Entering the Netherworld

CDLB 2003:6

Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin (ISSN: 1540-8760)

Published on 2003-09-02

© Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Netherworld, prayer, Sumerian, dead, death

§1. The subject of the present paper is a new interpretation of RBC 2000 (originally published by Hallo in 1985), which suggests that it may be a prayer for a dead person pleading to be admitted to the netherworld.

§ 2. RBC 2000 is written in a beautiful hand that points to the latter part of the third millennium. Paleography and orthography (in particular the use of the verbal infix –ši- rather than -še3-) may date the tablet to around the time of Gudea. It should be noted, however, that the lack of comparable texts makes any more precise dating rather hazardous, so that an Ur III date is certainly not excluded. As Hallo has pointed out, there is reason to believe that the text comes from the Lagaš area, in particular because of the appearance of the goddess Nanše in the final line. The lenticular format of the tablet is rather unusual and puzzling by itself, and we will come back to this issue later. The following edition is based upon a reading of McCormick’s copy as published in Hallo’s original edition. Collation from photographs, generously provided by Ulla Kasten, Babylonian Collection, Yale Universtity Library, revealed the great reliability of that drawing.


§3. Edition and Translation

e2-gal tir May the palace
gu2-ur5mušen se12-a a sig ha-mu-ši-ib2-gar provide clear water to me in the forest where gur birds live.
ša3-bi gir4 mah izi ba-ra-a Inside, where a great oven is lighted,
a sig ha-ma-ab-su3 may it sprinkle clear water for me.
ig-bi ra-gaba haharran(KASKAL) -sa2-a-ga2 May its door, which is a courier, stand open when I finish
ha-gub my journey.
ze2-hi-bi lu2-kin-gi4-a-kam May its bolt, which is a messenger,
šu ha-mu-ši-nigin turn around for me.
giš-bala-bi lam a2 sa6-ga-mu ha-am3 May its crossbar be the Lama at my favorable side
za3 zi-da-ga2 ha-kar2-kar2-ka that shines brightly on my right shoulder.
giš-ka2-ba gu2-bi ha-mu-da-zi May its gate be proud because of me.
dinanna igi-du-mu he2-am3 May Inanna be my vanguard.
dingir-mu a2-dah-mu ha-am3 May my god be my helper,
egir-ga2 ha-gen may he go behind me.
lu2-i3!-du-ga2 gu2-e ki ha-la2 May my gatekeeper bow down,
ga2 gu2-mu an-še3 ha-zi so that I might raise my neck on high!
3 den-ki dasar-re abzu-na In the shrine of Enki, Asari in his Abzu
nam-mu-da-bur2-e will not be able to loose (this spell),
da-mu dnanše al-me-a since Nanše is at my side.


Passages discussed by Hallo are not repeated here.


§4. to line 2: The word gu2-ur5mušen is unorthographic for buru4(NU11.BUR)mušen. The reading buru4 is attested only in first millennium lexical texts; an Ur III text from Umma (MVN 21, 80)[1] and an Old Babylonian lexical text[2] indicate that the reading was /gur(u)/.[3] The identity of this bird is a matter of debate. For Ur III and later the meaning “crow” seems reasonably assured. It has been argued, however, that in Ebla buru4mušen means “raptor” or “vulture,”[4] and there are indications that this meaning was known in Babylonia, too. In the late lexical tradition, buru4-gimušen corresponds to nā’iru (“roaring bird” Ur5-ra 18; MSL 8/2, 151: 339), suggesting a bird of prey (this same translation is used for te8mušen-gu-lamušen in Ur5-ra 18; MSL 8/2, 129: 193). The most telling third millennium reference is UruKAgina 4 v 15-21 = 5 v 12-18 (see FAOS 5/1, 294-295) which refers to “wings of a buru4-gi-bird” to be delivered as tax by temple administrators (sanga). Here the translation “crow” is indeed very unlikely. Finally, in the Old Babylonian commentary text CBS 11319+ rev. i 12' (Sjöberg 1993) the word /numma/ is written with two BURU4 signs on top of each other: nu-um-ma = NU11.BUR/NU11.BURmušen = zību (“vulture”). This entry on the one hand reflects the well-known equivalence nu-um-mamušen = zību, while on the other hand preserving the memory of an older meaning of buru4mušen. Since the exact date of RBC 2000 remains uncertain, both possibilities (“crow,” or “raptor”) remain open.[5]


The expression a sig means “clear water,” in opposition to a lu3-a “muddywater;” see PSD A/1, 164.

The verbal form ha-mu-ši-ib2-gar implies an inanimate agent, presumably “the palace.” The prefix –ši- is understood here to havea first person referent (“to me;” see also line 7). The interpretationof the ha-/he2- forms in this text follows Civil forthcoming, whodefines this prefix as a subjunctive-optative with deontic and epistemic functions.


§5. to line 5: The reading of the signs basically follows Hallo, who discusses the singular writing haharran(KASKAL). The expression ig — gub (“to set a door open”) is constructed here with a locative just as in ETCSL: Gilgameš and Akka 87: gišig-abul-la-ka sila-ba bi2-in-gub “he put the door of the main gate in its street.”

