escape and cause great harm to the living as evil spirits or ghosts. The dead, with the right treatment, would eat regularly, if frugally, from the kispum (from the verb kasapu, to share) offering and even occasionally banquet when their descendants held commemorative meals in their honor at the appropriate times.

The kispu offerings in Mesopotamia were monthly offerings of water and bread, but at special calendrical events, they might be more elaborate. The departed’s first provisions-beer and honey as well as the bread and water-needed to be more ample to sustain the long journey to the West, where the sun set, and where the great gates to the underworld were located.44 The Adapa story supports the practice of ritual offerings, the same articles that Adapa needed to accept when he ascended to heaven, suggesting that the gods themselves sustain their immortality with these offerings.

The subsequent kispu offerings are models of interaction between the dead and the living, and also between the gods and the living to a certain extent. The dead were able to aid in bringing various benefits to society, like rain, protection against witchcraft, and increase to the herds. In return they needed to be fed, or they would be unable to perform their services and, indeed, themselves become malevolent. The paterfamilias was responsible for organizing the kispu events; the eldest son graduated to this responsibility on the death of his father. The eldest son’s greater inheritance helped him shoulder the financial burden imposed by these responsibilities.

One way to think of these rituals was as a payoff to keep the dead happy. It was important to keep the dead inside the city except on these specified “visiting days”; otherwise they could possibly cause great mischief. Dead kings and aristocrats could expect a lavish banquet, indeed, as the offerings and feasts for them would be luxurious and profuse. The living also managed to eat quite well at these commemorative feasts. The same was true for dead heroes individually and stillborn children collectively, who were memorialized through shrines to their spirits.

Another way to think of the ritual was as a celebration of family integrity. Only intact families could organize themselves enough to carry out the ritual. In the kispu ritual, a communal meal was partaken with the dead, which valorized the community of those who ate in honor of a common ancestor.45 This ritual was highly developed in Canaan, where it was called a marziḥ, apparently including sexual entertainments, and would prove a great moral test for the Israelites.

Enlil and Ninlil, Gilgamesh’s Court, Evil Spirits

THE MYTH OF Enlil and Ninlil contains even more details of the underworld. The god Enlil was banished to the underworld as punishment for his rape of goddess Ninlil. But Ninlil evincing great loyalty to her abuser attempts to follow Enlil to the underworld. This action disrupts the order of the universe, since Ninlil’s offspring is Nanna-Sin, the moon god, and therefore belongs in the heavens. Enlil, furthermore, does not want his offspring to live in the underworld. He devises a stratagem to create hostages to redeem Ninlil and their first offspring. As Ninlil leaves the city of Nippur and travels to the underworld, Enlil disguises himself on three separate occasions-as the gatekeeper to Nippur, the gatekeeper of the underworld, and the ferryman to the land of the dead. In each of these disguises, he impregnates Ninlil and fathers a child. Subsequently the three new offspring become important characters in Mesopotamian mythology. As a prison city, the afterlife will not free anyone without first taking a hostage, as we have already discovered from the story of the descent of Inanna. We suspect that Inanna was looking for a new hostage in her husband when she propositioned Gilgamesh. Even the gods had to pay a price for entering the underworld.

The deceased was called mitu-literally, simply a dead person or a ghost, in context. (The Hebrew equivalent is mēt). In the document known as “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld,” we learn the value of progeny:

(Gilgamesh): “Have you seen him whose ghost has no one to care for him?”

(Enkidu): “I have seen him. He eats what is scraped out of cooking pots (and) crusts of bread which are thrown into the street.”

“He who had one son-have you seen?”

“I have seen. He weeps bitterly at the nail which was driven into his wall.”

“He who had two sons-have you seen him?”

“I have seen. He sits on two bricks and eats bread.”

• • •

He who had seven sons-have you seen?

I have seen. As a companion of the gods he sits on a chair and listens to music.”46

This society was saying that the more sons one had, the better, so it was in the afterlife that the father would be rewarded, just as one supposes that the family with many sons had a retirement fund waiting to be used when the pater and mater familias became too old to work the land. It also suggests that the social utility of rituals of filial piety are attendant upon the cult of the dead. We already know from the lament of Gilgamesh that statues of the deceased were often made in commemoration of the dead, the most elaborate were started even before death, to represent the patron’s presence at rites of this type for which he was responsible. In the case of deceased royalty, offerings were made approximately every two weeks, at new and full moon. The offerings, which were foodstuffs, depended on the social class of the observers and might only be laid out, or they might actually be poured down a pipe laid in the earth. These feeding pipes also became very popular in Greco-Roman tombs. At Ebla, a royal cemetery was found that connected to a sanctuary to Rashaf, a god of the underworld, suggesting an organized funeral cult.

Untended graves, unburied corpses, or violent or unjust deaths all led to trouble from ghosts among the living. This created not only a mitu, a dead human being, but also an unpleasant spirit, a ghost, an eemmu, the two terms being used synonymously. eemmuwere often represented by a ram and otherwise depicted with many ramlike characteristics, hooves and horns. Especially annoying to ghosts was to have one’s body left for predation by scavengers, a very dishonorable end, resulting in much mischief to any offending parties and the whole area generally. Thus, violent deaths or criminal mischief were apt to produce vengeful and troublesome ghosts. Two kinds of persons were not to be found among the hostile dead: suicides and those who died in childbirth. Suicide was an honorable way out of a dishonorable situation; while death in childbirth was a valorous death, like dying on a battlefield.

