Go to Procursus, Chapter 5, 7, 9

E.A . Wallace Budge

Babylonian Life & History

Chapter Nine

The King of Babylonia and His People
and Their Lives

Page Outline

  1. Three Social Classes
  2. Families
  3. Children
  4. Marriage
  5. Furniture & Clothing
  1. Meals
  2. Religion
  3. Music
  4. Traders
  5. Exports & Imports
  6. Death

A. Three Social Classes

1After the god the king, in the earliest times, was absolute lord and master of the country and of all who lived in it, and in some capacities he was held to be “like God.” He and his governors and nobles formed a small class by themselves and possessed great power. There seems to be little doubt that in Sumerian times the population was divided into two (or three) classes, but it was not until the reign of Hammurabi that these classes were sharply defined. His Code recognizes three classes, viz.,

  1. the Amelum (or Awelum),
  2. the Mushkînu, and
  3. the Wardum.

The Amelum included the king, his governors and nobles, the landed proprietors, the priests and the educated class, the higher officers of the Government, and the highly skilled handicraftsmen. All of these were regarded as “free men.” Among the nobles a certain number, probably by reason of their age and experience, formed a small class by themselves, and they possessed very great influence. The Amelum enjoyed many privileges, but on the other hand, if they were fined because of an accident which caused loss of life or limb to any man, their fine was heavier than that imposed on ordinary folk. The division between the highest class of the Amelum and the rest of the population was very sharply defined. From the texts belonging to the later period it is quite clear that the word Amelum lost its original significance, and that it was used for “man,” “any man,” “any one,” without the least regard to his position or property.

The Mushkînu, or “serf” (?), lived in a special quarter of the city, and we know from the Code that he contributed less than the Amelum to the temples, and that all his fines and fees were on a lower scale than theirs. He was a free man, or partly so, and was, like the Amelum, compensated for property destroyed or for loss of limb. He was never put in the fighting line in war time, but served in the camps. Nothing is known as to his origin or mode of life in general, and it is difficult to find a word that will translate exactly the title mushkînu. In later times it lost its original significance, and its equivalent in Arabic, maskîn, whence it has passed into European languages, means “destitute,” “poor man,” and even mendicant.

The Wardum, or slave, was the absolute property of his master, whether acquired by purchase or born on his land; his head was generally shaved in a peculiar way, and he was branded. He was fed and housed by his master, who provided him with a wife, whose offspring was the master’s property. He could own property, and many slaves lived as tenants on their lords’ estates. A slave might buy his freedom, or be freed by his master, to serve in the temple, or he might receive freedom by marrying a free woman, or on adoption by his own or another master. To harbour a runaway slave, or to help him to escape, or to refuse to give him up on demand was a serious offence against the Law, and entailed a heavy fine. The Wardum was in Babylonia what the fallah was, and still is, in Egypt.

The King and the temples owned slaves in large numbers, and the women as well as the men had to do much hard work on the land, both in clearing out the water channels and canals, and in sowing and reaping. In addition to bringing up their families, they often had to attend to the cattle belonging to the temple, and to cook and to brew beer, etc. But, like the men, they were allowed to hold property and embark in business, … many of them showed themselves to be capable businesswomen.

Among the women-slaves of the temples was a class who dedicated themselves to the god, and in many respects they were the equivalents in Babylonia of the Vestal Virgins in Rome. They were virgins vowed to chastity, and a special quarter in the temple was provided for them. The Code decreed that they should neither keep a wine-shop nor enter one. Nabonidus made his daughter the head and directress of the temple-virgins of Ur of the Chaldees.

B. Families

2A man was master of his house and family, and the full responsibility for the upkeep of the house and fields, and the maintenance of his wife and children and cattle and slaves was his. But the wife of a free man, or of any man, had considerable power, and enjoyed many rights and privileges. A wife was always mistress of the dowry that she had brought, and if she were so disposed could, in the event of her dying childless, arrange for that and her personal property to go back to her father’s family.

