The house where I live is at least two hundred years old, so naturally when I first moved in there were ghosts to contend with. Most ghosts are harmless, and I left this crew alone for a spell. One lady spook became excited whenever I had guests; she liked having people in “her” house. Another lady liked to cackle at me; she thought it was hoot that there was a real witch living in the house. Eventually I decided to get rid of all the company, but that’s a story for another time. What I want to relate today is my experience with one particular ghost that came with the house: a mean nasty old man with a lot of rage. His presence moved into my direct consciousness one morning as I awoke, when he stated in a gravelly voice: “You dirty witch. You’re gonna get it.”
It was a clear and direct threat, the first menacing appearance from a dead person I’d experienced. Oh, there had been a few indirect warnings over years of spirit work, indications that I was making some dead people uncomfortable. Occasionally I backed off at such restiveness, unwilling to fight battles that I didn’t feel I had a stake in. But this was something different. Without question this was the kind of threat that demanded an immediate response, one that should not be put off even one day. My reaction may surprise some, however, because while I took the situation seriously, I couldn’t be serious about it. I burst out laughing when the guy said that, and I kept chuckling throughout the day as I made preparations for the ritual. I couldn’t believe he had the balls to threaten me of all people. I’m the very last person a ghost with any sense would want to tangle with.
You see, I have powerful friends.
I decided to call on Ereshkigal, the Sumerian/Akkadian goddess of the dead, for aid in this situation. Decisions to invoke this goddess must be weighed carefully, as she has a reputation for being touchy, becoming furious with those who do not show her respect and deference. In this case, I came armed with a just petition, so I was not worried, but even so, abstraction always differs from direct experience.
Ereshkigal’s realm is the cavernous region deep inside the earth called Irkalla. Her orbit seldom touches on the affairs of the living because she deals exclusively with death. She does not take part even in congregations of the upper world gods, but sends a messenger in her stead. While a few (but not all!) gods, demons and odd creatures can enter and leave Irkalla at will, that privilege is not ordinarily extended to humans. (Flies get a free pass.) The seven gates of the underworld are slammed and bolted as the newly deceased make their final journey.
Akkadian literature suggests that the deceased possesses a duality of being, their separate parts sometimes separated across distance. The idea is not as well developed in Mesopotamia as it is in ancient Egypt, but the concept is implicit. The dead are counted and locked in Irkalla, yet their ghosts wander through a hidden passage and across an underground river to address living relatives in dreams or attend ceremonies in their honor. Some simply wander around in a state of distress. Jean Bottero asserts, “that same path…seems to have been traveled daily in both directions by processions of ‘specters’ who came to terrify and mistreat the living, then were sent back where they came by exorcisms.”
In preparation for this exorcism, I cleaned my house top to bottom. The “dirty witch” accusation was not about my housekeeping, but it stung nonetheless. As it turns out, it was a good thing the house was clean when Ereshkigal arrived. Some deities are tolerant of haphazard housekeeping while others demand order and cleanliness. I was surprised to learn that Ereshkigal has a powerfully clean, almost aseptic energy about her. In her presence I was reminded of a strong cleanser commonly used in institutions that contains ammonia, lemon oil and pine essences. She brought no odor, but her energy left the same impression. Actually it was rather cheeky of me to invoke Ereshkigal directly. Had I thought the matter out more carefully, I would have addressed her gatekeeper with a message. One of the dangers of doing your own exorcisms is that the very energy you’re trying to banish has the effect of muddling or confusing your thoughts.
As I began my ritual to the Goddess, I was careful to offer libations and burn quality resins and to enumerate her great powers and virtues. Then I stated my case. I told her that a ghost had explicitly threatened me with harm. I reminded her that the dead belong in their place and are not supposed to go around tormenting the living. Then I told her what he said to me. As expected, her response was swift and impressive.
Ereshkigal has a reputation for dispensing law with implacability. She has no tears for the man taken from his wife, no pity for the woman torn from her lover, no mercy for the child wrenched from his mother’s breast. A mean old ghost of a man has no chance with this lady.
Ereshkigal obliterated the menacing ghost. Gone was any part of him that we who walk the earth would recognize; gone was any tie from his spirit to this world in thought, value or deed. It was the most sobering thing I’ve ever witnessed, and needless to say the situation suddenly wasn’t funny anymore. I had just watched a man die in a much more profound way than he had when he lost his physical body, however many years ago that was. One person’s judgment is another’s grace, however, and I knew that I would not be troubled by that entity again.
All praise to the mighty compassionate Queen Ereshkigal, first lady and ruler of the Great Below.
Bottero, Jean. Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Foster, Benjamin R., ed. and trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Littleton, C. Scott, ed. Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling. London: Duncan Baird, 2002.
University of LondonSchool of African and Oriental Studies. “Ishtar’s Descent to the Netherworld.” http://www.soas.ac.uk/baplar/recordings/itars-descent-to-the-netherworld-lines-1-125-read-by-martin-west.html
Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Kramer. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.