However, woe to those who could have married and had children, yet did not. Those who were marriageable and fertile but died childless were apt to become demons, called the lilu (female lilitu; Hebrew: Lilith, as in Adam’s first wife in Rabbinic folklore, who becomes a demon). For Mesopotamia lilu and lilitu were classes of demons, not proper names. These creatures disguised themselves as seductive young people and entered into marriages with the living, apparently to fulfill their biological destiny posthumously. Failing that, they would sneak into houses at night to unite with hapless sleepers, causing noctural emissions, which in turn produced more demon succubi and incubi and, often, the early deaths of their unfortunate victims, who could even be carried off into demonic sexual bondage. When an adolescent young man had a nocturnal emission in Babylon, it was high time to get him married: His very life could depend on it! These stories do at least counteract the effect of protective mothers on their sons. Evidently these customs served as a kind of corrective to the many stories of sexual license told of unmarried men. Ghost stories underlined, by negative example, what the culture held dear. They were the negative reinforcers of family values.

Those who were infected with demons or haunted by ghosts of any sort could hire an exorcist to rid their person, house, or general area of these pests. Luckily, there was never a dearth of people who could perform these services. It was considered unsafe to talk of death openly, consequently there were a number of euphemisms available to the population to confuse the demons, who might be attracted by any open mention of death and cause someone’s early demise. Death at the end of a long life was sad but expected; unexpected death or foreshortened life was, as everywhere, a tragedy. In Mesopotamian society, the tragedy of fatal or painful illness was explained as the work of demons, and there were a number of ritual undertakings to safeguard against them.

The Maqlu Ritual

TZVI ABUSCH and his student Seth Sanders have brought to the attention of the scholarly world a series of rituals which elaborate on how to prevent witches from overcoming a person in the course of life.47 The texts, assembled from several different texts and known since the end of the nineteenth century, preserve a long complex of rituals, written on seven tablets. The Maqlu (burning) ritual was divided into three parts, the first two to be performed at night and the third the following morning. The primary participants were the exorcist or incantation-priest (asipu), who was the ritual expert and his client, a bewitched man (who might be the king or some other wealthy person) who was the speaker and ritual actor. As in our society, the less well-to-do had to hire less expensive exorcists or do without the services of health professionals. The actor spoke for himself as well as for the whole community. The purpose of the ceremony was to judge and expel all witches, whether dead or alive. The result of the ritual was the utter destruction of these troublesome creatures, who were then banished from the cosmos altogether, including from the netherworld.

The beginning of the ritual was directed toward the night sky and the netherworld, including the divine inhabitants of each. According to the introduction, it seems as if the witches had disregarded a compact or covenant (mamitu, “oath”) to which they were bound, and which was guaranteed by heaven and earth, a theme that is sometimes sounded in Biblical literature as well (see e.g., Joshua 24, where it is brought into the covenant between God and Israel). Therefore, the gods of heaven and earth became the enforcers of the oath. The speaker of the incantations attempted to gain the assistance of the heavens in support of his cause and to persuade the gods of the netherworld that the shades of the witches should be denied safe harbor. This ritual also gives us added background to stories of divination, necromancy, and exorcism in the Bible, such as the famous story of Saul and the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28.

Interestingly, Gilgamesh’s name and reputation were invoked against the dead witches:

Netherworld, netherworld, yea netherworld,

Gilgamesh is the enforcer of your oath.

Whatever you have done, I know,

Whatever I do, you do not know,

Whatever my witches do, there will be no one to overlook [it].

Gilgamesh made an appearance in his official capacity as a judge in the underworld. It was Gilgamesh himself who would enforce the oath. To make sure that Gilgamesh’s aid did not go astray, the actor called upon another underworld goddess, Belet-Seri, the Akkadian name for Geshtinanna, the co-hostage in the Inanna story. Probably this is connected to Gilgamesh’s harsh refusal of marriage with Inanna. In order to visit her, he had to be appointed a messenger of the gods, an emissary of the heavenly court, someone like Adapa who ascended to heaven. Indeed, in the Old Babylonian texts, the exorcist claimed to be Adapa: “I am Adapa, exorcist of Eridu.”48 In order to be both on earth and in heaven, the speaker made several performative statements in the form of incantations and embarked on several purifying ritual actions.

The ritual was meant to protect the adept from witchcraft but also to provide the speaker with an incubated prophetic dream. It served as preparation for entering the world of the gods, which meant to ascend heavenwards, essentially to become a star or a god of the night sky and thus become inviolable (Maqlu 5.11-20 and 7.55-57). The identification is stated expressly in 7.50-57, where the actor asserts that the heavenly powers with whom he identifies, the stars, are “the great gods who are visible in the heavens” (attunu ili rabuti ša ina šame naphnatunu). The location of the experience, Zabban, was both a terrestrial place and a cosmic intersection between the world, the heavens, and the underworld. Evidently it was located at the horizon where the sun descended during the late summer season.

The Maqlu ceremony was performed during Abu (late July, approximately), at the season when ghosts came back to the world. The dead were awakened and, although not all became threats, some would become very dangerous indeed. The ritual actor took on his astral identity partly in order to stay awake through the first two ceremonial divisions but he rested between those parts and the morning rituals. In effect, he was asking for a dream, stimulated by incubation. If the dreams were evil, they could be nullified by Shamash, the sun, and the powers of water, Ea and Asalluhi.

Interestingly enough, these rites and rituals seem similar to the stories about Enmeduranki, another wise man who figures as the eponymous ancestor of the diviners just as Adapa is the ancestor of the exorcists. Diviners (baru priests) and exorcists (asipu priests) are separate functionaries, though many ancient practitioners were accredited to perform both rituals.49 In both cases, human beings wish to convene the divine assembly, though humans are not authorized to command those with such high offices. In extispicy rituals, the diviner analogizes himself to the divine but in exorcism the agent becomes a divinity through a ritual transformation.

