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There's an exhibit of two reconstructed Assyrian graves in the Pergamon Museum. The description on the display vaguely mentioned the "Mesopotamians" thought the underworld was very similar to the land of the living; vibrant cities where the dead would continue living (for lack of a better word) as they did before they died.

How close is that description to how the Assyrians imagined their underworld? Are there any tales that give a fuller picture of what happened to regular people (i.e. not gods, demigods, or kings) in the afterlife?

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Making the Descent

The information I have encountered about the ancient Mesopotamian conception of the Underworld would seem to contradict the statement that the dead dwelt in any sort of "vibrant" place or if even their realm could be described as possessing "cities". It does seem to be indeed "very similar to the land of the living" in the conspicuous aspect of the climate of Mesopotamia specifically, especially the dry dustiness of the deserts therein.

Assyrian religion and mythology seem to fit neatly within the continuum of Mesopotamian beliefs and customs in general, having inherited them from Babylonia. As far as I am aware the only Assyrian "tale" featuring the Underworld appears in what is now a badly damaged text, from the 600s BC, whose material was patched together into a somewhat cohesive narrative in the 20th century by Wolfram von Soden under the title Die Unterweltsvision eines assyrischen Kronprinzen, "The Underworld Vision of an Assyrian Crown Prince." As the title suggests, its focus is not "regular people" at all, nor is it even particularly about "the afterlife".

Regarding it, though, Seth L. Sanders calls it "The First Tour of Hell" in a 2009 article (bearing that preceding title) in which he describes it as "The oldest known visionary journey to hell". He goes on to say that:

As a forerunner of the apocalyptic otherworldly journey and the visionary Tour of Hell, its lineage includes the books of Enoch, the Revelation of John, and Dante's Inferno... The text's interpretation has been hampered by its very distinctiveness: in 2,000 years of cuneiform literature, there are no other examples of the genre it represents, and its nearest relative is the Enochic Book of the Watchers, which first appears in Qumranic Aramaic manuscripts of the second century B.C.E.

Eileen Gardiner's Hell-On-Line website summarises the story from the text as follows:

Kummâ, a bold Assyrian prince, seeks a vision of the world of Ereshkigal and her consort Nergal, lord of Kur. In a dream-like way, Kummâ describes the fifteen monstrous gods he encounters there whose bodies are composites of humans, birds and other animals. After being exposed to the terror and utter stillness of the place, Kummâ finally meets Nergal who, on the brink of killing Kummâ, shrieks at him in wrath. Nergal’s counselor negotiates with Nergal to spare Kummâ so that he is sent back to the world to spread Nergal’s fame.

The Universität Duisburg-Essen, Institut für Evangelische Theologie, which supplies an English translation of the text here, spells the prince's name as Kumaya, saying that:

Much of this bizarre narrative remains obscure, owing to the bad condition [of] the single manuscript that preserves it. The narrative was composed by a scribe who professed to set down the exact words of an Assyrian prince who had [a] vision of the netherworld.

The Broader Region

The deities featured in Kumaya's vision are major characters in Babylonian myths and in stories from elsewhere in Mesopotamia, so it should be safe to assume that the Assyrians imagined the Underworld in the same manner as did their fellow Mesopotamians: a miserably dark, dry, cavernous space under the earth where there wasn't much to do, and the only food was dust. The realm was ruled over by the god Nergal and his wife Ereshkigal, both of whom were of rather cruel aspect.

Regarding what transpires after death, Eileen Gardiner says:

Our understanding of Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian notions of the afterlife are derived from a series of texts that span an extraordinary timeframe and cultural spectrum, are impossible to date precisely, and most likely reflect ideas that predate the time of composition. These texts may even present somewhat contradictory views of the afterlife. For these reasons, our understanding of the Mesopotamian otherworld is sketchy at best. Yet, we have a handful of significant texts and astounding archaeological remains.

Burial Practice for Example

She goes on to describe a 1920s Anglo-American archaeological expedition at the Sumerian city of Ur (admittedly antedating the Assyrian period) which turned up the burial chamber of a queen who was interred with "a rich hoard of valuable goods and the bodies of a handful of personal attendants who had followed the deceased into the burial place before it was sealed from the outside." There were additionally yet more servants as well as soldiers,

chariots and carts and their drivers, plus horses and oxen with their grooms who entered the pit bearing rich grave goods. Sentinels stood at the bottom of the ramp guarding the entrance to the pit as each man and woman in the pit drank the poison that would include them in this entourage to the otherworld.