And she could spend her money in any way she pleased. The contract tablets and other documents prove that women invested their money in commercial undertakings, and bought and sold estates and slaves, and lent money on interest, and even went to law in their own names whenever it was necessary to do so. Women could, if they pleased, become scribes, and even members of judicial bodies, and many of them owned and managed large businesses. Sometimes a bride would stipulate that her husband should invest her dowry in some business undertaking, and that she should share with him the profit which accrued. In later times, if for some reason a wife could not, or would not, live in the same house as her husband, she could compel him to give her alimony. The Babylonian cynic railed at women, and said that “the wife is a well, a well, a pit, a pit, a sharp iron dagger which cuts a man’s throat,” but the fact remains that the tablets provide evidence that shows that the Babylonians owed much to their independent, business-like wives.

C. Children

3… from time immemorial, husbands and wives have wished and prayed for children, and as a rule boys were desired more than girls, because the boys were needed, when grown up, to defend the possessions of the family. Before the birth of a child both husband and wife used every means in their power to keep the demon Labartu out of the house; incantations were recited, and many magical rites performed to prevent her from working her evil will on the body of the woman.

When the child was born the father addressed to him the words “My Son,” which gave the boy the right to inherit his father’s rank and property and to be reckoned as his legitimate son. The rich woman hired a nurse; the poor woman nursed her child herself for two or three years. Soon after he was weaned he was taken to a special place, a sort of playground, where he played with models of animals made of clay. The child was protected from the attacks of the gods and demons who harmed children by means of small amulets, or a written incantation, or the picture of the demon who was most feared, hung upon its body.

From one of the laws in the Code of Hammurabi it seems certain that there was great infant mortality in Babylonia. In that country, as elsewhere in the East, girls and children who were not wanted, or who, for some reason, could not be reared by their parents, were cast into pits, or thrown out into the desert to be devoured by jackals and wild beasts, or, like Sargon of Agade, were laid in little reed-chests and committed to the river. In some cases the parents were able to pay for the keep of the child until it grew up, but it is clear from the law in the Code of Hammurabi that children were sometimes allowed to die, and the nurse substituted other children.

That Hammurabi found it necessary to make such a law shows that baby-farming was common in Babylonia. Some of the boys who were farmed out were adopted by well-to-do but childless citizens who needed help on their farms or in their businesses, and some of the girls were taken under the protection of the temple-women, who brought them up and made them servants in the temples.

4Hitherto no texts have been found to tell us what (if any) ceremonies of a religious character were performed after the birth of a child, though it seems that the town authorities registered its birth for military purposes. The reliefs on the monuments make it certain that circumcision was not practised, and it seems that the parents gave their children names when and as they pleased, and not necessarily soon after birth.

The education of children varied according to the rank of their parents. The sons of the Amelum class accompanied their parents when they went on hunting, fowling, or fishing expeditions, and made themselves proficient in the use of weapons of war. Presumably they learned to read and to write cuneiform, and studied the ancient compositions and texts that would help them to occupy fittingly the position in life to which they were born. Boys intended to follow a trade were set to work as soon as they could be made useful to their parents or masters. The children of slaves went to work at a very early age, and helped to pasture the sheep, cattle, asses and other domestic animals.

When boys reached a suitable age, probably when they were about fifteen years old, their parents arranged marriages for them. Usually each married a girl of his own class, who was then, as now, carefully chosen for him by his parents or the relatives who were rearing him. Owners found wives for their slaves willingly, for the children of slaves were the property of their masters. Domestic slavery was general and, though the lot of the slave was a hard one at all times and in any case, there is reason to believe that it was tolerable, for the Babylonians were not a naturally cruel people.

D. Marriage

5Children could not marry without their parents’ consent, and they often lived with them for some years after marriage. The negotiations about the amount of the dowry were probably carried on by a professional intermediary, usually a woman, as at the present day, and the marriage contract was drawn up on strictly legal lines, the contracting parties being not the lovers, but their parents. In early times men often bought women for their wives, but in the later period, say about 600 BC, this custom was practically unknown.

The marriage ceremony took place in the house of the bridegroom, to which the bride, closely veiled, had been brought. There, in the guest-chamber, in the presence of his chief relatives and friends, the bridegroom declared, “This woman is my wife.” Whether the bride and bridegroom knelt down facing each other or stood up is not known. When the bridegroom had finished speaking, he took his wife’s hand and embraced her, and the two then passed into the bridal chamber, where they remained for the greater part of a week. At the end of that time the bridegroom rejoined his friends and amused himself with them, and the young wife took up her duties as mistress of his house. During the week of marriage the kinsfolk and friends of the bride and bridegroom feasted and made merry, and gifts of food and drink were made to the poor.

