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More on Seeing Dead People

March 3, 2010

I’m starting to think I’m obsessed with seeing dead people. I’m still trying to figure out the depiction of the dead in the Gilgamesh Epic:

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)

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Dina Katz’s The Image of the Netherworld in the Sumerian Sources. In a footnote she addresses the mysterious depiction of the dead as “clad like birds in coats of feathers” in Sumerian and Akkadian literature.

The idea that spirits were clad in feathers like birds is perplexing. As far as we can gather from Sumerian literature and archaeological finds, the dead were dressed normally. Perhaps the image of birds derived from the notion that the spirit is in an ethereal state like the wind and by association it blows or flies. (p. 228 n. 92)

Katz’s hypothesis corresponds to one my own musings on the depiction of the dead in Gilgamesh (see previous discussion here).

However, I don’t see a lot of evidence for her (and my) theory in Katz’s text. On pp. 337-345 Katz transcribes, translates and comments on six Sumerian incantations against evil Netherworld spirits. None mention bird imagery, blowing or flying. Akkadian descriptions of such Netherworld figures as Ereshkigal and Lamashtu involve avian imagery, but most of this material is later than the Sumerian texts.

Probably it’s best to leave it with Katz’s first comment on these depiction: it certainly is perplexing.

  1. March 4, 2010 8:47 am

    Linking to Amazon! Bad, bad, bad! I revoke your Eisenbrauns mug! : )


    • March 4, 2010 9:31 am

      Not my Eisenbrauns mug!

      Wait, which one are you revoking? I’ve got four of them.

  2. Lenin permalink
    March 5, 2010 5:09 pm

    Hi Jim,
    I’ve read your blog periodically, and couldn’t help but comment on this post. The reason: I wrote my master’s thesis on 1Sam 28:3-25, and did a lot of background study on Mesopotamian understanding of death and the afterlife. I also used Katz’s book, and found it particularly interesting. Are you presently working on something pertaining to death and the afterlife?

    • March 6, 2010 7:24 pm

      Hi Lenin,

      I have a longstanding fascination with Cthonic deities, necromancy and generally the whole sexy side of ritual.

      However, this recent spate of posts is more a confluence of teaching and current research. I teach in department at Temple that has Gilgamesh as one of the required texts. As such I’m always finding new questions in the text (or being asked such by colleagues). I’m also working on a couple of incantations to Nergal for a project Alan Lenzi is heading up. Since Nergal is the “Enlil of the Netherworld” the research overlaps pretty quickly.

      I’d love to hear more on your thesis. Any new theories come up as you wrote?

  3. Lenin permalink
    March 6, 2010 10:44 pm


    I thought I was the only person obsessed with dead people! For my thesis, I didn’t really come up with anything new. I simply wanted to understand 1 Sam 28:3-25 better, so I considered Joseph Tropper’s contention that the narrative was a “cult of the dead” ceremony. However, in order to consider that, I had to do a lot of research on what a “cult of the dead” was, as well as necromancy. Therefore, I read a lot of different texts, such as “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld,” “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” etc. to get an idea of how death was perceived in the ANE world. I also examined some material from Ugarit, and Anatolia, all to get a better idea of death in the ancient world. In the end, I concluded that 1 Sam 28:3-25 didn’t preserve vestiges of a “cult of the dead” ceremony, but was simply a case of necromancy. So, as you can tell, nothing groundbreaking, but I sure did learn a lot about death in the ancient Near Eastern world, and, like you, I was simply fascinated. I may continue to do more research on the topic once I get into a doctoral program. As of now, my ideas are still amorphous. I have applied to Brandeis, especially because David Wright is really into ritual as well. We’ll see what happens!

    • March 7, 2010 9:34 am

      I’ve moved a bit away from the position of Tropper, Smith, vander Toorn et al qua cult of the dead. They seem to smooth funerary cults, mortuary cults and necromancy into one big category and see evidence of one indicative of all. At least as far as Ugaritic evidence I find myself taking the position of Pardee and Schmidt. Namely, that there’s strong evidence of a funerary cult but not an enduring cult of the dead.

      Wright is a great scholar and fun to work with (he’s my adviser). However, he is just as interested in minute distinctions in ritual texts as much as the bigger, sexy issues (lots of discussion of which altar blood is dabbed).

      Good luck in the application process! By the end of it I was convinced that my mail carrier was a sadist who was deliberately keeping letters of acceptance (or rejection!) from me.

  4. March 14, 2010 1:58 pm

    Have you looked to see if there are any sources for the Egyptian Ba? It seems quite similar (birdlike aspect of the human soul), and if there’s a theory on its origins, it might be partially applicable.

    • March 15, 2010 8:39 am

      Interesting idea, Aaron. I’m often leery of such pan-Mediterranean connections. The Egyptian conception of the soul is quite different from that of Mesopotamia. However, that doesn’t necessarily preclude such a borrowing of symbolic elements.

  5. Lenin permalink
    March 17, 2010 8:26 pm

    Jim, I just found out that I got into Brandeis’ master’s program – would you have some time to talk to a potential Brandeis student? Thanks!

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