Crossing The River: The Journey of Death in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia

August 21, 2009 - anthropology / death / Egypt / Mesopotamia


The religious traditions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were born on the banks of rivers. How did this alluvial geography contribute to their notions of death and the afterlife? In what ways did the rivers, cycle of the sun and other environmental phenomena help construct these ancient cultures view of the journey into the next world? To begin exploring this topic, I will examine a few texts from both cultures regarding rivers, water and boat journeys and attempt to understand the ways in which these bodies of water became a metaphor for the journey into the afterlife. We start with Egypt.

The “utterances” and instructions of The Pyramid Texts(1) describe the journey of deceased royalty into the afterlife. In Utterance 2141, the ka of the dead prepares to ascend “up to the place” where his “father abides.”(1) The direction of travel is ambiguous and seems to be both up into the sky and toward the west. Utterance 2171 describes a journey with Re-Atum across the underworld “united in the darkness.”(1) After travelling through the underworld, they “rise on the horizon”(1) together, the resurrection of the deceased coinciding with the daily re-emergence of the Sun. In Utterance 3641 the deceased is commanded to “Stand up now!”(1), he has been placed in the Sarcophagus, “Nut has embraced [him] in her name of ‘Sarcophagus’”(1) and his mouth has been opened. He has been brought back to life; more precisely he is reborn. The resurrection is complete, the ‘deceased’ will now “live and travel every day”(1) with the solar barque, rising in the east, crossing over the Nile and setting in the west. This journey after death recounted by The Pyramid Texts(1) reflects the bisection of Egypt by the Nile. The deceased goes west like the setting Sun, crosses the underworld and is then resurrected, rising in the east like the dawn, crossing the sky over the Nile and setting in the west again ad infinitum. The journey of the dead is also described in the pyramid texts as crossing the “river of heaven.”(1) Utterance 4731 describes a ferry launching from the east, “The ferries of heaven have been launched…Pepi will go forth on the east side of heaven where the gods are born.”(1) This supernatural travel by ferry echoes daily life on the Nile; the Sun setting and rising, boats traversing the river and the waters flooding and receding. The cyclical patterns of the sun rising and setting are reflected in both the journey of the deceased and the direction of travel leading to resurrection.

Models of boats were often included in the tombs of the deceased. As David explains, their purpose was “to allow the owner to travel to Abydos, the burial place of…Osiris.”(2) Since Abydos was a temporal city on the western bank of the Nile, this practice would suggest the Egyptians believed the boats of the dead travelled on the same river as boats carrying the living. The Nile was a numinous river, a waterway where the divine and the temporal merged, a boundary place where the barrier between worlds was lifted.

Egyptian texts describe other numinous bodies of water as thresholds of death and places affecting the worlds of both gods and mortals. Osiris was killed by Seth on the bank of a river.(1) In The Tale of Two Brothers(1), Pre-Harakhti causes a “great (gulf of) water” to come between the brothers so that “one of them came to be on one side and the other on the other side.”(1) In The Contendings of Horus and Seth(1) Pre-Harakhti employs water as a barrier between Seth and Isis when he sends Seth, Horus and the Ennead to an island, “You shall ferry across to the Island in the Middle and decide.”(1) The life-sustaining Nile was believed to have a supernatural source, as Assmann explains “From the Egyptian point of view, the Nile did not come from terrestrial regions somewhere to the south of Egypt, but rather from the netherworld.”(3) This belief that the life-giving Nile originated from the netherworld, a place of death, seems to be an example of Egyptian cosmology reflecting the balance of forces in the universe, the balance of ma’at. It seems fitting that a river of life and death could be navigated only by a supernatural being. Mahaf, the pilot of the ferry that carries the dead into the underworld, travels both ways and his ability to do so is reflected in his having two faces; one looking forward and one back.(4) Again an example of bisection and balance (ma’at). The supernatural rivers appear in Egyptian text as both barriers and meeting places between people, between worlds and between life and death.

Water also divides the temporal and divine worlds in Mesopotamian texts. In his search for immortality, Gilgamesh arrives at the end of the world and discovers an ocean.(5) The tavern-keeper/goddess warns him, “The crossing is perilous…once you have crossed the ocean, when you reach the Waters of Death, what then will you do?”(5) In two fragmentary tablets reportedly from a city on the Euphrates, the tavern-keeper/goddess also suggests that only the Sun god can cross the waters, “Who [but Shamash] can travel [that journey?].”(5) As in the Egyptian pyramid texts, the Mesopotamian myth suggests the Sun or Sun god is able to travel where others cannot.

In the Sumerian poem Bilgamesh and the Netherworld(5) the god Enki “set sail for the Netherworld” in a boat. In the same story, Enki asks the Sun god to bring Enkidu back as he rises, “When…you make an opening in the Netherworld, bring his servant up to him.”(5) As in the Egyptian texts, Bilgamesh and the Netherworld(5) describes resurrection from the world of death facilitated by the Sun god and reflecting the path of the solar cycle. Escape from the underworld is, however, not routine. In the Mesopotamian texts, the path to the underworld is recurrently described as “the road whose journey has no return.” For both gods and mortals, entering the Mesopotamian underworld meant crossing a boundary that altered the individual. In the story When Ishtar Went to the Netherworld(6), the underworld is a “land of n[o return]…/…house which none leaves who enters.”(6) As Ishtar enters the netherworld, she gives up articles of clothing and the accoutrement of her deity, she “removed the great tiara of her head…and removed the earrings of her ears…and removed the loincloth of her body.”(6) Ishtar’s disrobing suggests that she cannot bring her complete self into the netherworld. The gatekeepers explain, “Thus the rules of the mistress of the netherworld.” Ishtar’s power is muted by the netherworld and the consequences alter the temporal realm, “After the lady Ishtar [went down] to the netherworld, / The bull would not mount the cow. / The [young man would not impregnate] the girl.”(6) While she does face ritual undressing, Ishtar does not encounter a river as she descends into the netherworld. Instead, water serves to re-animate her, “Sprinkle Ishtar with water of life”(6) commands Ereshkigal. In the poem How Nergal Became King of the Netherworld,(6) Gaga, Namtar, and Nergal all enter and leave the Netherworld by way of a “long staircase of heaven.”(6) It seems as though crossing the river Hubur(6) to reach the underworld was a boundary intended primarily for deceased Mesopotamian mortals.

