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“Ghosts were taken for granted as part of everyday Mesopotamian life”: Irving Finkel on ancient Mesopotamia and ghosts

Irving Finkel speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about his new book, which transports us to ancient Mesopotamia to uncover the earliest written evidence of a belief in ghosts

Published: October 29, 2021 at 6:08 am
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Ellie Cawthorne: You argue that “most, possibly even all, human beings everywhere truly believe in ghosts”. Why do you think humans are inclined to believe that the dead might return to exist among us?

Irving Finkel: In the modern world, ghosts have a funny status. Most people don’t wear their ghosts on their sleeves, because there’s a good chance they’d be branded idiots for believing in such things. But when you look into the matter historically, we have plenty of testimonies concerning ghosts, coming from all over the world and covering a huge span of time. They date right back to the very first written material that we have – cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, developed before 3000 BC. And this earliest written evidence is what I focus on in my book.

Arguably, you can trace this ghost business back even farther than the beginning of writing. I would posit that the concept of something hanging around after death goes back to the very dawn of mankind. Take as an example a Neanderthal burial in which the body is laid out in a prepared grave, in a particular position, alongside special bits and pieces. The point here is this: if you bury somebody in the ground to get rid of them because they’re smelly and dangerous, that’s one thing. But burying them in a special way with goods implies that your expectation is that, once the horrible bodily chemicals have disappeared, something – most likely the essence of the person – comes out of the body and goes on to some kind of afterlife. And my idea is this: if you’re willing to accept that someone’s spirit can disappear over there, it’s a short step to believing that it can come back again.

I think we’re hardwired to believe in ghosts. The most austere, clever scientist in two white coats might look at you as if you’re crazy – but if you make them jump, they will shiver just like everybody else. It’s beneath the skin.

Irving Finkel is the author of The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies (Hodder & Stoughton)

Your book focuses on the very first writings on ghosts, on ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. Why are they so illuminating to study?

One of the reasons I wrote this book is that there is a general feeling that ghosts were invented in the 19th century, or perhaps in the Middle Ages. Not many writers even talk about the marvellous stuff on ghosts from Greece and Rome, let alone Mesopotamia [which included Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian cultures]. So I thought that I would put the Mesopotamians back on the ghost map to show that these beliefs are truly old and unchanging.

If you learn to read Babylonian – it’ll only take you 20 years – and you translate these messages written on cuneiform tablets, you’ll find it extraordinary just how familiar the world of ghosts that emerges from them is. The underlying story is still fairly recognisable to us today: if a ghost is unhappy in the underworld – perhaps if they had a miserable death, or didn’t get the offerings they were due – they could come back. And they could make living people jump or pull their hair, follow them around or make them ill – all kinds of things.

You state that ghosts were “not symbols or metaphors, but literal realities” in Mesopotamia. How so?

From the king on the throne to the beggar in the street, the whole population didn’t just believe in ghosts – they took them for granted as a fact of life. Ghosts were just part of the everyday scenario, alongside all the other things you had to worry about, like children, housing, warfare and disease.

And since ghosts were an everyday reality, they also called for the undertaking of everyday chores. A household’s oldest son was responsible for making offerings of food and drink to his dead family, who were often buried under the courtyard of the family home. They needed water and food because there was an understanding that the underworld wasn’t very hospitable. Arriving there was a bit like arriving at an Airbnb with no towels or electricity. People had a responsibility to look after the ghosts of their relatives in the sense of reciting prayers in their honour, remembering them, talking about them.

The explanations provided for ghosts returning were not metaphorical but literal – there’s a big difference. The Mesopotamians didn’t speak about them in elusive poetics but as something grounded in reality. In many parts of the world, this attitude survives unchanged. In villages in India, you can ask people about local ghosts and they’ll have 100 stories to share immediately.

A relief from Babylonia, c19th–18th century BC, showing a female figure with wings and reptilian feet – similar to the baby-eating demoness Lamashtu. (Image by Alamy)

How did belief in ghosts connect to the wider religious system in ancient Mesopotamia?