It is extremely relevant that these rituals are directly dependent upon the Gilgamesh epic, the Adapa myth, and the famous story of the Descent of Inanna, for they provide us with a window into some of the ways in which these stories were used ritually in the society that produced them. The myths were not just explanations, they were the “back story” for these technical manipulations for the benefit of the ritual organizers. Not only were they used in state monuments and present in libraries, they were the basis for various rituals of exorcism, purification, and healing. During the rituals, the adept ritually ascended to heaven in a shamanistic ceremony and brought back healing from disease and demons for the society. Thus, keeping the hostile dead away literally kept society healthy.

Adapa and the adept of the Maqlu ritual were even more closely linked by the end of Mesopotamian history. In Seleucid Uruk, these ritual priests presided at a large shrine dedicated to Adapa. By this period, the temple priesthood had already assumed the use of the apkallu depiction on their seals, which associated them with the scribal guilds as well. Furthermore, there was a distinct relationship between going to heaven, protecting society, being transformed into a star, and coming into the direct presence of the heavenly court. When Hebrew society finally affirmed a beatific afterlife, in the same Seleucid period, it also embraced these techniques of shamanistic heavenly journey for prophets, sages, and mystics. For the Israelites, the mediator was quintessentially Enoch, who occupied the same position in the Biblical genealogy as did Enmeduranki in the Babylonian King’s list.50

Canaan: Climate and Pantheon

THE ISRAELITES lived in close contact with their Canaanite neighbors and picked up many religious practices from them, much to the dismay of some priests and prophets. But that was all we knew of Canaanite culture until the Amarna letters were found in Egypt (at Tel el-Amarna) and texts from the ruins of Ugarit (at Ras Shamra), a culturally Canaanite city near Latakia, were uncovered. Ugarit was far north and was destroyed by the sea peoples before the Israelites arrived in the land of Israel, consequently we cannot be sure that all the Canaanite customs we discovered would have still been in practice during Biblical times. Still later, we discovered a wealth of Phoenician inscriptions, which also represent Canaanite culture.

Nevertheless, from these sources, we have learned that Canaanite culture was both close to that of Mesopotamia and also heavily influenced by Egypt, which had been its feudal lord for centuries before the Israelites arrived in Canaan. We learn from these sites that the culture of Canaan was in close contact with Mesopotamia. Akkadian was the lingua franca of the Late Bronze Age. The Amarna texts contain copies of two important texts about the afterlife: “Adapa and the South Wind” and “Nergal and Ereshkigal.” A fragment of The Gilgamesh Epic has been found at Megiddo, in the land of Israel.

But, we must expect that there were some individual aspects of the religious beliefs of the Canaanites that distinguish them from the Mesopotamians. The geography and climate of Canaan differed from both Mesopotamia and Egypt. There was no great river system upon which to depend for irrigation. The rainfall was plentiful only in the fall and winter rainy season, and only in the north, yielding very rich crops of grain and fruit, but fading off in the south to land usable only for animal husbandry, and finally to desert. Consequently, herding was far more important in Canaan than in either Mesopotamia or Egypt. Rain usually fell in two distinct patterns during the rainy season, which encompassed the winter. One rainy spell usually occured in the early fall, tending toward heavy but short downpours. A second period normally came later in winter, characterized by longer, gentler showers, which allowed for a winter wheat crop to ripen. The rain eventually failed in the late spring, though the dew was plentiful for a time. So it was still possible to grow a barley crop in spring, which tolerated dry weather and indeed rotted if it was too wet. The whole area is vulnerable to periodic droughts.

All these climatological features appear in Canaanite thought, transformed into myths about the gods. The effect of the climate can be seen in the myths of the major god of the Canaanite pantheon, Ba’al, the storm god, who brought fructifying rain and stud to the herd but who had septannual spells of weakness, in spite of his huge and awesome powers. In other words, the plenty given by the gods through rain was precarious.

East of the mountains was mostly desert, increasing from north to south, leaving little moisture for the deep valley of the Dead Sea and eastwards. In a good year, enough moisture fell on the eastern coastal mountain slopes to provide grass for spring grazing. In Canaanite mythology, desert and ocean were both gods whose demonic powers needed to be appeased or conquered. In any year, the rain might fail or come too late or last too long. The dew might not be adequate to the late crops. The late barley crop was especially worrisome, suffering both from too much moisture and too little. The counting of the omer (an ancient unit of measure) in Judaism, which traces the growing season of the barley crop, may be a reflection of this ancient agricultural anxiety. Geography as well as climate made life difficult in the area.

Canaan (and, hence, the land of Israel) was positioned on the narrow land bridge between Africa and Asia Minor. The narrow land was like a gate which opened to Europe, Africa, and Asia. He who controlled the gate had a lock on the access between the continents. It was the important strategic, military, and trade crossroads of three continents; whoever wished to dominate the area had to hold the three important roads-the royal road along the coast, the less easy and hot passage up and down the rift valley, and the difficult and treacherous passes between the mountains through Judea and Samaria.

Unfortunately, it was a gate all too easily opened. Israel gained control of all three roads at the height of its power, but that was only a brief period of time, when viewed against the history of the ancient Near East. Israel took up residence in the area as a group of mountain tribes, safe from the chariots of the great powers. It developed into a power when the great powers ceased to control the roads to the east and west of Israel’s mountain stronghold. Israel’s entire history as an independent state took place in a rare power vacuum when neither Egypt nor Mesopotamia was able to assert control of the roads. When the great empires reasserted themselves, the area became a constant battleground and the Israelite nation was doomed as an independent power; no local power could have resisted the huge military campaigns emanating alternatively out of Egypt or Mesopotamia and designed for world conquest. With such a climate and history, one can easily see why the gods were constantly battling to keep their positions.