The childless wife had a difficult part to play when her husband kept concubines who had given him children, and much discord was caused by the slave-girl who had borne her master a son. Babylonian wives took no part in public affairs or meetings; their influence, which was very great, was exercised from their own houses. Polygamy was recognized and was common, but to all intents and purposes the Babylonian was a monogamist, and only took a concubine to give him children when his wife was unable to fulfill her duties. In early times Polyandry existed, probably on a small scale.

A man could divorce his wife merely by saying “I have divorced thee,” but in order to put the matter on a legal footing he usually employed a judge to make this declaration on his behalf, and paid him a substantial fee to write out the bill of divorcement. And to the wife whom he had divorced he was obliged to give a sum of money equal in value to the dowry that she had brought. According to the Code of Hammurabi, a wife could only be divorced for childlessness, adultery, roaming from home, and light and wanton behaviour. Adulterers were to be killed with the sword or drowned, and the wife who repudiated her husband was drowned, or hurled from a rock, or fined, or enslaved.

E. Furniture & Clothing

6Household furniture was of a simple character and consisted chiefly of a bed, or couch, on which a man slept, or sat, or reclined at meals, stools, a small flat, table at which to eat, the vessels necessary for cooking, which were made of clay or metal, bowls, water-pots and jars in clay, a corn-grinder, clay lamps, reed-mats, cushions, etc.

The clothes of the family were kept in chests made of wood or clay. A large part of the population of Lower Babylonia lived, like Uta-Napishtim, the hero of the Story of the Flood, in reed huts or houses, which closely resembled the tukuls of the Sudan at the present day. The dress of noblemen, priests, and high officials was comparatively simple, but it varied in quantity and thickness with the climate of the part of Babylonia in which they lived. In Sumerian times many people in the south went almost naked. Field labourers, fishermen, diggers, and cleaners of canals wore nothing at all, except a string tied round the loins. Men of the upper classes wore a sort of fringed tunic. Working women wore a narrow band round the loins; those of the upper classes wrapped themselves in a kind of shawl, but always left the right breast uncovered. Sandals and shoes, pointed and turned up at the toes, were worn by both men and women, and the men wore close-fitting caps, of the shape which resembled the turbans of later days.

As time went on men began to wear long cloaks and capes, and sleeved garments were adopted by both men and women. Still later they wore a tunic or shirt next to the skin, and over this a second tunic with a belt, and a covering for the head and shoulders. The head-cloth worn by a woman was larger than that of a man, so that it might cover her face when she was in any public place or walking in the streets; both her head-cloth and her cloak were ornamented with decorated borders or fringes. The woman who went about unveiled was held in light esteem.

In the temples and in their houses men went barefooted. The colour of the outer garments was of a sombre character, black, blackish brown or blue-black being the commonest; the innermost garment, which in later times was made of linen, was undyed and was probably cream-coloured. The apparel worn on high days and holy days was white. The well-to-do Babylonian … loved a change of apparel, and enjoyed sitting in a clean place. His religion demanded cleanliness of person, and no man would dare to make supplication to his god in a dirty state or wearing dirty garments. The climate necessitated frequent ablutions, and when a man went dirty or wore filthy garments by choice his neighbours knew that he was in trouble or suffering mentally and physically. The custom of appearing before the god naked shows how difficult it was for a man to keep himself ceremonially clean.

Originally the Sumerians, like the Semites, wore beards and did not shave the head, but at the time when the monuments we have were made they shaved both head and face. The women kept their hair, which they either wore loose and falling down over the shoulders, or twisted up in a knot, which rested on the back of the neck and was held in position by a bandlet. The Akkadians … gloried in their hair and beards, which they regarded as symbols of free men; some of them wore pointed or “squared” beards, like the early Egyptians, and some wore side-whiskers with them. Whether the Sumerians in the historic period shaved the whole body is not known, but when we remember the various kinds of insects which now infest the houses in Lower Babylonia, it seems probable that they would do so.

