Sumerian Views of Death

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Civilization is defined as “a state that binds people together to transcend tides of family, clan, tribe, and village.” (Woolf, H.B., 1974, p.141) By using this definition, one can compare and contrast the many different traits that the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations had. Both The Epic of Gilgamesh and the three Egyptian funerary documents are very good examples of written documents that show these two differences in civilization. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a long narrative poem which shows the many trials set before a young hero. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.8) This epic was discovered on twelve clay tablets in the remains of a library dated back to the seventeenth century before Christ. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.8) Within this epic, the reader will get an idea of how the Sumerians lived and communicated within their community.

Similarly, the Egyptian traits of civilization can be explained when the Coffin Texts are analyzed. The three funerary documents, which will be discussed later, were found written inside wooden coffins of people could who afford expensive funerals. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.18) Many of these writing concentrated on death and disaster, and the miseries and fears that are associated with it. These three writings are also very helpful by giving the reader a very descriptive overview of how the Egyptian civilization worked. Although these four documents were written in different locations, they show many similarities and differences in traits of civilization, and thoughts on the afterlife.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh is known as one of the greatest works of literature from the time of the Mesopotamian Era. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.8) The hero, Gilgamesh, was the ruler of the city-state Uruk from 2700 to 2500 B.C. He was also very well known for his building of massive walls and temples. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.8) His epic follows the basic theme of the humans struggle with immortality. Although Gligamesh is known as being “two-thirds a god and one-third human”, he must face death someday. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.8) As the epic begins, it is clear that the people of Uruk are distressed at the fact that Gilgamesh is not yet aware of his duties as king.

Enkidu is sent down from the heavens in response to the people’s cries for help. When Enkidu and Gilgamesh fight in a contest of strength and fighting skill, Gilgamesh wins, and the two heroes unite and set out on a series of adventures. In the midst of their adventures, Ishtar states that a life is owed because of an insult said towards him. Enkidu is chosen to die, and he is going to be brought to his fate. Within his time of waiting, he tells Gilgamesh of a vision he had of “the land on no return”. Within this story, the reader is presented with many different facts of how the Sumerians viewed the afterlife. It will become quite evident that the Egyptians view of the afterlife was fairly similar, but in some way was considerably different.

The Coffin Texts were the Egyptians equivalence to the Sumerians epics, because they also give a very distinctive explanation of how their people viewed the afterlife. These Coffin Texts were modeled from the earlier Pyramid Texts, which included many details about the many dangers of earth. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.18) This writing also included the many feelings that the Egyptians had on the topic of the terrors of death. The Coffin Text is yet another short piece of work that is written in a two-part speech. In this writing, the sun god and the deceased speak upon the topics of good deeds and eternal life. Similarly, “Negative Confession” is taken from The Book of the Dead, and contains writing upon the topic of death. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.19) In this story, the deceased proclaims his purity to forty-two minor deities, who are set to judge the deceased’s fittingness to become an eternally blessed spirit. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.19) These three examples of writings from the Egyptians are very descriptive, and serve as a basis of explanation of death.

When comparing the similarities of these four writings, the first thing that becomes evident is the fact that sacrifices are often given to the gods. In the story of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim reveals the secret of the gods. He explains how he had attained eternal life by building a boat when it was announced to him that there would be a great flood. When the flood resides, and the gods appear, Utnapishtim pours out wine and other beverages as an offering to the gods. This is very similar to the Pyramid Text, whereas the writing states to the reader to “Take your head, Collect your limbs, Shake the earth from you flesh! Take you bread that rots not, Your beer that sours not, Stand at the gates that bar the common people!” (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.20) Both the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians believed that it was beneficial to offer sacrifices to the gods in order to gain eternal life.

Within the Coffin Text, Re, the sun god, tells the reader of his four good deeds to humanity. He created the winds, inundation, and the equity of man. In addition to these, he made sure that people would always remember “The Land of the Resurrected Dead”. (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.20) It is quite evident that the people believed that death was fate knowing that many of the Egyptians spent much of their time searching for eternal life. They realized that fate would make them face death, and they wanted to be fully prepared when the time came.

Finally, within “The Negative Confession”, it becomes evident to the reader what traits are important to have upon approaching death. The Egyptians believed that they had to be free of sin in order to enter the afterlife, and to live eternally. Within the text, it states that “…I have not caused pain, I have not caused tears, I have not killed, I have not made anyone suffer…” (Andrea, A.; Overfield, J.H., 1998, p.21) These are just a few examples of some of the beliefs that the Egyptians had. This differs slightly from the examples given within The Epic of Gilgamesh. When Gilgamesh approaches Utnapishtim, he asks how he can be a god and attain immortality. He is presented a chance of immortality by completing two tasks while on earth, and fails. The Sumerians believed they could defeat death if they proved themselves while living, rather than being faithful throughout their life. This is a very descriptive example of the differences between the Sumerian and Egyptians beliefs of the afterlife.

Even though the ancient civilization of Egypt and Sumer occurred almost at the same time, their views on how a person should live their life and how they got to the afterlife differed greatly. This had a lot to do with the geographic area where the cultures were based in. Egyptians, being relatively protected from attacks, had lives that looked toward the future and planned extensively for death and burial, while Sumerians were constantly under attack and had to live life as if this was their last day on earth. (Bulliet, R.; Crossley, P.; Headrick, D.; Hirsch, S.; Johnson, L.; Northrup, D., 1997, p.32, 45) Their burials were relatively uncomplicated and the passage onto the afterlife depended on the deeds completed during life.

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