El was the paramount god of the Canaanite pantheon. He held an august court of divinities, sometimes known as the kokabê ’el, the stars of ’El, who are the circumpolar, never-setting stars.51 He holds court in the snow-capped mountains in the North. These are all epithets which are equally used by the God of Israel (see e.g. Ps 82). ’El was known as the Bull, symbolizing his strength and creative force of animal husbandry, though for most purposes he just sat on the sidelines like a white-bearded grandfather. His title “Father of Years,” abu shanima, recalls the elderly man on the throne in Daniel 7:9, the ‘atiq yomin, the “Ancient of Days,” and is no doubt one source of our image of God as an old man on a throne. But he often operated as what scholars call a deus otiosus, a distant and unconcerned god.

The most active god of the Canaanite hierarchy was Ba’al (or Haddad, Adad, Add, or Haddu) who was god of storms, rain, thunder, fertility to animals and people, and, in general, all fertile, life-giving liquids.52 What ’El’s dignity prevented him from doing fell to his son Ba’al; so to him came the job of fighting off chaos, the sea, drought, death and, on the positive side, of bringing fertility to the land. He too was a bull when he took on his father’s role as inseminator of the herd. The major epic of Ba’al from Ugarit involves Ba’al in a huge conflict with Yam (the sea), from a city by the seaside. Besides referring to the weather, and winter storms, the critical conflict with the sea perhaps also reflects similar interest in seafaring that we associate with the Phoenicians and Greeks. The Phoenicians and their colony of Carthage in North Africa were transplanted Canaanites.

Besides defeating Yam, Ba’al had to also defeat Mot (Death), who was the god of the underworld. Only after doing this could he claim the throne from his father ’El.53 Ba’al’s association with the Hebrew God was also clear. His epithets are: “Ba’al the Mighty” and “He Who Mounts The Clouds,” the epithet that YHWH of the Hebrew Bible received (e.g. Ps 68:4; Heb). And, indeed, Ba’al was awarded the guidance of the vegetation, like Tammuz or Dummuzi. In this capacity he was known as “son of Dagan.”54 His dress was military and so reminds us of several depictions of YHWH as Lord of Hosts, though he was most often depicted with bull’s horns, since he had himself taken on the power of the bull. In other words, the Hebrew God could alternatively pick up the epithets of Ba’al or ’El.

The consort of El was normally Asherah; but as the “Queen Mother” she too was deeply involved in the cult of her son Ba’al. She interceded with ’El to sanction a temple for Ba’al in token of his victory over Mot and Yam (literally “death” and “sea,” cognates with the Hebrew mawet55and yam) and their allies Lothan (literally, the “writhing” animal, cognate with the Hebrew Leviathan). The first, Mot, was the god of death, chaos, and sterility, to whom Ba’al succumbed every seven years, causing famine. In Canaanite mythology, the building of a temple was divinely sanctioned and was the result of Ba’al’s victory over all the forces of nature, succeeding to the throne of his father.

The story of Solomon’s temple building, in turn, shares several themes and conventions with the Canaanite myth of the building of Ba’al’s house. For instance, both were finished and dedicated at the beginning of the rainy season. In Isaiah 27 and Job 26:13, we hear of the LORD’S famous conquest of the Leviathan, the Hebrew equivalent for Lothan. This ambivalence shows the great identity crisis of Israelite religion. Prophetically opposed to Canaanite religion, it nevertheless was suffused with Canaanite cultural forms and motifs and could hardly avoid them.

Asherah was a kind of “mother nature,” often depicted as a tree of life. Her sacred tree was itself called an Asherah and symbolized her creative power. Thus, her role was suggestive both of the role Eve took in the Hebrew creation story and the Biblical tree of life. The Asherah was a potent symbol in Israelite agricultural life, as the Bible’s opposition shows so powerfully: “You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole (Asherah) beside the altar that you make for the LORD your God” (Deut 16:21).56

The consort of Ba’al was ’Anat, who was very much of a piece with the unforgettable Ishtar and Inanna in Mesopotamia. She was the goddess of love but also the gory goddess who went to battle, entertained, seduced, and slaughtered young men.57 Along with Inanna and Ishtar, ’Anat should be thought of as the goddess testosterone, fostering sex and warfare. Like Ishtar’s and Inanna’s, ’Anat’s cult animal was the lion. But she helped save Ba’al when he was weak and dying, until he was “resurrected.”

Ishtar herself underwent a sex-change of sorts in migrating to Canaan, where she was transformed into her linguistic cognate, the god Athtar. Athtar was a god whose power was originally manifested in the planet Venus, bright star of dawn and dusk, worshiped by the ancestral Syrian tribesmen. Or she could keep her original gender in the person of the goddess Ashtoret or Athtoret. Ishtar and Inanna were identified as the planet Venus in Mesopotamia. The goddess Ashtoret, nemesis of the Hebrews in the Bible, like the god Athtar, was also identified with the planet Venus.

In settled agricultural life, Athtar became a god of irrigation. Even today in Arabic, the cognate word ’attara means “to irrigate.” While Ba’al was powerless, Athtar tried to take over the government of the cosmos but he was an inadequate substitute.58 This reflects the periodic setting of the planet Venus under the horizon and also reflects on the sparse sufficiency of the dew for irrigation as the short, beautiful Canaanite spring turned into a long, hot, brutal summer.

There are some obvious relationships between this climatological pattern and the myth of the Descent of Inanna, the story of Ishtar and Tammuz and Gestinanna. They all start as ways of linking the periodic fall of Venus below the horizon with other, agricultural myths-here importantly with animal husbandry. When Ba’al conquers the sea, it is like Tiamat’s loss to Marduk, resulting in sovereignty over it. Ba’al’s return in the fall rains likewise symbolizes the renewal of fertility and brings restoration of the grain crops during the winter. He also importantly impregnates the herd, which induces the foaling season in the spring. And this cycle also has important ramifications for the cult of the dead, especially in relation to the New Year Festival in Babylon and Canaan.