7Next to ablutions and clean apparel for personal comfort and a feeling of well-being, the Babylonian required anointing with perfumed oils and unguents. The perfume of flowers or the odour of sweet incense was absolutely necessary for him, and a censer with incense to burn in it was found in most houses. The heat and glare compelled him to use eye-paint, and it is certain that his women employed both that and scented pomades and salves, not only to soften their skins and remove the ill-effects of sunburn and scorching winds, but to enhance their beauty.

The house of every well-to-do man had a room set apart for ablutions — in fact, a sort of bathroom — containing a large flat vessel which served as the bath. A cleansing preparation made of oil and potash was used as soap, and it seems that in some parts of Mesopotamia the use of depilatories was not unknown.

F. Meals

8The fertility of the soil enabled the Babylonian generally to eat his fill, but he lived for the most part on a vegetable diet. His usual drink was water from one of the rivers or large canals, and on special occasions or days of festival he drank palm wine. In humble houses the family sat round the bowl or tray that held the food, and each person helped himself with his fingers, which were usually washed before the meal began. By way of grace the master or mistress mentioned the name of Ishtar or Shamash … when he dipedhis hand into the dish. The washing of the hands followed the meal, and the remains of the food were either eaten by the dogs of the house or thrown out into the street. In rich men’s houses the guests sat after the meal and drank deeply of wine, probably fermented, ofttimes until they were drunk.

The people in general took great delight in celebrating the births and marriages in their families, and in assisting in all public rejoicings and festivals of the gods. The miracle plays which were performed during the Festival of the New Year gave them great pleasure.

9The Babylonians, both children and men, played a game with bones and pebbles on a plaque of clay something like a … [chess board] , and they must, it would seem, have had games of chance in which it was possible to gamble.

G. Religion


From our point of view we must consider the Babylonians a very religious people, for there is no doubt that they frequented the temples and made their prayers and presented their offerings, according to their means, with regularity. Each man and woman went to the temple and employed the priest to help him or her to obtain what he or she prayed for, but there is no evidence that any system of public worship, in our sense of the word, existed. The suppliant stood up before his god and raised his open hands as he prayed; then he knelt down and bowed himself before the god, presumably until his forehead touched the earth …. Sometimes he kissed the feet of the god or touched his robes with his hands, and sometimes he wept bitterly and made loud lamentations over his sin, or folly, or misfortune. The offerings presented to the gods were of many kinds, food, drink, oil, incense, clothing, etc., being the commonest. The most important and most significant offering the suppliant gave was the animal, usually a sheep, which was killed before the god, and was intended to be a substitute for the suppliant himself, or for one or all of his family. By the sacrifice of the animal he intended to show the god that he recognized his divinity, and acknowledged his own wickedness, which merited death.

10The early Sumerian temples were comparatively small buildings, but those that existed in Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar II were very large, and contained many chapels which were built round a spacious hall. A large statue of the chief god of the temple was placed in the forefront of the sanctuary; sometimes he was represented standing upright and sometimes seated on a richly decorated throne. The statues of the gods who were associated with him stood either in the hall itself, or in the side-chapels, and in some temples the statues of kings and of prominent noblemen and warriors found a place. At the sides of the entrance stood colossal figures of lions, or bulls, or many-formed fabulous monsters, which were to prevent the entry of fiends and devils into the temple. The god was supposed to require a couch on which to recline or rest, and in great temples this couch was made of gold inlaid with semiprecious stones, or of wood plated with gold and inlaid with ivory. Its exact shape is unknown, but it probably resembled the Arab dîwwwân.

Theoretically, the god travelled about the country, and as all Babylonia was enclosed by rivers and intersected by arms of rivers and canals, a boat or barge was provided for him, as well as a chariot. The boats of the gods were made of metal or of a special kind of wood inlaid with precious stones. Some gods appear to have had two boats, the one being a large, serviceable craft which was used when the god journeyed by water, and the other a small boat which rested on its sledge in the temple or sanctuary. The latter was probably the equivalent of the Hennu Boat in sanctuaries in Egypt.

The god’s state chariot was usually made of ebony and inlaid with many kinds of semi-precious stones, and in very early times it was thought that the chariot, with the god in it, was drawn across the sky by two fabulous animals, for which, after the Kassite conquest of the country, horses were substituted.

