Ghost stories have captivated us for generations. But in the ancient world, they weren’t the stuff of laughs around a campfire. For the ancients, ghosts were a real, powerful, and often deadly threat. Responsible for more than hauntings, they were capable of making a person ill or passing on a deadly curse. Sometimes, their existence was just punishment for what we do in life.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the living and the dead were closely connected. It was believed that mortality was one of the defining characteristics of humans. Anyone who died young had been cursed by the gods. Those who were healthy were watched over by beneficial spirits, and when that protection faded, so did life.
Once a person died, they became a gidim, or “death spirit.” The spirit was a shadowy creature, sometimes appearing to friends, family, and loved ones and always recognizable as the person that they had been in life. However, the gidim didn’t appear at random. But it could be summoned by the living.
Burial mounds in Mesopotamia were more than a place where earthly remains were interred for passage into the afterlife. The remains were also looked after in case they were ever needed to call a gidim back from the underworld. We don’t know what the process for properly interring a body was, but it’s believed to have varied according to the rank of the person. Kings and queens might have longer mourning periods than commoners, with their burial mounds often referred to as a “palace of rest” or “house of eternity.”
The existence of the gidim in the afterlife was a dismal one, and it was up to the living to provide for the dead. Without gifts from the living, the gidimwere condemned to eternal thirst and food that was bitter and almost inedible. Some stories tell of the gidim eating nothing but dust, existing in a realm ruled by Queen Ereshkigal and her consort, Nergal.