A ghost has been discovered on a 3.500-year-old tablet at the British Museum, along with instructions on how to keep the ghosts of the dead from bothering the living. The discovery is the subject of a new book on how one of the oldest civilizations treated the undead. Dr. Irving Finkel is the British Museum’s Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian Items, and he has devoted his life to studying how ancient Mesopotamian cultures viewed the world. When inspecting one of the museums many Babylonian tablets, he observed something no one had ever seen before: in the right light and at the correct angle, a tablet exposes the form of two individuals, one with hands bound and on a lead, something no one had ever seen before.
Finkel finds that the tablet depicts the spirit of a middle-aged woman who has to return to the underworld. In order to accomplish so, a charming young man has summoned them to join her. Drawings of both of them, with her holding him on a lead, buried alongside other items they could need to guarantee this happened. The directions on how to get rid of a ghost who, “seizes hold a person and follows him and cannot be loosed” are written on the back of the tablet. This entailed creating and dressing figures of a man and woman, as well as furnishing them with amenities like a bed and comb. Early in the morning, two vessels of beer and an invocation to the Sun God were to be prepared for the ritual.
“Do not look behind you,” the passage concludes, evoking Orpheus and Lot’s wife legends. “How could someone have an older drawing of a ghost?” says the narrator. “It’s a Guinness Book of Records thing.” The Guardian reported on Finkel’s comments. Finkel’s book The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies, due out next month, places the tablet in context with other Mesopotamian references to spirits. “Ghosts occupy something of the very essence of what it means to be human,” he observes, imparting Babylonian wisdom on how not only to get rid them but also to bring them back and avoid becoming one you.
In an interview on the museum website, Finkel said, “When a person died in Mesopotamia, as far as we understand it, they had to be buried in the ground with a type of ritual so they were jolly well sealed in so they wouldn’t come back and cause trouble.” People believed in ghosts at the period, but they were compassionate, considering departed spirits as something that needed to lead back to where they belonged rather than as something terrible to combat, according to Finkel. The only exception was spirits of persons who were horrible in life and did not improve after death, instead of sliding into people’s ears and creating migraines. Finkel believes that the ceremony detailed in the tablet would have been available to the wealthy for a hefty price, but that the poor would have had to put up with unpleasant spirits.
Finkel’s most famous find was a tablet depicting a massive flood that appeared to be the origin of the Noah’s Ark account more than a thousand years before it was written down in the Bible. The proto-Noah story was so popular in Mesopotamia that it was recorded on multiple tablets in various variants. Finkel’s, on the other hand, is the only one known to mention animals transported into the ark “two by two,” as well as comprehensive directions for ark construction in the event that the floodwaters return.
In a world of melting ice caps, we may need all the flotation devices we can get, therefore Finkel’s discovery was utilized to construct a one-third scale model ark, which was buoyant but not capable of saving all of creation. Those interested in learning more can register for Dr. Finkel’s online session next week.