Sumerian Views On Death

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. 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
peoples 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 deceaseds 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.