In The Babylonian Theodicy(6) crossing the river into the underworld is inevitable, “Of course our fathers pay passage to go death’s way, / I too will cross the river of the dead, / as is commanded from of old.”(6) The river of the underworld is personified in the Enuma Elish(6) as the goddess “Mother Hubur, who can form everything.”(6) Foster notes that Mother Hubur is an epithet of Mummu-Tiamat(6), presumably a combination of creative power/intelligence and the ocean goddess. The Babylonian epic of creation (Enuma Elish(6)) suggests the gruesome genesis of the river Hubur when Marduk prepares to arrange/create the cosmos by trampling “upon the frame of Tiamat” and crushing her skull with his “merciless mace”.(6) Marduk forms the rivers and seas from the body of Tiamat, “From her eyes he undammed the Euphr[ates] and Tigris…/…he caused the oceans to surge within her.”(6) He then creates the netherworld, “He set [half of] her as a roof, he established the netherworld.”(6) The spatial location of this netherworld is unclear, it appears to be below the half of Tiamat which Marduk establishes “as a roof.”(6) Bottéro, on the other hand, describes an “Infernal River” located far to the west across which lies the “realm of the dead”.(7) Comparable to the depiction of the Egyptian afterlife as both to the west and above, the Mesopotamian netherworld seems to be both west and below.

Rivers appear in the Mesopotamian text as sources of life, boundaries, paths to the underworld and also forces of destruction. In the Story of the Flood(6) the Igigi gods create the life giving rivers, “[Canals they opened, the] life of the land. / [they] […dug the Ti]gris river, / [And the Euphrates there] after.”(6) However, life-giving waters become deadly during the deluge, “the flood [came forth], / Its power came upon the peoples [like a battle].”(6) The water of the deluge seems to bring the netherworld up to the surfaceg as the bodies of the dead fill the flood waters, “Like rafts they lie against the e[dg]e, / Like rafts capsized they lie against the bank.”(6) The rivers and seas of the ancient near east were, presumably, the best route for travelling to remote places. The farthest journeys of the ancient world were made by boat. The cosmologies of these river faring civilizations reflect their dependence on the rivers. The textual descriptions of how the dead travel to the afterlife, an otherwise distant and inaccessible place, also reflect the reality of river dwelling peoples.

In addition to the influence of rivers on conceptions of the journey to the afterlife, the solar cycle seems to have played a significant role in situating the destination of the deceased. The Sun is a luminous and blinding object to behold; as it crosses the sky it affords sight, warmth and energy. The daily birth and death of the Sun and its journey across rivers might have been among humankind’s first perceptions of a cycle. It is easy to imagine pre-historic people correlating the diurnal birth and death of the Sun with our own seemingly miraculous awakening during birth and the sudden and irreversible inevitability of our passage into death. As the Sun travelled above the rivers of the near east and reached its zenith, perhaps it would even have appeared to burn both in the sky and within the river. Along with the distance to the Sun, the rivers of the ancient near east must have seemed impenetrable barriers. As recounted in the Egyptian Song of the Harper(1), the afterlife is a mysterious place from which none return:

There is no one who returns from beyond
That he may tell of their state,
That he may tell of their lot,
That he may set our hearts at ease
Until we make our journey
To the place where they have gone.(1)

What better metaphor for crossing into the mysterious afterlife than joining the sun on a journey across the rivers to a distant unknowable place. Following the Sun’s path and reflecting their transportation technology and cosmology, both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts describe the journey after death as crossing a river. Whether traversing the river of the heavens, the Hubur, the “Infernal River”(7) or travelling the Nile to Abydos, death in the ancient near east was a supernatural journey to another shore.

Works Referenced

1. Simpson, W.K. and R.K. Ritner, The Literature of Ancient Egypt : An
Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry.
3rd ed. 2003, New Haven, Conn. London: Yale University Press. xiii, 598

2. David, A.R., Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. 2002, London ; New
York: Penguin Books. xvii, 487 , [32] of plates.

3. Assmann, J., The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. 1st English-language
ed. 2001, Ithaca: Cornell University Press. xi, 275.

4. Griffith, R.D., Sailing to Elysium: Menelaus’ Afterlife (“Odyssey” 4.561-569)
and Egyptian Religion. The Phoenix, 2001. 55(3/4): p. 213-243.

5. George, A., The Epic of Gilgamesh : The Babylonian Epic Poem and
Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. 2003, London: Penguin. liv, 228 p.

6. Foster, B.R., From Distant Days : Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient
Mesopotamia. 1995, Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press. vi, 438 p.

7. Bottéro, J., Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. 2004, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press. x, 246 p.