The Hebrews knew more about Canaanite religion than Mesopotamian religion in the First Temple period. Babylonian religion made its strongest appearance after the Judeans were taken away to Babylonia in captivity (597-539 BCE).59 But they were in constant contact with Canaanite culture throughout their inhabitation of Canaan; indeed, the prophets cautioned against the terrible immoralities of Canaanite religion, which they claim included human, infant sacrifice and sexual practices to insure fertility.

About the sexual practices, there seems little doubt, as ritual prostitution was practiced in the area. There is also evidence that Canaanite cults included human and infant sacrifice. The Roman claim against the Carthaginians—that they sacrificed their children—may not have been entirely propaganda: We have the skeletons of children in disturbing numbers in Punic temple sites. Since the Carthaginians were a Phoenician colony, they are representatives of Canaanite culture.60 We also find children’s bones buried at foundations and in large numbers near temples at Canaanite sites. But some scholars point out that, in a society with such high infant mortality, they need not have been sacrificed.

What seems more likely is that human sacrifice occurred in Canaanite culture. Besides the general accusation, the Bible gives us very specific references to occasional human sacrifice: For example, King Mesha of Moab sacrificed his eldest son on the walls of city to fend off the Israelite attack (2 Kgs 3:27). There are frequent reports and warnings against child sacrifice in the Bible (Gen 22:12; Exod 22:29-30; 34:20; Deut 18:10; Judg 11:30-31, 39; 1 Kgs 16:34), most of which suggest it was a regular feature of Canaanite life. But the Bible also describes human sacrifice as an extraordinary happening in Canaanite culture in time of crisis. One does not need to posit daily child offerings for sacrifice to be judged morally repugnant to the Hebrews.

Ba’al’s Underworld Visit

BA’AL VISITED the underworld, as Inanna did. Exactly how he got there depends on the version of the story. The dominant version relates that after Ba al built his palace, he sent messengers to Mot, the god of death. The messengers returned with an invitation to visit the underground. Ba’al expressed his submission with the phrase “Your servant I am, and yours forever” (1.5.11: 12), a clear oath of allegiance. Before leaving, Ba’al decided to mount a heifer and procure progeny. After a lacuna, we find that Ba’al’s death was announced to his father ’El.

During that time, ’El, his priests, ’Anat, and the sun goddess Shapash mourn for Ba’al, contexting a ritual practice which continues into the Hellenistic period, using in Greek the equivalent names like Heracles or Adonis.61 The Greek term is based on the Semitic adon, which like Ba’al, indicates dialectical equivalents of the terms for “master” and “husband.” The mourning took place during the hot summer, in the month known as Tammuz. It may be related to Jephthah’s daughter’s mourning: “So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains” (Judg 11:38). In the Canaanite version, the mourner was usually ’Anat who followed ’El in mourning but even that makes an appearance in the Biblical record: “On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo” (Zech 12:11). Hadad was another name for the storm god, Ba’al.

During the time of Ezekiel, we find pagan rites even in the Temple grounds: “Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord; and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz” (Ezek 8:14). As the spring flowers bloom, so comes the end of the wheat and beginning of the barley harvests and the foaling of the animals, the rain stops and Ba’al goes underground, held in the sway of Mot (death), leaving his kingdom in the care of Athtar (dew). In summer comes the lamentation for his loss, which in turn, brings his return in the fall rains. The priesthood therefore protected and participated in the natural order in Canaan.

It is at the season of spring dew that Athtar is chosen a regent for Ba’al but is proven inadequate for the job. Finally, ’Anat confronts Mot, begs for his release, and then destroys him in a series of lines that seems to parallel the processing of the grain:

With a sword she splits him,

With a sieve she winnows him.

With a fire she burns him,

With millstones she grinds him,

In a field she sows him (1.6.11:30-35)62

It is almost as if the passage is saying that the processing of grain into flour defeats death. Following this passage, we have a description of ’El’s dream-vision, in which he discovers that Ba’al has returned to life.

Especially in the seventh year Mot challenged Ba’al in a critical conflict. This may parallel the sabbatical year in Israel; or, inversely, the sabbatical year may be a Yahwist answer to Canaanite customs. When Ba’al’s returning presence was announced in dreams to his father ’El, we get the following ritual cry: “For Ba’al the Mighty is alive, / For the Prince Lord of the earth, exists.” In this call of victory is perhaps the real meaning of Queen Jezebel’s name, otherwise known to Bible readers as the idolatrous wife of King Ahab of Israel. It was the response to the phrase: “’Iy zbl” Canaanite (Ugaritic) for “Where is the Prince?” In a nasty little pun, the Hebrew “’yzevel” for the name Jezebel is taken to mean: “Without Dung.” Likely it was just the Hebrew reaction to the cries of victory for the return of Ba’al.

As we have seen, this myth explains, among other things, the weather patterns of the Eastern Mediterranean. Ba’al was the god of rains; his disappearance meant that drought ruled: “The divine lamp, Shapash, grows hot,/the heavens are powerless by the power of divine Mot.” This is a description of drought. The sun goddess Shapash waxed hot and no rain fructified the earth after the Spring foaling season was over. Like Inanna, Ba’al really died, and he really returned to life but, also like Inanna, he was always considered a god. There is no suggestion that this pattern in any way applied to humans. To the contrary, their return to life was through commemoration of the dead. No one expected them to leave their tombs. Instead, the purpose of the myth seemed originally to help keep the climate stable.

