Egypt and Mesopotamia Reading Guide


Egyptian Book of the Dead

Although ancient Babylon and Greece also had ideas about the afterlife, Egypt is in a class by itself. The ideas are very ancient, very developed, and were a huge part of the economy. In fact, economics and politics are the most interesting aspect to me.

Egyptian eschatological writings developed from the top of society down, but not too far down. The earliest pyramid texts come from around 2498 BCE, and were limited to kings. Sarcophagus texts existed by 2160, and would have been available to private individuals, but still extremely wealthy. A papyrus book like the one we are reading would have been available by the 18th century. The exact one we are reading belonged to Ani, around 1200 BCE. These papyri were mass produced, and Ani's name was added later by a different scribe. Still, it would have cost half the annual salary of a laborer. The complete papyrus is 15" high and 78' long. The papyrus would have been on display at the funeral and then buried with Ani. It would have served as a guidebook of sorts to the afterlife, although it is not clear that literacy was required. The text and images may have been understood as having a magical quality. There is no overarching structure.

It can be tricky to read the text without getting bogged down in obscure names and references. Here are some observations that may be fundamental:

The following glossary might help. Try not to get bogged down in names.



Other terminology



Epic of Gilgamesh

The situation is very different in Mesopotamia. The afterlife is very minimal. In fact, presenting the afterlife as shadow-existence or virtual non-being is not far from simply saying there is no afterlife. With some mild qualifications, it can also be said that the afterlife, such as it is, is more of the great equalizer than reward and punishment.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is primarily about the quest for immortality, or coping with mortality, or finding something that is lasting and meaningful. We are reading the end of the epic, on the eleventh tablet. We will also read part of the twelfth tablet, which is tacked onto the Epic but more relevant to this course.

The standard version of the Epic dates from around 1100 BCE. The Epic may be based on a real king from 2800 BCE named Gilgamesh. By 2500 he was revered. We have poetry about him from 2000 BCE. The Epic existed in some form by 1700 BCE. I won't try to summarize the entire Epic. Gilgamesh is a great king who suffers the dissatisfaction of boredom. He finally finds a worthy friend with whom to have adventures, but that friend dies. He then grapples with his own mortality and impermanence in the most profound way. He goes on an impossible (well, near impossible) quest to find the one man who has gained immortality. This figure is Atrahasis or Utnapishtim, who very closely resembles the biblical Noah. Apparently Gilgamesh thinks he can beat the secret out of him using his great strength. Atrahasis tells the story freely, but the problem is that this formula is impossible to repeat (he preserved the human species by building an ark when the gods impulsively decided to drown them all). This is where the reading picks up. Atrahasis not only asserts that immortality cannot be learned or achieved, he conveys the point experientially. He challenges Gilgamesh to prepare to defeat death by defeating sleep for seven days, a much more modest task. Quite the opposite, Gilgamesh falls asleep and sleeps for seven days. Dejected, he accepts his failure. Atrahasis sends him home to go back to being a king, hopefully a good king.

In a side story, Gilgamesh pursues the consolation prize of the secret of rejuvenation. Even his great labor to retain youth ends in futility, as the only beneficiary is a snake (explaining why snakes shed their skin). Though a minor story, it still resonates in a society obsessed with maintaining the appearance and bodies of youth.

The end of the Epic is terse, but I think very moving. My interpretation is that Gilgamesh has chased immortality to the ends of the earth, only to come back to where he started with nothing to show for his labors except a new perspective. At the end of the long journey, he looks upon his city with pride. It is a great city, a good city, with a good king. It will live long and thrive well after Gilgamesh himself has died. His legacy is his immortality. He has sustainable happiness for the first time.

The idea that there is no afterlife but one's legacy or community is not the most colorful idea we will encounter in this course, but it does thrive implicitly and explicitly in the Hebrew Bible and Catholic Old Testament. It is not the teaching of the Catholic tradition, but the idea has certainly thrived in the modern world. Personally, I think the idea works rather well in the ethical dimension.

Note in the reading that the Epic ends on page 99 (Tablet 11). Pages 190 to 195 (Tablet 12) are thematically related but not part of the Epic. The ancients seemed not be be concerned with consistency with their characters.

These passages describe the Netherworld. As we shall see, the idea of Sheol in the Hebrew Bible (especially the older parts) is close to this, or even more minimal. The Netherworld is virtual non-existence, and certainly nothing bright or joyful. In this passage, we get some differentiation of good and bad (or bad and less bad) fates in the afterlife, but still not much to compare to later notions of reward and punishment. I think there are some positive things to say about the ethical implications of a view of death as the great equalizer which puts worldly pursuits in perspective. A proper burial with children to weep for you and carry on your name is about as good as it gets.