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Depictions of the Dead

February 10, 2010

Mesopotamian depictions of the Netherworld describe its dead with bird imagery. This conceptualization has confused some of my students. Indeed, it seems to confuse some of the scholars as well. As an example of thinking out loud, here are a few thoughts on this bird-like imagery for the dead.

When Enkidu’s tells Gilgamesh of his vision of the Land of No Return he says:

to the house whose residents are deprived of light,
where soil is there sustenance and clay their food,
where they are clad like birds in coats of feathers,
and see no light, but dwell in darkness.
(Tablet VII: 187-90; Andrew George’s translation, p. 61)

There are three lines of reasoning that I’ve come across and embraced to explain this reasoning. First off, there is the look of a partially decomposed body, with skin and sinews looking rather feathery (nice mental picture, I know). Given the nature of secondary internment, such images would have been more common in ancient times than in contemporary western culture where the closest most of us get to such a dead body is an episode of CSI.


Burney Relief

Another possibility is that the bird imagery is related to depictions of gods and other supernatural creatures of the Netherworld. Ereshkigal has been depicted with talons in some accounts. One iconographic example might be the Burney Relief (aka “The Queen of the Night), though the identification and even authenticity of this plaque is quite debated. (For a recent treatment see Domonique Collon’s The Queen of the Night). Likewise, a neo-Assyrian text tells of one Assyrian crown prince’s (Assurbanipal?) hellish vision of the Netherworld, complete with demons with bird talons and wings. It’s unclear given the nature of our material whether deities or the dead first are given bird imagery but a relationship between the two seems quite clear.

Dagger God from Yazilikaya

Similarly, there is also the notion of birds as gifts to the Netherworld. An example from further west can be found in the Hittite rock sanctuary of Yazılıkaya. While the sanctuary had several religious functions, one of these was the “Stone House” or internment place of the Late Bronze Age king Tudḫaliya IV.  One of the rock reliefs at the site depicts twelve gods of the Netherworld while another is of a dagger god who might be the Mesopotamian Netherworld god Nergal (Ereshkigal’s husband from the second millennium BCE on). While none of these depictions show the gods with clear bird imagery, archaeologist have found ancient remains of birds that were pinned down as offerings either to the spirit of the king or other denizens of the Netherworld.

At the end of the day, my expertise is Levantine culture. So, any additionally leads on bird imagery for the dead in Mesopotamia would be much appreciated.

  1. Tracy permalink
    February 10, 2010 4:21 pm

    Might it be related to the “sky burials” of Zoroastrianism? That is, to vultures and other birds’ nature as scavengers?

  2. February 11, 2010 11:33 am

    If you haven’t already, checkout CAD I, 212, for several additional references to texts that use similes associating birds and the dead. It is also interesting that is.s.āru (sorry, I’m not sure how to do it correctly in a comment) is a technical term in extispicy (CAD I, 213-14). It seems to mean certain groupings of parts of exta. This may support your first explanation.

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