Aqhat in the Canaanite Underworld

CANAAN ALSO wrestled with matters of immortality and afterlife. There is another famous text, The Epic of Aqhat, which deals directly with death and loss, as well as, probably, commemoration and recovery. Aqhat was the son for whom the hero Dan’el had fervently prayed: to conceive a son, he presented generous offerings to the high gods, ’el and Ba’al. After he returned home, the Kotharat (conception and birth deities) visited him. He was a good host, feasting with them for six days. In return, they ensured offspring, a son Aqhat, to Dan’el and his wife, Danatay.

When Aqhat grew up, Dan’el received a bow and arrows from the god Kothar-wa-Ḥasis, after which more feasting ensued, showing Dan’el’s gratitude and hospitality. Dan’el then transferred the prized weapons to his son with a blessing.

The plot thickened when the love and war goddess ’Anat coveted the weapons and attempted to bargain with Aqhat for the bow and arrows:

Hear now, O hero Aqhat,

Ask silver and I will give it thee,

Even gold and I will freely bestow it on thee,

But give me thy bow,

Let the Sister of the Prince take thine arrows.

When this failed, she offered immortality. Evidently, ’Anat had promised something which everyone knew she could not deliver. She was depicted much like Inanna, with whom the savvy hero Gilgamesh refused marriage. Aqhat replied that he was not fooled by the offer:

Fabricate not, O virgin;

To a hero, thy lives are trash

As for mortal man, what does he get as his latter end?

What does mortal man get as his inheritance?

Glaze will be poured out on my head,

Glaze will be poured out on my head,

Even plaster on my pate,

And the death of all men will I die,

Yes, I will surely die.63

The story concentrates on the burial practice of glazing and plastering the head of the corpse, which we, indeed, find in excavated graves of the area, even as far south as Jericho.

’Anat received ’El’s permission to punish Prince Aqhat. But the punishment got out of control. One of the divine thugs, Yatpan, disguised as a hunting falcon, actually killed Aqhat, instead of merely wounding him. As a result, the much envied bow was lost in the sea. As soon as Dan’el found out about the death, the crops failed and drought started. Most of the body was eaten by birds of prey. Dan’el gathered up the few remaining parts of Aqhat, buried them, beginning and completing a seven year period of mourning. Aqhat’s sister Pagat then asked for a blessing from her father to complete the vengeance against Yatpan.

The scene for the vengeance visited upon Yatpan was a drinking feast, a marzeaḥ or marziḥ, which was the major rite of remembrance in this society and, in important ways, the equivalent of the kispu offerings of Mesopotamia. But the goddess ’Anat was also clearly depicted in the wrong for her behavior. So she was frequently depicted as the patroness of these feasts, in seeming compensation for her bad behavior. In some way, this long involved story of give-and-take underlies the script for the Canaanite marziḥ commemorative banquet.64

This entire episode is reminiscent of the death of Enkidu after Gilgamesh insulted Ishtar by refusing marriage and later killing Humbaba as well as the sacred bull of heaven. Here, as in many Canaanite myths, that death had climatic consequences. It also has within it the ancient Near East notion that when we seek immortality we risk offending the gods. We should not even think that we can achieve immortality because it will result in running afoul of the gods in horrendous ways. On the other hand, with the appropriate rituals, the dead could be commemorated and their status in the underworld improved. In these stories and in the rituals that dramatized them, are contained notions of misinvocation, equivocation, insult, and reversal.65 The dead could be given relief from their status but never raised back to life in this world.

David P. Wright, in his study of the Aqhat epic, invokes the work of Mary Douglas with some justification, though perhaps he overplays the parallel with his analogy of dinner parties in Great Britain;66 at least I have not attended any dinner parties that approximate the Canaanite example. The fact is that drinking parties and meals in general often do have a specific ritual character, with the etiquette representing a limited code, just as Mary Douglas pointed out for the cultures of Africa, ancient Israel, Australia, and Great Britain. If the different cultures do not send the same messages with their symbolic actions, that does not diminish the importance of the general perception.67

The marzeaḥ or marziḥ feasts did serve to define who the living kin were and hence who was included in family intimacy, by including the exalted ancestors with the invited guests. The mortals gave the offerings and libations at these feasts while the gods and exalted dead received them. Apparently they were raucous, even orgiastic, as well.68

It may be that the ending of the Aqhat myth provides us with the ultimate significance of the Ba’al myth for Canaanite notions of the afterlife. Aqhat refused ’Anat’s promise of immortality because it was not actually a return to life:

Ask life, O hero Aqhat

Ask life and I will give it thee

Immortality and I will freely grant it thee,

I will make thee number years with Ba’al,

Even with the sons of ’El wilt thou tell months,

As Ba’al, even as he lives and is feted,

Lives and is feted and they give him to drink,

Singing and chanting before him

Even so will I give thee life, O Hero Aqhat.

What ’Anat apparently offers was the chance to be feted at the marziḥ, not actual afterlife. He was like Ba’al, the head of the feast, but he was not a god and so he did not actually come back to life. Instead, he was feted, toasted, praised with chanting and singing, and commemorated. This seems to mean that his “spirit” could be recalled from the afterlife to appear at the feast. Although he rejected this offer at the beginning of the story, this is probably what he got at the end.