The Mesopotamian otherworld included a heavenly realm of everlasting life for the gods, where the only mortal permitted entry was Utnapishtim, a prototype of Noah...

The lower otherworld, Kur or Kurnugi, a region of dust or clay beneath the surface of the earth, but above the nether waters (apsu), included the seven-gated palace of Ganzir. Mortals inhabited Kur after death and the place was itself equated with death...

Studying the Mesopotamian Kur it is hard to ignore the prevalence of dust and the similarity between this dusty and quiet world of mortals after death and both the climate of the land and the early burial practices in this region. Here bodies were placed in underground caves or in grave shafts or left to desiccate on an open bench in a tomb before being moved to a secondary burial spot without the coffins or sarcophagi that were only introduced later. In both burial and otherworld there is an oppressive prevalence of dust and dirt.

The Mesopotamian underworld did not develop into a place of punishment for the souls of individuals who led a wicked life in this world. Here souls of the dead were simply warehoused in a state of sensual deprivation ruled over by the underworld gods — a long, gray, dusty existence.

According to the "Ancient Mesopotamian underworld" Wikipedia article, the realm of the dead had many names in both Sumerian and Akkadian, including Irkalla, Kukku, Arali and Kigal (for the last of these cf. Ereshkigal, the goddess and queen of Kigal, literally, "Queen of the Great Earth") in the former, and Erṣetu in the latter.

Additional Features and Details (culled from the aforementioned Wikipedia article)

  • The dead appeared before Ereshkigal, who pronounced them deceased, "and their names would be recorded by the scribal goddess Geshtinanna."
  • "[F]amily members of the deceased would... pour libations into the dead person's grave through a clay pipe, thereby allowing the dead to drink. For this reason, it was considered essential to have as many offspring as possible so that one's descendants could continue to provide libations for the dead person to drink for many years. Those who had died without descendants would suffer the most in the underworld, because they would have nothing to drink at all."
  • According to Jeremy Black & Anthony Green, "Those who did not receive a proper burial, such as those who had died in fires and whose bodies had been burned or those who died alone in the desert, would have no existence in the underworld at all, but would simply cease to exist."
  • J. Black & A. Green are again cited as the source for the information that: "Sometimes the dead are described as naked or clothed in feathers like birds."
  • "The entrance to Kur was believed to be located in the Zagros mountains in the far east. A staircase led down to the gates of the underworld. The underworld itself is usually located even deeper below ground than the Abzu, the body of freshwater which the ancient Mesopotamians believed lay deep beneath the earth. In other, conflicting traditions, however, it seems to be located at a remote and inaccessible location on earth, possibly somewhere in the far west" (sourced from Black & Green).

Gates and Gods

There is a series of seven gates, supplied with bolts, leading to the throne-room of Nergal and Ereshkigal. Several deities and numerous demons populate the land of the dead. They are listed in the aforementioned Wikipedia article, which see. The following are most of the ones who appear in the vision of Kumaya:

  • Namtar, "courier of the netherworld," a son of Ereshkigal; and his female counterpart Namtartu, who "had the head of a protective spirit".
  • "Death", who had a dragon's head
  • "Evil-Spirit", whose head, which looked human, was crowned, and who had human hands and the feet of an eagle
  • Alluhappu, who had a lion's head, four human hands and human feet
  • "'Upholder-of-Evil' had the head of a bird, his wings were opened as he flew to and fro," and he had human hands and feet.
  • "'Take-Away-Quickly', boatman of the netherworld, had the head of Anzu {a mythical giant bird}," and four hands.
  • "Malignant Phantom", who had a lion's head, and the hands and feet of Anzu
  • Shulak appeared as a lion rearing up on its hind legs.
  • Mamitu had a goat's head, and human hands and feet.
  • Pituh, "gatekeeper of the netherworld," had a lion's head, human hands and a bird's feet.
  • "'Whatever-is-Evil' had two heads, one a lion's head, the other... [lacuna]"
  • "Muhra had three feet, the two front ones were bird's feet, the rear was that of an ox, it had terrifying splendor."
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