To Adapa, for inspiration, Shem for the copy of The Phoenician Letters, Esharra and POL
To the discerning eye of dedicated Mesopotamian mystics, the question of the afterlife in Mesopotamia as discussed in the literature raises interesting issues especially when compared with Egypt. It is normally said that the Egyptians had a very positive view of the afterlife after the weighing of the souls carried out by Maat in comparison to the Mesopotamians. Of them, it is said that the afterlife was a terrible experience, where the dead ate dust and wore feathers as garments, wailing in the realms of the Netherworld and Ereshkigal. But despite the written evidence on this (see the Descent of Inanna, the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example), would this be the whole truth?
It may well not be entirely so, if we suppose the Mesopotamians believed in the eternal return, a concept that perhaps could not be on the whole likened to what we now understand by reincarnation, but similar to it. In this article, we propose that it may very well be that ancient Mesopotamians did believe in the soul´s return from the Underworld after physical death, that the Descent into the Land of No Return was a necessary stage to purge for unaccomplished deeds and wrongdoings, so that the spirit/soul could return again afterwards, and that this was due to the link that existed between Heaven and Earth, or the Duranki. We will proceed to present arguments to ground this statement based on Sumerian mythology, religion and scholarship. Before we proceed, we would like to point out that this article does not intend to be dogmatic or final on the subject, but work as an invitation for further insights on this important topic for the growth of our understanding of Mesopotamian religion.
Adapa, in his first brilliant article on Sumerian religion (the series of his essays also in this site as Adapa´s Treatise on Sumerian Religion) says that reincarnation is a concept suitable for the Mesopotamians because it was so real and explicit that it was not worth reporting the striking obvious. The Mesopotamians, he adds, took painstaking notes of the coming of the sunrise and sunset every day, the return of the seasons, the planets and the stars, always revolving and returning to charted points in the skies. Thus, they did believe that everything was cyclic, and probably considered life and death as such as well. This opinion is also shared by eminent Assyriologist Jean Bottero in his work Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and The Gods, and he shows countless examples of the effort taken by Mesopotamians to record and compare data, demonstrating clearly the beginnings of deductive reasoning.
Let's examine Mesopotamian mythology and see the foundations of their many descent and ascent stories because they all assert the close relationship between the Great Dephts and the Highest Heights, a cyclic pattern, an Eternal Return and flow between all realms of existence. What we aim at showing is that Ancient Mesopotamians might have viewed the relationship between heaven and earth as an eternal flow, reflecting the bond or Duranki between the Great Above and the Great Below from the very beginning as a core principle for their religion. In a worldview where the Depths were in constant touch with the Heights, death was not the end in itself.
Firstly, descents to the Underworld are a constant theme in Mesopotamia and tell about the triumph of the spirit over desire, wrongdoings or guilt. Descent stories always contain the warning that one should not venture to the Land of No Return, that the laws of the Great Below cannot be changed, and its designs the foremost. Nevertheless, Inanna descended to meet Her other Self, the Great Judge and Queen of the Underworld, Ereshkigal, and She who is the Lover and Beloved resurfaced as the vision of triumphant humanity that transcends all deaths. Enlil descended after having raped Ninlil, who immediately took matters in her hands and went down after Him to conquer Her beloved back, achieving major growth along the process herself from maiden to Consort of Lord Air. Even Enlil, the most important of the young Anunnaki gods, had to undergo punishment for a terrible act in the most romantic and intense of all descent stories. However, Ninlil, as the Beloved and Hardest Judge Enlil could have ever had, flew after him for the rescue to bring him back to the Heights Above, to become Enlil's partner in all levels. All of them faced awesome trials and returned back to the Heights after achieving much healing and growth. It is therefore clear that returns from the Underworld, despite all warnings against venturing over there, can be achieved, but only by the triumph of the spirit, by conquering one's own weaknesses, by a necessary loss to achieve a major growth.
Secondly, ascent stories are less common, but equally perilous journeys, whose return is never guaranteed for the weak and unfaithful to the gods' designs.