11The most important object in early temples was the low, rectangular mass of brickwork on which the offerings were laid, and which served as an altar. This was originally quite flat, but when the animals brought as sacrifices were to be slaughtered upon it, it had slightly raised edges and a kind of spout through which the blood flowed out. Sometimes, especially during the late period, a square pillar stood in the middle of it, and on this the animal was lifted up and slain. At a still later period the pillar-altar was provided with a step on which, as the monuments show, the stand in which incense was burnt was placed; on the altar itself, i.e., the higher part, fruits, flowers, vegetables, joints of meat, etc., were laid. In the courtyard of every temple was a small lake, or “sea,” and from this the water-pots and bowls used in the temple were filled.

Every temple was provided with many small instruments that were used in slaying and cutting up the sacrifices, and performing ceremonies in connection with the recital of incantations, and magical rituals in general. As many magical ceremonies were performed in the temples at certain hours of the night, artificial light was necessary, and a number of lamps, both large and small, must have been included among the temple furniture.

H. Music

On days of festival the pleasure of the people was enhanced by the music which was sung and played by the temple staff. Among the musical instruments may be mentioned the reed-flute, both single and double; the trumpet; the large harp, which stood on the ground and was played with the right hand; the small harp of from ten to fifteen strings, which was portable and was played with both hands; the lyre; the large squat round drum which either stood on the ground or was fastened to the front of the player, who struck it with both hands; the small drum with a long, narrow tapering body, also played with the hands; cymbals, bells and tambourines. The singing of the temple men and women, the clapping of hands of the children, and the playing of these instruments must have produced a very considerable noise. Of Babylonian musical notation little or nothing is known, but it is probable that, to the copies of the rhythmical compositions sung by temple choirs, signs were added which indicated to the singer how certain passages were to be sung.

12The priests attached to a great temple were very numerous, and might probably be counted by the score. All the important priests lived in the precincts, and were maintained out of the revenues of the temple, and, since the Babylonians had no metal currency, were paid in kind. Many of them possessed private means, and “pluralists” were not unknown in Babylonia. There were several orders of priests, and each performed specific duties. The Shangu and Makhkhu were the heads of the priesthood. The Urigallu performed very important functions at the New Year Festival. Clad in white, he entered the sanctuary alone and remained there reciting prayers for many days. He recited the Story of the Creation, and superintended the preparation of the scenes for the miracle play which was performed during the festival, and he confirmed the king in his sovereignty annually, and on certain occasions acted as his Commissioner or Deputy.

The “Stewards” acted as personal attendants on the gods, and dressed their statues, and bore their emblems. Other special orders dealt with water ceremonies, the music of the temple, incantation services, the interpretation of dreams, divination and the reading of omens, funerary ceremonies, etc. The business of the temple and the management of its estates and properties were conducted by a staff of educated men, who were assisted by a large number of handicraftsmen of all kinds. The priestesses of the temple were presided over by the High Priestess, whose duty it was to direct and control as far as possible the women servants of the temple, and the “Ishtar Maidens,” who dedicated themselves to the service of the goddess.

I. Traders

13From time immemorial a large part of the population of Babylonia devoted itself to commerce, and the thousands of business and contract tablets which exist in Museums proclaim alike the activities and the variety of the operations of the Babylonian merchant and trader. The rivers and canals gave him easy transport by water, and in very early times he was able to build ships capable of sailing from Eridu to Dilmun, i.e., the Islands of Bahrên. Caravans of asses carried his exports into Elam and other countries to the east of the Tigris, and northwards into Armenia, Syria, and the neighbouring countries.

Westwards the caravans traded with Southern Arabia, the Peninsula of Sinai and Egypt, and in every important foreign market, and every place where barter went on, the Babylonian merchant had his representative. The caravan-master was as much a government courier and postman as a trader, for he carried the king’s despatches and private letters as well as business documents..

14In business transactions, as in all the other affairs of life, magic entered, and the wise man enquired of the gods and, by the help of the priest, put himself under their protection before he set out on his journey. The kings of the countries through which the caravans passed were expected to allow them free and undisturbed passage through their dominions, and the king whose subjects plundered a caravan was expected to make good the loss sustained.

