More on Seeing Dead People
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.