The Canaanite Afterlife

WHEN THE CANAANITES died, their vital element, called a npš (like Hebrew: nefesh, usually translated as “soul,” or “spirit”) was thought to leave the body. Alternatively, Ugaritic texts speak of the going out of the “wind” or “breath” (rḥ, like Hebrew: ruaḥ). The word becomes nbš in Phoenician and is sometimes paralleled with the term brlt. Those scholars who maintain that Israel got its notion of a beatific afterlife from Canaan must come to terms with the fact that afterlife in these related groups of cultures was not particularly beatific or optimistic.69 So we should not expect that Israel, in this early period of its existence, would concentrate on the pleasures of living with God after death. It is not hard to see that in envisioning the quality of a person that survives death, the Canaanites, like the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, were also making judgments about what was important and transcendent in human life; they were finding ways of describing the meaning and final purpose of the earthly “self.” Eventually, that would have to have consequences for the way they thought of their earthly existence. This will be the subject of a future chapter.

After the “soul” or “shade” left the body, life did not totally cease but continued on in another place-the kingdom of Mot (“Death,” Hebrew: mavet), where it lived in the same kind of weak form that we saw in Mesopotamia. This is no surprise since the Canaanites practiced interment as well and it makes sense to think that people who bury the dead would have a tendency to view the dead as residing in the earth. In Canaan traditions, there is no proof of reward or punishment of the dead in any Jewish or Christian sense, though certain transformations of the dead could be effected ritually.

Only the gods were exempt from death and not all of them were, as most cultures have notions of older gods who were killed and supplanted by the present pantheon. Even the present gods were not entirely free of death, as Osiris, Inanna, and Ba’al and the other gods symbolizing some annual rhythm in nature have shown us. They form what is sometimes referred to as the “Dying and Rising gods” of the ancient Near East. This pattern may be more evident to Christians than it was to the ancients.70 For one thing, no real resurrection is promised for their devotees. But there are definitely gods whose lives, deaths, and rebirths informed the ancients about the seasonal agricultural patterns in which they lived, linking them to the cycle of human birth and death.71 Indeed, if any mythology is going to be relevant to the human tradition, the gods must be shown to suffer real loss and provide humanity with negative or positive models for dealing with it.

But, in most contexts, immortality was a key feature of a Mesopotamian and Canaanite god, even those who visited the underworld. They all survived their ordeals. But we do not; humans have to die. This is one of the lessons of yet another story, the Kirta legend, named for a legendary king of Khubar whose children thought him to be immortal because he was king.

That assumption prompted the king’s children to ask their father: “Ah father! Should you die like mortal men? / Is not Kirta the son of ’El, the child of the Benevolent and Saint?” In spite of whatever may have been claimed in the enthronement rituals of Canaanite kings, it was still a naive question, even offensive to the gods. The irony is that we all die and only a child would think we are gods. But the story also parodies the pretensions of royalty and perhaps even specifically the Egyptian funerary cult.

It was the job of the children to care for the family’s deceased and make sure that the proper rituals were maintained. It was the lineage that must survive, so a person’s death was socialized into the memory of the lineage. As the Kirta legend tells us, among the duties a son owed to his father was that of supporting him in his drunkenness when returning from the commemorations of the dead. It turns out that this was a ritual concern because the dead were buried with a “wake” and later commemorated with a great drinking party called a marziḥ or a marzeaḥ, as the word would be pronounced in Hebrew.

Marzih or marzeaḥ: The Canaanite Cult of the Dead

AS EVERYWHERE in the Middle East and many other places, the dead were buried with grave goods. The heads of the dead were often painted with glaze. Sometimes corpses were deliberately disfigured or dismembered; for instance, at Jericho not only do we find bright, colored head-painting, we also occasionally find that one or more arms or legs of the corpses were removed-ostensibly to render them harmless in any future hauntings. Many archeological remains show evidence of repeated offerings. Sometimes a large storage jar for this purpose stood at the entry to the tomb. In other places a jar was buried in such a way as to provide an underground depository and occasionally even a pipe was used for offerings to be accessed from the tomb below.

In Ugarit (Ras Shamra), family tombs were found connected to the house by a stone shaft, with evidence that they were used over long periods of time and reused with the prior remains pushed aside. Children were sometimes buried at the entrance to the tomb. There are even cultic halls above some great tombs, where offering jars could be filled and other rites to various gods could be performed. It was also the location of the grave-marker or stele, and evidently a herb garden for marjoram (za’aar) used in rituals for remembrance of the clan.72

Besides the funerary cult, there is considerable literary evidence in Canaan of the veneration, feeding, appeasing, and honoring of the transformed dead at regular intervals and whenever their help might be sought.73 The basic goal of the cult of the dead seems to be to establish and continue a positive relationship between the dead and the living, in some sense to keep the dead part of the family.74 At Ugarit, the dead evidently participated in the fall New Year festival, celebrating the return of Ba’al with the fall rains. This act of Ba’al is described in KTU 1.21:11.5-6. Although the text is damaged, it can be restored by supplying the conventional parallels: “Then he will heal you/the Shepherd will give life to you.” The words were addressed to what seem to be a group of privileged, immortalized or specially commemorated dead, called rp’um (cognate with Hebrew refa’im), possibly vocalized as rapi’uma. Many scholars find the Hebrew pronunciation the most convenient since pronunciation of Ugaritic words is speculative.

In any event, the connection between Ugaritic and Hebrew is crucial in this case because these words in Ugaritic (and others like them) for the dead and the ghosts come up again in Hebrew culture. Since the dead were to be “healed,” perhaps the best explanation of the term rp’um is that they were “the healed ones.”

The identity of the rp’um is heavily contested. The best guess links them with deified or transformed dead ancestors, similar to the ’il’ib:

Shapash, you rule the rp’um, Shapash you rule the ghosts;

Let the deities be your company, behold let the dead be your company (KTU 1.6:VI.45-49)

The dead (mtm), the deities (’ilm), the ghosts (’ilnym) and the rp’um are related to each other through parallel structure, as is conventional in Near Eastern poetry. Like Ra, Utu, Shamash and Ba’al, Shapash the sun goddess interceded between the living and the dead because at night she crossed the realm of the dead on her way back to the east for dawn. So it seems clear from the parallelism that the rp’um participated in all the underworld categories-dead, gods, ancestors, ghosts. The identification is borne out in many other ways too.