In very early times the importance of Mesopotamia as a connecting link between the West and the East was clearly understood; and before Egypt through the power and ability of its kings became the clearing house of the world, the city of Babylon occupied that position, and even in late times was always a formidable rival to Egypt. The traffic between Europe and Persia passed through the country of Northern Mesopotamia, but the Euphrates and its banks formed the highway by which the products of India and Arabia and the east coast of Africa made their way into Europe and the large islands of the Mediterranean..

J. Exports & Imports

15The chief exports of Babylonia were grain, skins, oil, dates, pottery, and reeds for making mats, baskets, sandals, etc. Its imports were gold, which was brought from Nubia and the coasts of the Red Sea in the form of rings and bags of alluvial gold dust; silver, which came from the Taurus mountains, and was bartered in the form of rings and ingots; copper from Cyprus and Makan (Sinai); rock-salt, which was the purest known, from Northern Assyria; iron from the neighbourhood of the Black Sea, etc.

Lead and tin were separated from silver by smelting. The Sumerians discovered that copper alloyed with tin or antimony increased in hardness, and both these substances were important imports.

As there was no stone in Babylonia and very little wood, both had to be imported; hard stones, porphyry, diorite, quartzite, and sandstone were brought from Sinai and Egypt, limestone and basalt from Armenia and Northern Assyria, and marble from countries near the Mediterranean Sea. Large quantities of lapis-lazuli came from Persia, and from powdered lapis-lazuli a paste for inlaying in jewellery was made, which became an important article of commerce, both in Babylonia and Egypt. Pearls and mother-of-pearl were exported to Europe and Egypt. Horses came from the highlands east of the Tigris, camels from Arabia, ivory and elephant-hides from the south, peacocks from India.

The Babylonian merchants … dealt largely in slaves, and the slave trade must have yielded them large profits. The slave, both male and female, was regarded as a chattel, and as a beast of burden like the ox, or ass, or camel; Hammurabi valued the slave at twenty shekels. Whether the trade was organized, as it was in modern times by Arab dealers, cannot be said, but it is very probable that Africans were shipped to the Persian Gulf, and that the leaders of caravans purchased them from dealers in the Bahrên Islands and imported them into Babylonia, where they were either sold or let out on hire. But the Babylonian was, on the whole, a humane man, and there is every reason to believe that the lot of his slave was better than is ordinarily supposed.

K. Death

16In the paragraphs above we have seen how the ordinary Babylonian was born and brought up, how he married, how he worshipped his gods, and how he lived and earned his bread; it now remains to see what happened to him when he died. The wise man, when he felt old age coming upon him, set his house in order, made his son his heir, made arrangements as to the division of his goods among his family and kinsfolk, provided for his children by slave-women and for their mothers, and then waited for death to come. Though he knew where he was to be buried he built no tomb for himself and hewed no sarcophagus, even if he was a wealthy man, but was content to think of being laid in the clay, the dampness of which rotted everything quickly. He loved life, and hated death because he believed that the life he would live after death would be sad and dreary, and perhaps painful.

In the next world he believed he would sit in darkness with the shades of other departed beings about him, and be clothed in feathers like a bird, and eat dust and feed upon clay. There is no definite statement on the subject in the texts, but it seems that the Babylonians and Akkadians thought that any good or virtuous actions performed in this world were rewarded by long life and prosperity in this world, and not by a life of bliss in the next. Therefore they made the most of their life in this world, and thought with sorrow of the time when they would be obliged to leave the “warm precincts of the cheerful day.”

But every man wished to be properly buried in the earth, for it was believed that the spirit of the unburied man wandered about his village by night, eating whatever it could find to satisfy its hunger, and drinking dirty water to slake its thirst. The Underworld must therefore have provided food and drink for the spirits of the dead which dwelt there.

17Of the fate of the spirits of those who were drowned in the rivers and canals or killed and eaten by wild beasts the texts tell us nothing. When a Babylonian died it was the bounden duty of his family to ensure a proper burial. In the case of the poor man the ceremonies attending the burial of his body were short and simple; it was either buried naked or wrapped in a mat or cloth of some kind, and was laid in the earth within a few hours of his death. He who died during the night was buried at sunrise; he who died during the day, at sunset. This has been the custom from time immemorial in Mesopotamia, and is still.