§ 6. to lines 6-8: The technical terminology for parts of the door (ze2-hi-bi = sahab2 and giš-bala) is rather confusing here. In ETCSL: Hymn to Nungal 23, sahab2 is compared to a snake that slithers into a hole, which argues for the meaning “bolt.” The expression šu — nigin (“to circle,” “to make a round trip”)[6] implies a movement that comes back to its beginning. In this sense it is understandable for a messenger who comes back to his place of origin, but how this image applies to the bolt remains unclear to me.

§ 7. to line 10: “May the neck of its gate rise with me.” In my translation above, “because of me” renders the prefix –da-.

§ 8. to line 14: The text has lu2-KAK-du. I assume that the intention is lu2-i3-du, for lu2-i3-du8, “gatekeeper.”

§ 9. to lines 16-17: For this formula see Schramm 2001, 13-18.



§ 10. In his edition Hallo suggested that this prayer was meant for someone’s release from “the big house,” which, according to Hallo, may be a colloquial word for prison. I would like to consider another option: the “palace” in this text may be “palace Ganzer,” the entrance to the netherworld. In that case, the request to open the doors is a request to be let in, rather than to be released. Several details of the text argue for such an interpretation.

§ 11. In ETCSL: Inanna’s Descent her arrival at the netherworld is described as follows (73-75):[7]


   dinanna e2-gal ganzer-še3 um-ma-te
   gišig kur-ra-ka šu hul ba-an-us2
   abul kur-ra-ka gu3 hul ba-an-de2


   When Inanna arrived at the palace Ganzer,
   she pushed the door of the netherworld in anger,
   she shouted at the great gate of the netherworld in anger.

§ 12. In the same composition Ereškigal instructs the doorkeeper how to let Inanna in (119-120):[8]


   abul kur-ra imin-bi gišsi-gar-bi he2-ib-us2
   e2-gal ganzer dili-bi gišig-bi šu ha-ba-an-us2


   At each of the seven main gates of the netherworld the bolt should be applied,
   the doors of the palace Ganzer should be pushed open one by one.

§ 13. “Palace Ganzer” is the entry to the netherworld and therefore closely associated with gates and doors – as in our text.[9] The same association is found in ETCSL: Gilgameš, Enkidu and the Netherworld 166, where we find Gilgameš crying at the “gate of Ganzer, in front of the netherworld” (abul ganzer igi kur-ra-ka). The name of the palace is identical to a word for flame (ga-an-ze(2)-er = nablum).[10] Although the two words are kept apart in spelling,[11] they are clearly identical in origin, reflecting the notion that the dead have to cross a fire in order to reach the netherworld. As far as I know this idea is nowhere explicitly formulated, except in the present text which speaks about a “great oven in which a fire is lighted.” It should be emphasized that the evidence does not allow an image of the netherworld as “hell.” The fire (or the oven) is something that one has to cross or go through, it is one more way to express the difficulty of accessing the realm of the dead, similar to a long journey, to crossing a river or to passing through seven gates. The oven and the forest (line 1) are images for the inhospitable terrain that the dead person has to cross. The scorching heat relates to the supplicant’s desire for water and to his or her request for being admitted to the “palace.” The journey itself is mentioned in line 5: “may the door, which is a rider, stand open when I finish my journey.”


§ 14. The gu2-ur5mušen in line 2 of our text may call to attention the association between birds and spirits of the dead. All texts where this theme occurs, however, are first millennium in date;[12] no such association is known from earlier sources. If gu2-ur5mušen means “crow” the image invoked may be that of a body being picked at by a crow. If the meaning “raptor,” or “vulture” is applicable here, the image becomes more poignant.

§ 15. The expression a sig or a si-ga (Old Babylonian), “clear water” is often used for libation water. At several places it indicates the water for the dead in the netherworld, as in the final lines of ETCSL: Nintinugga’s Dog: [13]

   u4 ti-la-ga2 igi hu-mu-un-du8
   u4 ba-ug7-en kur-ra a si-ga hu-mu-un-na8-na8

   May (Nintinugga) look after me while I live
   and when I die may she provide clear water in the netherworld.

§16. In lines 8-13 the deceased, while entering the netherworld, asks forprotectionfrom all sides: the “crossbar (?)” on the side, Inanna in front,and his family god to the rear. This is followed by a pair of expressions thatuses the opposition down – up: “May my gatekeeper bow down, so thatI might raise my neck on high!”[14] The implication seems to be that thereis a doorkeeper who is less than welcoming – again a reference to the difficultyof being admitted. In this context, Inanna’s position at the vanguard ismore than appropriate: she had experience in forcing her way into the netherworld.The appearance of Inanna in this context strongly suggests a conscious referenceto the theme of Inanna’s visit to the realm of the dead.

§17. Finally, one may speculate about the significance of the physical formatof RBC 2000. Lenticular tablets were used for specific administrative purposesin the Ur III period and for school exercises in OB, but neither of these usesis relevant here. The round format was called im-šu[15] “hand tablet,” since it is easily held in the hand. It may be, then, that thistablet was given to the deceased person in the grave to be held by hand, to beconsulted and recited on his or her journey to the netherworld.


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Version: 2 September 2003