This section on the Ancient Near East covers the Mesopotamians (Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians), the Hittites, and the Canaanites/Ugarits.
While generally it might be difficult to establish a comprehensive definition of the otherworld among such a wide variety of cultures and kingdoms as those that comprise the Ancient Near East, evidence from them is sparse and generally agrees on basic notions.
Evidence for a cultural groups earliest ideas of hell is usually found within its cosmogonic mythology. As in almost all ancient mythologies, in the Ancient Near East, the gods live in a place in the sky a heaven and they also have relatives, contrary gods, who live in an underworld. Chthonic gods with names like Death or Irkalla live permanently in a world without joy where there is only dust to eat and drink.
From the surviving texts it appears that this dark underworld realm, Kur or Kurnugi, was principally associated with fertility cycles in the plant kingdom on earth, and the cycles were described in stories about fertility gods and goddesses who descend into the netherworld realm where they are captured and imprisoned. Their subsequent rescue and resurrection restores fruitfulness to life on earth.
The Greek fertility myth of Persephone is the most familiar example of this type of myth, but she is predated by Inanna and Ishtar, goddesses of the Ancient Near East, and Baal, a god of the Canaanites.
There is also evidence that Kur served as well as a great warehouse for dead mortals a dark and gray place where tribal fathers and other important figures, with their servants, dwelt. The earliest traces of this belief are manifest in ritual burials for kings, which sometimes included entire retinues buried alive to continue their role as servants to their lords in the otherworld.
This underworld was not conspicuously a place of punishment, but hints of judgment and punishment are already evident, and these elements obviously become very significant in other cultures as the idea of hell develops.
In looking at the Ancient Near East in isolation it is impossible to anticipate the entire development of the notion of hell, but it is nevertheless clear that as the notion of heaven expanded over time to a realm where rulers and important figures joined the gods above after death, common mortals took up residence in the infernal regions without reference to their moral character. Later still, moral character rather than rank becomes determinant for all mortals in the afterlife.
The broad designation of Mesopotamians includes the people inhabiting the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in modern Iraq. The Sumerian culture of the third millennium BCE, based in the southern sector of the region, was supplanted by the Akkadian Empire, which lasted from c.23502000 BCE. The city of Akkad was in the central sector, near modern-day Baghdad, and its region, together with Sumer, formed Babylonia, a flat alluvial plain. The period of Babylonian supremacy lasted from c.2000 to c.1600 BCE. In the northern sector, a mountainous region with generous rainfall, which created a fertile (and irrigated) region in these river valleys, the Assyrian Empire survived from 1960612 BCE.
Our understanding of Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian notions of the afterlife are derived from a series of texts that span an extraordinary timeframe and cultural spectrum, are impossible to date precisely, and most likely reflect ideas that predate the time of composition. These texts may even present somewhat contradictory views of the afterlife. For these reasons, our understanding of the Mesopotamian otherworld is sketchy at best. Yet, we have a handful of significant texts and astounding archaeological remains.
In the 1920s a joint expedition of British and American archaeologists, led by Sir Leonard Woolley, excavated a burial site that included a group of sixteen exceptional tombs, called the Royal Tombs, at Ur in southern Mesopotamia. The burial chamber of a queen was in a deep open pit at the bottom of a sloping ramp. Mats covered the pits walls and floor. The pit was empty except for a vaulted or domed stone burial chamber. Within the chamber was a wooden bier or coffin for the body. Around that were a rich hoard of valuable goods and the bodies of a handful of personal attendants who had followed the deceased into the burial place before it was sealed from the outside. They were only the beginning of a train of attendants who descended with the deceased down that ramp; there could have been more than fifty servants and soldiers, followed by chariots and carts and their drivers, plus horses and oxen with their grooms who entered the pit bearing rich grave goods. Sentinels stood at the bottom of the ramp guarding the entrance to the pit as each man and woman in the pit drank the poison that would include them in this entourage to the otherworld.
The Mesopotamian otherworld included a heavenly realm of everlasting life for the gods, where the only mortal permitted entry was Utnapishtim, a prototype of Noah. His distinctive privilege is connected to his role in the Great Deluge or Flood story, which was of cardinal significance in a region constantly subject to the vicissitudes of drought and flood.
The lower otherworld, Kur or Kurnugi, a region of dust or clay beneath the surface of the earth, but above the nether waters (apsu), included the seven-gated palace of Ganzir. Mortals inhabited Kur after death and the place was itself equated with death. It was not a place of purgation or damnation, but simply the permanent lot of mortals. The only activity in this empty afterlife was eating and drinking and the sole comestible was dust. People of rank, however, brought goods to sustain them, as well as servants to serve them.
Studying the Mesopotamian Kur it is hard to ignore the prevalence of dust and the similarity between this dusty and quiet world of mortals after death and both the climate of the land and the early burial practices in this region. Here bodies were placed in underground caves or in grave shafts or left to desiccate on an open bench in a tomb before being moved to a secondary burial spot without the coffins or sarcophagi that were only introduced later. In both burial and otherworld there is an oppressive prevalence of dust and dirt.
The Mesopotamian underworld did not develop into a place of punishment for the souls of individuals who led a wicked life in this world. Here souls of the dead were simply warehoused in a state of sensual deprivation ruled over by the underworld gods a long, gray, dusty existence.
The Hittites were Indo-Europeans from the East who joined the Hattians in Central Anatolia c.2000 BCE and in c.1600 BCE were joined (invaded) by the Hurrians, an Armenoid people from northern Syrian and western Mesopotamia. The Hittite kingdom extended from the 18th century (1700s) BCE to c.800 BCE, although in a much disintegrated form after c.1180 BCE.
The Hittites have left no evidence in any surviving texts describing the fate of common mortals in an afterlife or the place of the dead after life. Kings and queens, however, were expected to enjoy an existence after death, but there is no evidence that they made any effort to influence it through prayers or offerings. Unlike similar fertility myths, in the Hittite myth of Telepinus, he does not descend into an underworld symbolic of dormant nature; instead he merely hides himself away.
The Canaanites inhabited the geographic area comprised of various locales, often referred to collectively as Palestine; the Ugarits were Canaanites who inhabited the city of Ugarit, the site of excavations responsible for most of our knowledge of this culture. Earliest mentions of the Canaanites date from the 18th century BCE, and generally refer to an ethnic group originating in Lebanon; their fate becomes entwined with the Israelites, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Mesopotamians.
Mot or Death presided over the Canaanite underworld realm a damp place, dark and unpleasant, like a grave. Entry was from Deaths territory, the barren and hot desert. There is no evidence to indicate that the fate of mortals after death was anything other than the cessation of life. The Canaanite underworld was the equivalent of death, and death was the fate of all mortals. However, the Canaanite fertility myth included the descent of Baal to the netherworld, where he confronted Death.
Ancient Near Eastern Texts
Ancient Near Eastern Images
Ancient Near Eastern Bibliography