Babylonian July/August: Month of the Dead

In the Mesopotamian Wheel of the Year, from mid-June to mid-September, the confluence of An (the heavens), Ki (the earth) and Kur (the Underworld) (Note) occurs. During this time, the Dead wander freely among the living. Fires are lit to guide Them to their families, where the Dead stay for a brief time.

In Sumer, the month is called Ne-izi-gar, and in Babylon, it is Abu. These names refer to the rituals for the Dead. There are three that are done during this month – the Maqlu (the Burning), the Ne-izi-gar (The Return of the Dead), and Ab/pum (the Offering at the Mounds).

As the moon wanes until it disappears completely (The Day of the Disappearance of the Moon), malevolent spirits come out. Because this is a perilous time for the living, the Maqlu ritual is conducted. First, offerings are made to the Gods of Fire, Nusku and Girra, at night. Then at dawn, people recite the following, “Evil demon, to your steppe” or “Get out evil rabisu! Come in, good rabisu!” Afterwards, they encircle the entrance of their homes with flour paste,

The Ne-izi-gar is the Festival of Ghosts, when the Dead eat a ceremonial meal with their families. The Benevolent Dead have to follow a special passage from the dark Netherworld to the land of the living. For these Dead to find their way to their families, the people light torches.

Three days before the full moon, offerings are made for the journey of the Ancestors. When the full moon arrives, the doors of the Netherworld are at their widest. This is the time when Ancestors return through the ab/pum (the mound). (The ab/pum is a mound placed over the passage to the Netherworld.) At the Abe (Ab/pum) festival, beer, honey, oil and wine are poured into the mound. Then the person places their foot over the ab/pum and kisses the ground.

Since the Dead do not sever their ties to the living, Babylonians regard death as a transition from being human to that of a gidim (spirit). After dying, the gidim is reunited with their dead relatives, and assigned a place in the Netherworld. Funeral rites ensure the gidim’s integration into that world. Offerings of food and water are made since the Netherworld have little of either for nourishment. If they do not receive this, then the gidim will become vicious and haunt the living. In Babylonian theology, diseases are often caused by the angry Dead.

Notes: The Netherworld is known by many names – arali, irkalla, kukku, ekur, kigal, and ganzi. Kur means “the land of no return.”

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