In the myth of Adapa, Adapa ascends to the Heavens to meet Anu so that he could justify himself in front of the Skyfather for having been disrespectful to the South Wind. Adapa is the proto-Solomon, the sage and priest-king of Eridu. He refuses immortality to come back to the Middleworld instead of remaining with the Great Gods in the Great Above, as Anu had given him the opportunity to stay there by eating and drinking from the table of the gods. Adapa refuses the offering, because Enki, Adapa's personal god, had warned him not to, if Adapa did not want to die. A possible experience for this passage is the following: in the end, Adapa understood that he would have eventually eternal life after living a full life in the physical world, and not in the moment he had been offered the gift by Anu. He did not need eternal life when he was offered it by Anu, because he was needed on earth, he was the priest-king, the foundation of the state which was being built in Eridu, the place where kingship descended from the heavens. Again, it is a Mesopotamian ascent story with a return, whose mystery show the cycle and the link between heaven and earth, the Great Above and the Great Below not as opposite worlds, but matching complements, in a never-ending cycle.
Etana´s flight to the heavens to meet Ishtar and grab the Plant of Life, also illustrate a success story of ascent and promise of major fulfillment in the return to physical reality. Etana is both a mythical and historical figure, once his name is in the Sumerian Kings List. In the myth that bears his name, he longs for an heir and as such flies on the back of an eagle to meet Ishtar and ask her for the Plant of Life so that he can conceive an heir. The text is fragmented, but we know from the Kings List that he had a son, and as such achieved his goal in life. Taking these examples into account, we propose that it may be a constant in Mesopotamian myth and religion that from the Great Above to the Great Below we all return to all worlds by the gifts of the mind, body, heart and soul of the daring, of those who search for self-transcendence by being and doing their best in all worlds.
Two quotations to substantiate this assumption from "The Phoenician Letters" by Wilfred Davies and G. Zur:
a) On Ishtar: " But Ishtar is all this and more. She is the reborn. .. Know, o Prince, that death is the source of life, life is the cause of death. Dumuzi her lover must die in order to live. She is the rhythm, and all rhythms have na end, this is death, all have a beginning" (pages 34-35),
b) On Nergal: "There are many forms of heroism. There is that form that represents a magnificent stupidity, where the hero achieves nothing, saving neither his people nor his own life, but taking with him down into death as many of the enemy is possible. He will fight in the underworld that battle which he did not win, for it is sad that as a man dies, all that he has done is presented to him, to see if he regrets his actions or not. If he regrets and pines for the things that he failed to do or the errors he has made, then this is a weight he must carry into his next time of living. [Lishtar´s emphasis]. Herein is the tale of justice: the assessors of hell visit upon each man his crimes, and according as he loves them or hates them, he will be attracted to the same events, time without end, till the actions of his life will be without blemish" (page 41), and
c) Still on Nergal:"Nergal is the burner, the destroyer, for this is the last limitation. When a man dies he will, if he fears, burn in the flames of his terror. He will be torn by the dogs of his unfulfilled desires, cut to pieces by his guilt, until all that he has tied to his to himself is purified and a little, just a little metal - it may be gold, or copper, or mercury, or silver or even lead - be left. This test takes place between every breath; between every breath a man dies and is reborn, so every day he is born into the light of day and dies into sleep, that fortaste death wherein the dreams torment and taunt him with the deeds of the day. Here he must be a hero, walking unafraid through the land of his own underworld, mocked by the laws he has acted against. He must meet the demons that he himself has created, he must fight the battles which take place in him every day. This is justice: between breath and breath he may see the judgements he passes upon other, and as he does so visits them upon himself. Only courage and steadfastness in truth and insight are his weapons here" (page 45).