Many slaves and outcasts were probably thrown out into the desert, and the jackals and hyenas disposed of their bodies; and some were cast into the rivers. In the case of the “master of a house,” or a person of rank and position, a crowd of professional “wailers,” or “mourners,” who had been waiting for his breath to leave his body, surrounded the house and began to wail at the top of their voices and to chant compositions of a stereotyped character, in which the virtues of the deceased were proclaimed. The “wailers” sang their laments to the accompaniment of flutes and other instruments of music; the number and intensity of their dirges varied according to the social position of the deceased and the generosity of the paymaster of the funeral.

The women mourners uncovered their heads and faces and smote their breasts as they wailed, and men shaved their heads and beards, rent their ordinary apparel and then arrayed themselves in sackcloth. Occasionally they cut themselves with knives and cast themselves on the ground in agonizing attitudes to show the intensity of their grief. We may assume that the professional undertaker provided all that was necessary for the funeral, including the mourners. As the Babylonians made no attempt to mummify their dead, the period of mourning was comparatively short, perhaps two or three days, or a week at most. The body was sometimes rubbed with salt, as in Egypt, or with oil, but whether evisceration was ever performed is not known.

18Remains of graves have been found, both in Babylonia and Assyria, which prove that the bodies of the dead were sometimes burnt, but cremation can never have been practised generally because of the scarcity of wood or other materials of the kind for burning. It is true that reeds and bitumen may have been used for forming the funeral pyre, but even so the burning of the dead can never have been general. Some bodies were buried in the houses which they had inhabited, and it is possible that the houses were set on fire after the burial of their owners. The sculptured monuments found at Shush (Susa) show that after a battle the dead were collected into heaps and earth was thrown over them.

In Lower Babylonia the body was sometimes buried in a sort of large baked clay box, bowl, or coffin, usually oval or round in shape, and resembling somewhat the primitive coffins of Egypt. In these the skeletons show that the deceased was laid upon his side, and that his legs were bent up, with his knees near his chin, as in many of the pre-dynastic graves in Egypt. Sometimes the body was covered over with a large inverted baked clay pot or bowl, the equivalent of which is also found in Egypt. In late Babylonian and Parthian times the dead were buried in baked-clay coffins, glazed or unglazed, which are, because of their shape, commonly known as “slipper coffins”; some fine examples of these are to be seen in the British Museum. Kings were often buried in their palaces, and noblemen in chambers specially set apart for this purpose in their houses..

19Whether any religious service was performed when the dead man was laid in his grave is not known, but in the case of well-to-do folk a great feast was made, in which all those who were invited to share in it were supposed to take a final meal with the deceased. The remains of the feast were, as at the present day, distributed among the poor and needy. This last meal had its significance, for by it the spirit of the deceased was placed in communion with the gods and the spirits of his kinsmen and friends likewise; as they all ate the same food and drank the same drink, they became one body, according to an ancient and well-nigh universal belief.

And it was important for the welfare of the spirit of the dead that offerings of food and drink should be placed in or at his tomb at regular intervals. The great need in the Underworld was pure water, therefore must the living pour out libations of pure water, so that some of it might trickle through and quench the thirst of the spirit confined below. Food, oil and scented unguents were also offered, so that the spirits of these substances might be absorbed by the spirit of the departed. The tears of the living comforted the dead, and their lamentations and dirges consoled them.

To satisfy the cravings of the dead, these offerings were sometimes made by priests who devoted their lives to the cult of the dead, and the kinsmen of the dead often employed them to recite incantations that would have the effect of bettering the lot of the dead in the dread kingdom of Ereshkigal. The priests also recited at stated intervals commemorative formulas, which probably much resembled the zikars that the Arabs recite for the benefit of the dead at the present day..

20The chief object of all such pious acts was to benefit the dead, but underneath it all was the fervent desire of the living to keep the dead in the Underworld. The living were afraid lest the dead should return to this world, and it was necessary to avoid such a calamity at all costs. … [The] fact that the priests were employed by the relatives of the dead to recite incantations in the tombs suggests that the living believed in the possibility of a spirit returning to this world in the form of an evil Utukku, and that the belief in Vampires existed among the Babylonians as well as among other early peoples.

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Go to Procursus, Chapter 5, 7, 9