The full context of KTU 1.21 shows how Ba’al would heal the dead:

“Come into the house of my marzeaḥ, go into my house for the rp’um

I invite you [into] my [hou]se, I call [you into] my [pa]lace.

May the rp’um flutter to the holy place, may the ghosts flutter [to] the holy place, [May they come into the house of my] marzeaḥ.

Then he will he[al you], the shepherd will [give you life again],

Now I will go [one day and a second], [on the] third day I will arrive at the day I will arrive at the house, [I will come in]to my palace.”

And Dan’el said: “[Come into the house of] my [marzeaḥ], go into my house for the rp’um.

[I invite you [into my house], I call you [into] my [pala]ce,

May the rp’um [flutter] to the holy place, may the gh[osts] flutter [to the holy] place.”

The best reconstruction of the scene is probably that Ba’al spoke the first lines, to command the activity, and Dan’el made the full invitation to the rp’um. This was Dan’el, the father of Aqhat, the Canaanite hero and namesake of the prophet Daniel whose oracles attest to resurrection for the first time in Israelite thought. The rp’um were invited to come to the house of Dan’el’s marzeaḥ, also called “a house for the rp’um.” We have seen that marzeaḥ was a cultic meal and drinking party, defining an association of orgiasts, whose partying evidently included sexual entertainments, held in commemoration of the dead, as we see from several quite explicit graffiti.75 The source of the ritual may simply have been to provide lavish and royal entertainment for the arrival of dead, regarded as distant and much beloved guests. But the excessive drinking may also have stimulated altered states of consciousness.76

Whether or not a marzeaḥ was a funeral wake, it could have been celebrated in remembrance of the honored dead. A god, Rapiu, evidently the leader of the rp’im was described as “King of Eternity.”77 It may be that Rapiu was often identified with ’El, who was depicted in another fragment as getting drunk at a marzeaḥ. At other times, the god of the rp’m seems closest to Ba’al. In any event, his strength, power, might and rule were the qualities sought at the marzeaḥ.

This is explicitly the sort of immortality that Ba’al offered his heroes when he returned to take up rule in the fall. The participants in the meal included human celebrants, and the divine who comprised, in the lowest ranks, these transformed dead:

[ ] may the [rp]’um take part in the sacrifice, [ ] may the ghosts [be str]engthened; [may they e]at like the dead of the dead

[May they draw] near and enter the company; may they [ ] on the day of the summer fruit.

May [the gho]sts eat, [yea,] may the [rp’]um drink.

[May they descend,] the god of the nut-trees, [the goddess] who is sitting on a twig.

[I have sacrifi]ced the sacrifice of Amurru, [ ] day [ ].

(KTU 1.20: I)

The day of the summer fruit suggests that this was part of the fall harvest New Year festival. The crops would include quintessentially nuts, which were said to need rain to ripen, as well as olives, fruits, and gourds.78 There is also evidence that the marzeaḥcould have been held at other times of the year. But besides the fall festival, there was a clear connection with the Kotharot, the fertility goddesses emanating from the underworld, who here sat on twigs like birds. Indeed, it is quite probable that the rp’um were also pictured as birds (KTU 1.20: 11.2), like the aviary transformation that Enkidu underwent and perhaps somewhat influenced by Egyptian conventions of iconography as well.

The transformed dead could also arrive in great chariots, as befitted gods, with their banners flying. The same mode of conveyance was available to YHWH. Psalm 68:18 speaks of God’s myriads of chariots.79 When God left Jerusalem to follow his people into exile, he arrived in Babylon in a luxurious, two-axle chariot-cart, witnessed by the prophet Ezekiel who was watching in prophetic trance (Ezek 1). Indeed, the name of the vehicle, a mrkbt, in Ugaritic, derived from the word for chariot, anticipates the Rabbinic name for the branch of Jewish mysticism arising from speculation of Ezekiel’s vision, Merkabah mysticism.


EGYPT, MESOPOTAMIA, and Canaan all produced very sophisticated mythologies, which both acknowledged death and hoped for regeneration, and were known throughout the ancient world. It was mostly through Canaanite culture that Biblical religion received its knowledge of these wider traditions, at least in preexilic times. The Bible did not accept these mythological renditions of immortality uncritically, though the Biblical Israelites were certainly tempted by some of the promises it held. The prophets offer a long polemic against the horror of Canaanite religion, especially in its accusations of Canaanite child sacrifice and its ritual prostitution.

Nevertheless, a great many Canaanite images are to be found inside Israelite literature. It is in Canaanite religion that many of the literary images we normally understand as Israelite find their source. During the whole First Temple period (ca. 960-587 BCE) the battle raged, as we shall see, and the received Bible fought strongly against any articulate notion of an afterlife, beatific or not. The Bible, however, reaches its present form in the Second Temple period (515 BCE-70 CE). Just how much of the portrait of the First Temple period that we read in the Bible is actually historical is a moot point, as it is being filtered through the eyes of a much later and more sophisticated editor. It is quite possible to posit that the First Temple period was much closer to the culture of Canaan than the Bible paints it.80 On the other hand, when it comes to issues of the afterlife, we cannot fail to miss that there is not much archeological evidence that the Israelites regularly offered food or drink to their dead, as was characteristic of the Canaanite cults.81

In the end, however, after notions of the afterlife entered Israel, it was not the notion of contact with the living that persisted as a beatific reward after death. On the contrary, the vision of the afterlife of the Mesopotamian and Canaanite cities became more the model of hell, not heaven, in the Bible.

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