Gospel & Universe

Systems of Dread

❧ This page notes the grimness of the Mesopotamian afterlife ❧

There are of course many ways to categorize religious systems, especially as these pertain to the afterlife. The most obvious categorization is 1) systems that deny an afterlife, 2) systems of Heaven & Hell, and 2) systems of reincarnation or samsara. One could also categorize religions in terms of fairness and hopefulness: 1) systems which don't provide hope, 2) systems of universal justice, which supply hope for the obedient, and 3) systems of grace, which short-circuit systems of justice yet provide more hope.

Systems of universal justice supply a simple, ruthless, democratic hope that entails a fair judgment and no exemptions. One might call this a double hope, in that it contains 1) the hope that there's an afterlife, and 2) the hope that people will be judged fairly after they die. Systems of grace might be called the triple hope, in that they contain the two hopes above, as well as 3) the hope that despite their shortcomings, people will be spared punishment or annihilation.

Because the Mesopotamians, like the early Jews and Greeks, denied their believers a clear afterlife hope, it’s easy to see why more positive systems — especially that of the Egyptians — eventually prevailed.


The Dreadful Truth

For the Mesopotamians, the afterlife was a dim, murky affair. This can be seen in the ancient story of Gilgamesh. Before their battle with Humbaba, Gilgamesh tells Enkidu:

All living creatures born of the flesh shall sit at last in the boat of the West, and when it sinks, when the boat of Magilum sinks, they are gone.

In another version of the afterlife, souls went down to a dark underworld. Their state can hardly be called an afterlife since their ghosts flit like broken birds amid the dust, ruled by silence and the grim Queen of the Deep, Ereshkigal. In Gilgamesh, Enkidu has a dream in which he is dragged by a vampire-faced bird-man "to the house from which none who enters ever returns, down the road from which there is no coming back." In this place, those who were high and mighty on earth "stood now like servants to fetch baked meats in the house of dust."

In the Mesopotamian afterlife, there's no hope for meaning or bliss. This quasi-existential point is pounded home to Gilgamesh first by the alewife Siduri and then by Utnapishtim. Distraught by Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh searches for Utnapishtim (the polytheistic version of Genesis' Noah), the one human who "entered the assembly of the gods, and has found everlasting life." En route, Siduri tells him,

You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.

Once Gilgamesh reaches Utnapishtim, the latter is equally clear:

There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand forever? Do we seal a contract to hold for all time? [...] It is only the nymph of the dragon-fly who sheds her larva and sees the sun in his glory.

Gilgamesh will never again see his dead companion Enkidu, and he must resign himself to find meaning in the world of the present. He must content himself in doing what he should do: become a just and merciful king in the great city of Uruk.

Because the Mesopotamians only marginally believed in the afterlife, they didn't need an elaborate afterlife judgment system. Their grim view seems to be similar to that of the early Hebrews and Greeks. It seems, however, that this vision was simply too pessimistic, especially compared to the more optimistic vision of the Egyptians, where one could live eternally in a garden if one lived morally during one's lifetime.


Next: Systems of Hope

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