When we talk about deities in the ancient world, “religion” isn’t necessarily the best word for the system. The Mesopotamians didn’t have a word for “religion”, because their system of gods and goddesses was more than that – it was all-pervading. They had a huge pantheon of deities, and in some ways interactions with ghosts did trade on this system. If someone returned from the dead, a priest or exorcist would be recruited to drive the ghost back. These priests would call on the power of the gods, invoking names such as Ishtar the Goddess of Love to help them to deal with ghosts. On the whole, though, dealing with the dead was slightly unrelated to the prevailing main religion. It wasn’t centrally what we would call a religious matter but more of a traditional matter.

Were ghosts always figures to be frightened of?

Another jolly good question, because in the later tradition we think of ghosts mainly as clanking ghouls in hotel rooms, bearing frightening messages. In Mesopotamia, people could be startled and sometimes made unhappy by ghosts; if you saw a ghost, on the whole it wasn’t good news – it generally meant that there was a danger that you needed to do something about.

However, because people tended to live in extended families, with their relatives and ancestors buried directly under the family home, so quite often you were dealing with a familial ghost. And I feel that the basic position towards a ghost from your own stock was a kind of sympathy. Of course, if that sympathy didn’t work, you could always pay an exorcist to get rid of them with more heavy-duty tools.

In addition, there were also lots of unknown ghosts floating about who were nothing to do with your family, and who might be very dangerous indeed. They could go into your ear, torment you and make you very ill. Imagine that after a battle, for example, there’d be thousands of dead soldiers who hadn’t been buried properly, floating about. And the first thing they might do is head to Babylon and make life hell for anybody still living there.

Can you give some examples of the types of ghost spells found on cuneiform tablets?

Babylonian scribes described a whole slew of simple spells and complicated rituals to get rid of ghosts. Some of these rely on lists of all of the different kinds of ghosts – a ghost who died in a fire, say, or a ghost who was run over by a chariot or drowned in a well or died in childbirth. Part of the spell to get rid of them would involve reading out this list, essentially saying: “Whether you are this type of ghost, or that type of ghost, we know who you are. Go back where you belong!” Identification of a troublesome ghost was a means of gaining power over it.

Another tablet contains a list detailing what it meant if you saw a ghost. For example, if you saw a ghost in the bedroom, it could mean that your uncle was going to die, or you were about to lose all your money. Those are grim portents, but there were specialists who could use concomitant forms of magic to dispel the threat. And an omen wasn’t a fixed fate but more like something in the air.

One of my favourite spells is designed to help someone who keeps seeing a ghost. They have to recite a spell that essentially says: “You, who keep persecuting me, leave me alone – I’m not going to Kutha.” That was a city in Babylonia, the location of the entrance to the underworld. It had a big temple through which gods and ghosts came up. You can imagine ghosts beckoning with a bony finger, saying to a living person: “Come with us.” The person who has been seeing a ghost then calls on all these goddesses to back them up. It’s fantastic, because it demonstrates that, though the gods are very busy, they will come over and thwack a ghost if needed. It’s basically a way of telling the ghost: “Piss off back to your underworld gloom!”

Read more about the history of ghosts, from the practice of phantasmagoria to 5 haunted sites around Britain
Glamis Castle is said to be the most-haunted castle in Scotland. (Photo by mpalis via Getty Images)

What can you tell us about the underworld?

One of the main sources of information on this is a marvellous series of literary texts describing the descent of the beautiful goddess Inanna into the underworld. On a quest to rescue her lover, who is imprisoned there, she passes through seven gates, each manned by ferocious gatekeepers. Inanna journeys all the way down to the underworld, where her sister is queen, in order to sort out this problem. When she gets there, it’s very gloomy indeed – there’s no real light. All of the ghosts are lurking, their numbers increasing every minute as more people die. We’re told in the Akkadian Gilgamesh Epic that “dust is their sustenance, clay their food. They see no light, dwelling in darkness. They are clad like birds, with wings as garments.” One gets the impression of them all swaying with their shoulders together like dusty penguins. The lack of food and drink explains the evolution of a ritual of pouring out drinks and offering food for the dead – it theoretically went down to sustain them in the underworld.

One gets the impression of all the ghosts lurking in the gloomy underworld in ever-increasing numbers, swaying with their shoulders together like dusty penguins

This wasn’t hell in the sense of a burning pit with pitchforks and laughing devils pulling your nose. It was more a kind of interregnum – a kind of dreadful waiting place in which nobody’s quite certain what they’re waiting for. Understanding this adds a whole different dimension to the idea that ghosts want to return. If you were trapped down there, wouldn’t you want to go back to the sunny world of ancient Iraq?

