Words Crush Wednesday – The Original Walking Dead?

Published October 28, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Seeing as this is the closest Wednesday to Halloween, today’s Words Crush Wednesday quote is going to go above seeing and embracing the dead:  this time, they’re going to rise from their graves and consume the living!

And yes, it’s still exclusively quotes from epic poetry.  (Well, ancient poetry.  Most of it probably doesn’t qualify as epic.)

However, this time it’s all Mesopotamian.  (I guess the Greeks and Romans weren’t much for zombies.  (Neither am I, actually…))  All quotes are from the translations of Stephanie Dalley, contained in the book Myths from Mesopotamia:  Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others.

We’ll start with “The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld,” in which the titular goddess wanted to retrieve her dead lover, Dumuzi, from the Underworld.  When she arrives at the gate, she doesn’t wait for the gatekeeper to notice her, and immediately launches into the following command/threat:

‘Here, gatekeeper, open your gate for me,
Open your gate for me to come in!
If you do not open the gate for me to come in,
I shall smash the door and shatter the bolt,
I shall smash the doorpost and overturn the doors,
I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living:
The dead shall outnumber the living!’

In its Akkadian version, “The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld” dates to the Late Bronze Age, and the Sumerian version is even older.  Of the three closely-related quotes, this is almost undoubtedly the oldest.  (Especially given the more or less cultic nature of this work, as opposed to the more epic nature of Gilgamesh, which seems to have been — in its surviving form, at any rate — more for entertainment purposes than for religious ones.)

Speaking of Gilgamesh, let’s move on to that quote next.  Once again, we’ve got Ishtar talking.  (For those unfamiliar with the tale, the reason she’s so angry at Gilgamesh is that he not only refused her advances, but was very rude about pointing out the unhappy fates of her lovers.  (In other words, imagine if a Greek were to turn down Aphrodite by reminding her of the terrible consequences paid by Adonis and Anchises for their affairs with her.))

‘Father, please give me the Bull of Heaven, and let me strike Gilgamesh down!
Let me … Gilgamesh in his dwelling!
If you don’t give me the Bull of Heaven,
I shall strike (?) [                                                ]
I shall set my face towards the infernal regions,
I shall raise up the dead, and they will eat the living,
I shall make the dead outnumber the living!’

Naturally, Anu (her father) eventually caved in and gave her the bull, even though he knew it was a bad idea, and Ishtar’s attempted revenge by means of the Bull of Heaven moved the plot to its inexorable conclusion.

Okay, last one!  This is from “Nergal and Ereshkigal,” the present version of which comes from the seventh century BC, though an earlier, much shorter, and largely very different version from the fifteenth or fourtheen century BC was also found in Egypt.  (So the present text is not too much younger than the present text of Gilgamesh, but the earliest known version of this is much younger than the earliest portions of the Gilgamesh epic.)  The plot is that Nergal — associated by historic times with Heracles, by way of Melqart, Nergal’s Phoenician equivalent, who was regarded as the same as Heracles by the Greeks — has insulted Ereshkigal — the goddess who rules the Underworld — by insulting her messenger, and so he has to go see her in person to right this wrong…which in the end involves marrying her and ruling by her side.  In the section below, Nergal has returned to the home of the other gods, and Ereshkigal — who cannot leave her realm — has sent her messenger Namtar to bring him back, and it’s Namtar who is speaking in this quote.

‘Your daughter sent me,
To say, “Ever since I was a child and a daughter,
I have not known the playing of other girls,
I have not known the romping of children.
That god whom you sent to me and who has impregnated me — let him sleep with me again!
Send that god to us, and let him spend the night with me as my lover!
I am unclean, and I am not pure enough to perform the judging of the great gods,
The great gods who dwell within Erkalla.
If you do not send that god to me,
I shall raise up the dead, and they will eat the living.
I shall make the dead outnumber the living!” ‘

Now, obviously, part of the reason for the repetition in these different quotes is because they’re re-using stock phrases.  (If we had access to earlier epics than the Iliad, the ones that were entirely composed orally, we’d see a certain amount of the same use of stock phrases there, too.  It’s not unusual in a society where either no one can read (pre-Homeric Greece) or where only one very privileged class can read (Mesopotamia).)

However, the threat of making the dead eat the living is very striking, and maybe it gets at the heart of why zombies are so freakin’ popular; there’s clearly something about the notion that gets at a shared fear inherent in the human condition.  Early vampires were more like zombies than like what we think of as vampires.  (Which is one reason I hate the Doctor Who episode “Vampires of Venice”:  vampires back then were viewed as ravenous, mindless creatures that ate people, not sexy blood-suckers.  That notion was invented in the 19th century.)

Given that there’s a certain amount of Mesopotamian influence on Greek myth (probably by way of either the Hittites (possibly via Troy?) or the Phoenicians), it’s surprising that this “I shall raise up the dead, and they will eat the living,” threat never made its way into the Greek myths, as far as I know.  (Admittedly, there is always more for me to learn, but I’d think I would have come across it by now if it was out there in any major way.)  Then again, in some parts of ancient Greece, they practiced cremation, so that may have something to do with it.  (Burning was the most common way to be sure you’d finally killed a vampire, too…)

(EDIT — on Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead, appropriately enough — Another interesting overlap between the three quotes is their connection to horny goddesses.  In the first one, Ishtar wants her dead lover back.  In the second one, Ishtar is pissed off because Gilgamesh won’t sleep with her.  In the third one, Ereshkigal wants her live lover back (and although she’s not the one saying it, it’s a safe bet that she told Namtar to say it).  So what’s the connection between the living dead and horny goddesses?  Answering that would probably require more knowledge of Mesopotamian culture than we actually have — and it certainly requires more knowledge than I, personally, have on that subject — but it would be really interesting to find out what the answer is!)

It would probably make a fascinating study to figure out why this concept was well used in Mesopotamia, but not in ancient Greece.  Pity I haven’t the time for such things…

Another fascinating study would be the comparison of gods of the dead across various cultures.  (I’m sure such studies are already out there, of course, and I just haven’t had time to hunt them down yet.)  It would be interesting to compare Ereshkigal and Hel, the only other goddess of the dead I know of off-hand.  Or it would be if we had any Norse texts that pre-dated the conversion of the Norse to Christianity.


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