The Phoenician Letters is a piece of mystery teachings in a written form from a master to a devoted acolyte in the Mesopotamian tradition, a sort of retro-Caballa. It involves 10 letters , each involving a god/goddess (Rimon-Adad, Nabu, Ishtar, Nergal, Shamash, Marduk, Anu, Enlil, Ea-Enki, Sin-Nana) by the master to the acolyte exchanged during the period of two years. The letters cover the training of a future priest-king by a master kept unknown up to the last letter. The quotations on the chapter of Nergal introduced above are clearly about reincarnation, a term that for the purposes of this paper is referred to as the Eternal Return, perhaps the most explicit quotation we have found in the literature so far. Notice that the piece of metal that is left from the burning of what should be burnt may refer to that part of matter in us that is primeval and without blemish, the seed of the Great Mother Ninhursag we all carry within, represented by the metal attributions of Mesopotamian deities, or the imperishable in us, our Personal Gods. Could we also see in this quotation the birth of a proto-alchemy? I believe the answer is positive, and this is another wondrous thread to be followed. The implicit quotations on the Eternal Return are in myths as we are pointing out here, which can only be seen by the discerning eye.
Adapa of Twin Rivers Rising quotes an obscure myth, which is here quoted in full: "After the Watcher and the Turnkey have greeted a man, the Annunaki, the Great Gods, assemble; Mammi, the one who fixes the fate, decides the fates with them. They determine death and life, but the days of death they do not fix." (E. Schrader, "Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek", Vol. VI, I, 228). This is a clear statement that days of death may be not everlasting in the end. We would add that perhaps this is also the mystery embedded in the Descent of Inanna, the rebirth promised not only to the Beloved, Dumuzi,but to the mortal man and mortal woman (Dumuzi and Geshtinanna), who are made immortals as well.
Finally, the last example to ground our point that the Eternal Return might have been such fundamental and acknowledged issue for ancient Mesopotamians that was not necessary to be stated or written about, especially for our 20th century audiences, comes from the Myth of Creation of Man (and Woman), Sumerian version (see myth of Atrahasis, Tablet 1 in Stephanie Dalley's). In it, Enki, the Magician, and Ninhursag, the Earth Mother, create humankind from the fertile waters of the Abzu and a pinch of clay, breathing into the mix the spirit of a slain god. It is in the myth that the spirit of the slain god resonates in each and every being as a drumbeat (life force, energy?) to remind us of this sacrifice. In other words, this is a wondrous metaphor that shows incarnation as a gift from Divine Consciousness bestowed upon all humankind, all that lives and breathes. The bond that was thus established between heaven and earth from the beginning of Sumerian religion, whereby from this moment on humankind is called upon to continue for the gods the workings of existence and faithful servants. This metaphor shows the truth all initiates have experienced from times immemorial. Spirit can only incarnate through love, the same way we can only ascend to the heights of religious and visionary experience by giving spiritual body to our soul's designs. Slain in this context may very well mean the necessary loss to achieve higher consciousness, the disrobing and vulnerability needed to enter both Great Above and the Depths Below enforced, but not necessarily stated, by all myths mentioned above so that the return can be achieved but only by the worthy of the heart, mind, body and soul. We could very well therefore interpret the myth of Creation of Man and Woman according to the Sumerians as the never-ending miracle of spirit entering matter, and for those of us who live our lives in the light of the Mesopotamian tradition here and now, we do realize the miracle of matter touching spirit in our personal dedications to the deities of our hearts. From the beginning of Sumerian Religion, from the creation of man and woman it is therefore present the everlasting bond between matter and spirit. The part of us who belongs to the everlasting spirit will be then confronted by our life achievements and judged by the Anunnaki of the Underworld. These deities will be the judges of our souls and decide when we are ready to return from the Land of No Return. Where to next? We need yet to find out more about, but death was certainly not the end in this context.
It is for all these reasons that we suggest that the Eternal Return might have been a core understated principle of Mesopotamian religion.
E. Schrader, "Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek", Vol. VI, I, 228
Jean Bottéro (1991). Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and The Gods, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London.
Davies, Wilfred and Zur G. (1979) The Phoenician Letters. Mowat Publishing, Manchester, UK.
Myths of Gilgamesh, Adapa, Athrahasis (Creation of Man), Enuma Elish, Etana and the Descent of Ishtar can be found in Stephanie Dalley (1989). Myths From Mesopotamia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.