Death in Ancient Mesopotamia

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Irrespective of religion, historical period, race or geographical region, there is one fact that unifies all humans. In history, various theologies, as well as mythologies, have described death in innumerable ways ranging from total extinction to afterlife (Sumegi p.5). Some cultures allow their dead people to correct their wrongdoings and consequently reach paradise. On the other hand, some people imagine there will be an eternal life filled with pleasure never seen before (Richards’s p.7). Despite a belief system that a person ascribe to, an unchanging fact is that death is the sudden stop of all biological functions which supports life. Both the concept of death and afterlife are surrounded by apprehension and panic. In this paper, we shall understand death pegged on Hindu, Egyptian and ancient Mesopotamian point of view (Richards’s p.5).

Understanding Death from Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Hindu Culture

The ancient Mesopotamian concept of death is derived from many sources, however, their understanding stated that physical death is not an ultimate termination of life (Richards’s p.7). The Mesopotamian argued that life continued after death in form of a spirit (eṭemmu) which existed in the netherworld (Sumegi p.7). The netherworld is conceptualized as the opposite of heavens and the mysterious shadow of natural life on earth. The netherworld is represented to exist far away from the dominion of the living metaphysically. However, poets describe that netherworld physically exist beneath the earth surface (Richards’s p.8). Several accounts portray netherworld as a world of total darkness where none will leave after entering, whereas other accounts like the Sumerian regulates this dreary portrayal (Sumegi p.4). In this underground world, eṭemmu were considered free to meet with their relatives in that world (Richards’s p.7). The spirits in the netherworld depended on the living for food and water which were poured as offerings.

There are a number of artistic examples that can be used to explain the ancient Mesopotamian understanding of death (Richards’s p.9). For instance, (1) Epic of Gilgamesh explained the meaning of death, described the meaning and purpose of mourning rites, and narrated the fate of those who were in the netherworld. Another example is the (2) Ishtar’s Descent to the Netherworld which comprises

of literary texts that were recited during the death of gods (Sumegip.7). Additionally, the ancient Mesopotamian had (3) Nergal and Ereshkigal which

was an artistic work sang during religious rites encompassing ghosts or dying gods. Moreover, Mesopotamian had other afterlife beliefs such as grave inscription, royal and private letters, curse formulas, magico-medical texts, cultic commentaries, lexical texts, burials, chronicles, omens, and death reference in royal inscription among others (Sumegip.9).

The Egyptians understanding of the death were centered on a set of beliefs and Egyptian culture. (Sumegi p.18). The invention of the hieroglyphic form of writing enhanced the spread of religion throughout Egypt. The doctrines of the religion contained afterlife texts which described what the people could do in order to make their journey smooth (Richards’s p.12).  The religious doctrine of the Egyptians explained three major ideas; existence of an underworld, reawakening of the soul, and eternal life.

The underworld (Duat) was believed to have a single entry point that could only be reached by following the tomb of the dead, however, the path could vary for commoners and kings (Richards’s p.14). When a soul entered underworld, a god known as Osiris

would determine the fate of the soul. That is, whether, the soul deserved a peaceful afterlife depending on how it lived while on earth. The perception of eternal life entailed being born-again indefinitely. The gods, therefore, guided the souls who had lived an elegant life to be born again (Sumegip.9). To attain an ideal afterlife, a person had to perform various practices associated to Egyptian creed. Besides, rituals that were performed after the death of an individual were greatly emphasized. In other words, the Egyptian Religion argued that the living had a responsibility to perform the final traditions so that the dead may well meet their final destiny (Sumegi p.14). However, upholding right religious morals by living as well as the dead, besides obeying the various traditions assured the deceased a smoother move to the underworld (Richards’s p.11).

Egyptians equally possessed various examples of artistic work to explain the ancient Egyptian understanding of death included, Rock-Cut Tombs of Beni Hasan with Spell which signified their belief in burial of the dead to join the underworld (Sumegi p.10). The graves were the entry points to the underworld where a new life after death would be lived. Secondly, Maat which is religious concept which was of great importance to the Egyptians (Sumegi p.13). The adherence to it would guarantee an individual entry to an enjoyable afterlife. Thirdly, Prayers to Osiris as well the underworld’s map were available to guide new souls as they entered into a new life after the physical death (Sumegi p.13). 

The Hindu also had their understanding of death. They believed that the soul never dies, but only the physical body could die (Richards p.20). Hindu neither feared death nor did they desire it, however, they treated it with reverence as the most exalted experience (Sumegi p.11). The Hindus argued that death, life, and afterlife are unavoidable part of human that unified them with their God. They have a better term to refer to death (mahaaprasthana) which meant the great journey. It was argued that when a human being has learned enough lesson in the face of the earth,  the soul would depart away from the physical body and return to God (Sumegi p.12) The physical duty will, therefore, return to elements of the earth. The intelligence together with a person’s memory would exist in the soul even after death. The Hindus say that death is a natural occurrence that should not be feared (Sumegi p.5). It is a sudden process where humans are transformed from physical world to the astral plane.

There are artistic explanation to Hinduism beliefs about death. Firstly, the belief of karma which was the universal law explaining the cause and effect of death as well as rebirth in the newness of life (Sumegi p.16). Secondly, Hindus believed on moksha which meant that it was possible for an individual to gain deliverance and release (Sumegi p.14). This made it possible to resolve the endless cycle of birth to death and back to rebirth samsara.   Thirdly, Hindus had a belief in countless gods, however, the gods were manifested to be united for a purpose. The gods had work linked to universal and natural process like death.


The feeling that is attributed to death is highly dependent on the cultural setting. (Sumegi p.11). However, one ultimate finding of this paper that death is the end of life. However, there is hope of afterlife depending on what your culture is. Therefore, death should be understood as a transitory stage just like other stages like birth (Sumegi p.12).

Works cited

Richards, Janet E. Society and Death in Ancient Egypt: mortuary landscapes of the Middle Kingdom Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Sumegi, Angela Understanding Death: An Introduction to Ideas Of Self And The Afterlife In World Religions. Wiley (2012).

November 24, 2023

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