A Mesopotamian Ghost Story (part 1)

Since this is the time in Sumer when the Dead return to dine with the living, I am presenting a ghost story. I wrote this myself with a lot of research into the City of Ur.

Between Love and Madness

The summer sun rules the countryside of lower Mesopotamia, lingering longer each day. Heat saps the city of Uruk, which longs for the coolness of the brief night. Smokey haze hangs over the subdued city from numerous braziers. Under the sun’s glare, the passage from the Underworld opens. Now, ghosts wander the city searching for their former families. Even in the brilliant sunlight, Darkness lurks.

Yellow sunshine washes over the white-washed brick home of Nabu-Sama-Iskien. Home for the midday meal, the scribe dines with his assembled family. Sitting in the cool of his shaded courtyard, he relaxes on his carved tamarisk chair. Enjoying the shade of the palms, the squat toad of a man sips his warm beer from a ceramic bowl. Placing it on the low dining table, he points his reed straw at Bitiatum. “Daughter, do not slurp. Use a straw for your beer porridge.”

“Husband, leave the little one alone.” Sighing, his quiet mouse of a wife puts a straw in the toddler’s chubby hand. Smoothing Bitiatum’s rumpled tunic, Ilanti wipes her daughter’s chin. After filling the girl’s bowl, her mother turns to … “Bitti!”

The little girl slumps forward shattering her bowl. Grey porridge splatters on Nabu-Sama-Iskien. Jumping up, he screams at the fallen child. “Now, look at my white kilt! It is freshly laundered.”

“Stop, Husband!” Ilanti, attentively raises her hand. Turning to their two teenaged boys eating under the palms, she yells, “Puzu, take Enlil and fetch the doctor! Quickly find the Asiputu Nidintu!” Ilanti searches for a faint pulse on her daughter’s neck. Finding one, she gently coos, “Bitti, Bitti.”

Ilanti settles her daughter’s body into her soft lap. Her thin fingers search for Bitti’s amulet. The bronze head of Pazuzu is missing. The canine head with the bulging eyes can no longer ward off any demon or ghost.

Clad her garish fish regalia, a grey-haired woman strides into the courtyard, followed by an incandescent green fly. Nodding to the gathered family, the Asiputu sets her blue bowl on the sturdy table. “The little girl?” Nidintu points to the small body lying on the lap of Ilanti.

Nidintu pours her olive oil and water into her divining bowl. Then she quietly prays. “O Merciful Healing Gula, guide my divination. Merciful Enlil, Holder of the Tablets of Fate, be at my right hand. Fierce Nergal, Bringer of Death, be at my left hand. O Divine Nergal hold your demons, send your galla away. Bless my divination of water and oil. Divine and Wise Enki, show what I need to know.” She turns to the large house fly. “Fly of Nergal, help me diagnose what is wrong.”

After a long silence of staring at her sacred bowl, Nidintu lifts her fish-head cowl. “OUT! OUT! Evil Maskim!” She gestures to the two lanky boys staring at her. “YOU take flour and make a circle around your sister and mother.” The asiputu turns to Nabu-Sama-Iskien, “You take your older daughter, and white-wash a circle around your doorway. NOW. Your daughter has been attacked by maskim. We need to stop all of the demons.”

The rail-thin asiputu stoops to whisper in the stubby scribe’s ear. “Your family will die before sundown unless…” When Nabu-Sama-Iskien faints, she dumps tepid water on his head. Nidintu puts her hatchet face into his full moon one. “You must find out the names of the witches who cursed you. Go to the canal outside of this city ward. Ask for the Boatman Remutu. He owes me for a healing. He will take you wherever you need to go.” Grabbing Nabu-Sama-Iskien’s flabby arm, she presses her bony fingers deep. “Follow the Fly of Nergal. I need this information before sundown to perform the Maqulu, the Burning to save your family. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? NOW GO!”

The early afternoon sun bakes the city as Nabu-Sama-Iskien plods along. Farmers with wagons full of dates, onions, and peas dodge the muttering scribe. Laborers carrying jugs of olive oil and beer bump into him to go faster. Deep in self-pity, he steps into the fresh dung dropped by the sheep which are being herded around him. “Why Remutu? Why me? Why flies? I detest those insects! Who wants me dead? What harm have I done to anyone?”

Assaulted by the fetid smells of the canal, Nabu-Sama-Iskien chokes and gasps for breath. “Yo! Soft Hands, you talkin’ to me?” taunts a colossal mountain of a man standing next to his broad reed boat. Swatting at a swarm of flies, the burly boatman mutters, “Demon flies!” Remutu shakes his fly whisk at the scribe’s leather sandals, “Hey, Three-Names, stop bringin’ the flies with you!”

Flustered, Nabu-Sama-Iskien raises his manicured hands. “Please Boatman Remutu, help me! The Asiputu Nidintu said that you would help.” He flaps his sweaty arms at the boatman who is busy attacking flies. “Do not do that! That is the Fly of Nergal! Nidintu’s Fly!”


“Remutu, I must discover who cursed my family. They are going to expire at sundown. Argh, detestable flies! I abhor flies.” Nabu-Sama-Iskien slaps at the curved prow of the high boat. “Argh.” His palm is now covered with sticky bitumen.

“Hey! I just waterproofed everythin’ Soft Hands. For the love of the Gods, just get in the boat, sit down, and shut up.”

Gingerly stepping into the rocking boat, Nabu-Sama-Iskien says, “The Fly says to go to the Eanna District.”

“O, just wonderf’l. Clear to the other side of the city. And the ghosts. And the Wall ‘round it. What are you thinkin’?” grumbles Remutu.

“Please, my family will …”

“Yeah, yeah.” Taking his pole in hand, Remutu starts down the busy canal.

An artist’s depiction of the Ziggurat of Ur as it may have appeared around the time it was created in the 21st Century BCE. From the game Old World. This illustration is taken from the game Old World, kindly provided by Mohawk Games and republished with permission. Original image by Mohawk Games.


13 thoughts on “A Mesopotamian Ghost Story (part 1)

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