Another crucial point to understand is that the Mesopotamian afterlife didn’t have a moral dimension: there was no concept that bad behaviour in this life meant a terrible time to come in the next. In my opinion, that connection was a disastrous invention because it dislocated responsibility – everybody spent the whole of their lives fretting about the consequences of their actions after death. The Mesopotamians didn’t have that trouble.

You’ve found spells for necromancy. How – and why – would anyone bring people back from the dead?

Necromancy wasn’t about bringing people permanently back to life so much as summoning them temporarily to get some answers.

The Mesopotamians believed, as many people do today, that ghosts were in possession of a knowledge of the future. It was understood that if a ghost appeared and didn’t say anything, they wanted to communicate something. So there were spells to try to encourage a ghost to answer questions. Sometimes this would require a full-blown ritual in which you procured the skull of the person you wanted to interrogate – who might well be a family member, retrieved from under the floor. The skull was plonked on the table and covered in oil, while the exorcist burnt incense and called upon the Sun God to bring the person back up from the underworld. They would then enter the skull, and you could ask it questions. This ritual was probably terribly frightening, so I don’t think you would do it in a flippant way. However cool and callous a person you might be, I think that staring at a skull until it began to speak would make you pretty jumpy.

After the ritual was over, and you’d hopefully got the answers you were after, you’d want to send the ghost back to the underworld jolly quickly. A safety clause was built in to the necromancy manual to help with this: underneath the spell to bring back a ghost, the scribe provided a whole load of spells to then get rid of them as soon as possible. The last thing you would want would be to bring up a ghost for a chat and then let them go off round the world causing mischief.

In the book you discuss how disrespecting the dead could be a political device. Can you give us an example of that?

It’s very interesting to see what you might call political ghost-work at play. Take, for example, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, one of the great rulers of antiquity. He had ongoing military trouble with the Elamites, in what is now Iran. In a particularly regrettable state of military fury, his troops ravaged the tombs of the old Elamite kings and scattered their bones, thereby condemning the dead rulers of Ashurbanipal’s hated enemy to a state of eternal unrest. That intention – to impose eternal unrest on the Elamites – is expressly stated in the official Assyrian annals. This was not a metaphor or a clever use of language – it was jolly well what happened.

As well as ghosts, the Mesopotamians also believed in demons. What can you tell us about them?

The big difference between a demon and a ghost was that, whereas a ghost was a dead human being, a demon had an alien component. Demons were immortal: you could not kill one. If you were lucky, a ghost was not generally malevolent and wicked, more likely just miserable. I don’t think you’d find a miserable demon. Demons had no heart – they were horribly evil.

Most demons were either a bit dragony or anthropomorphic – basically like human beings with other nasty characteristics thrown in. One of the worst of all was the demoness Lamashtu, the “baby snatcher”, who liked consuming newborns. At first sight she looked like a woman, but get closer and she had wings, talons and reptilian feet – a very frightening mixture.

What can looking at these ancient Mesopotamian beliefs tell us about humanity’s relationship with the idea of death more generally?

Ghosts are a persistent reality in human thinking, and it’s always interesting to try to uncover when such long-running ideas started. I would argue that ghost beliefs are very difficult to expunge from our mindset because they’ve been there since the beginning, built into the human psyche. The idea of not being able to rest in peace if your life is lacking in resolution, or you met an unhappy or awkward end, is to be found absolutely all over the world.

One of the most exciting things about working on these texts was the empathy I felt with the Mesopotamians, for whom ghosts were a problem. I thought that the only way to write about this was with empathy – in other words, there was no point debating whether or not ghosts really existed, because for the Mesopotamians that was not a question worth asking. Instead I focused on looking at what Mesopotamians did because ghosts existed. That doesn’t mean to say that I believe in ghosts personally; it’s more of a way of finding a voice that you can recognise in these texts. And the voice that is distilled from these sources is still, I think, very vibrant.

Irving Finkel is curator of ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures at the British Museum. His research specialities include the study of cuneiform script and the history of board games, and among his previous books is The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014)

This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine


Ellie CawthornePodcast editor, HistoryExtra

Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.


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