Assyria, like Mesopotamia in general, has always excited the Western imagination. Assyrian beliefs about the spiritual world are no exception. The Assyrians believed that ghosts could return from the afterlife if not properly buried or if they had suffered a traumatic or unnatural death to haunt, harass, and even possess the living. Elaborate exorcisms had to be performed to expel or drive away the malevolent ghosts. Once a student of history learns about Assyrian ghost stories and exorcisms, the reason that ghosts are often feared in folklore becomes readily understandable.
Ghostly Fare: Dirty Food and Muddy Water
The ancient Assyrians, like other Mesopotamian cultures, believed that upon death, a person would become a gidim or etemmu, which are the Sumerian word and the Akkadian word, respectively, for a type of ghost which would live on in the underworld. The Mesopotamian underworld is often depicted as a dreary place where no one would leave. The food was little better than dirt and the only water was from muddy pools. Even though the deceased would live forever in the underworld, it was believed that they still needed food and water to be comfortable. Food and water came from funerary offerings from their living relatives. If their relatives neglected these funerary offerings, the deceased were condemned to an eternity of thirst and starvation.
Although ghosts usually never left the underworld, there were circumstances in which spirits of the dead were permitted to return temporarily to the realm of the living. If a deceased person was not properly buried or if there had been some injustice or unnatural circumstance in their death, they were allowed to return to the realm of the living as ghosts to resolve the issue and make things right. Once this had been accomplished, they returned to the underworld.
Since ghosts were usually vengeful spirits returning because they had been mistreated during or after death, an encounter with a ghost was rarely considered a pleasant thing. Ghosts would usually come to haunt and possess friends, relatives, or acquaintances. They probably also appeared to their enemies. Ghosts could present themselves to the living both as apparitions and through possession. Ghosts would possess living people by entering the head through the ears so that if a person started to experience pain or ringing in the ears, one possibility was that he had been visited by a ghost.
Getting Rid of Ghosts
Typically, the only way to get rid of a ghost was to right whatever wrong had been committed. Doctors trained to perform exorcisms would always ask their patients to be honest about any offenses they may have committed against the ghost or the gods which could have triggered the haunting.
Assyrian exorcisms involved magical rituals, incantations, and invocation of deities such as the god Shamash. Shamash was the Mesopotamian sun god as well as the god of justice. He was believed to visit the underworld every night after sunset to judge the dead. Because of being the god of justice and a god associated with the dead, those suffering from haunting or possession would often invoke him in prayers or magical rituals hoping that he could resolve the matter by pacifying or restraining the ghost.
Cunning Ghosts that Tricked the Gods
Although ghosts were usually spirits who had been wronged or had been sent to right a wrong, there are stories of ghosts being able to somehow trick the gods of the underworld and escape to the realm of the living and cause trouble and harass the living for no real reason.