Babylon and Assyria, Vampires in Ancient

Babylon and Assyria, Vampires in Ancient

(pop culture)

During the nineteenth century, the writings of ancient Mesopotamia (the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys, present-day Iraq) were discovered and translated. They indicated the development of an elaborate mythology and a universe inhabited by a legion of deities of greater and lesser rank. From this vast pantheon, the closest equivalent of the true vampire in ancient Mesopotamian mythology were the seven evil spirits described in a poem quoted by R. Campbell Thompson that begins with the line, “Seven are they! Seven are they!”:

Spirits that minish the heaven and earth, That minish the land, Spirits that minish the land, Of giant strength, Of giant strength and giant tread, Demons (like raging bulls, great ghosts), Ghosts that break through all houses, Demons that have no shame, Seven are they! Knowing no care, they grind the land like corn; Knowing no mercy they rage against mankind, They spill their blood like rain, Devouring their flesh (and) sucking their veins.

They are demons full of violence, ceaselessly devouring blood.

Montague Summers suggested that vampires had a prominent place in Mesopotamian mythology, beyond that suggested by the belief in the seven spirits. In particular he spoke of the ekimmu, the spirit of an unburied person. He based his case on an exploration of the literature concerning the Netherworld, the abode of the dead. The Netherworld was portrayed as a somewhat gloomy place. However, an individual’s life there could be considerably improved if at the end of their earthly existence they received a proper, if simple, burial that included the affectionate care of the corpse. At the end of tablet 12 of the famous Gilgamesh (or Gilgamish) Epic, there was an accounting of the various degrees of comfort of the dead. It closed with several couplets concerning the state of the person who died alone and unburied, which Summers quoted as:

The man whose corpse lieth in the desert—Thou and I have often seen such an one—His spirit resteth not in the earth; The spirit hath none to care for it—Thou and I have often seen such an one The dregs of the vessel—the leaving of the feast, And that which is cast into the street are his food.

The key line in this passage was “His spirit resteth not in the earth,” which Summers took to mean that the spirits of those who died alone (i.e., the ekimmu) could not even enter the Netherworld and thus were condemned to roam the earth. He then connected this passage with other passages concerning the exorcism of ghosts, and quoted at length various texts that enumerated the various ghosts that had been seen. However, the ghosts were of a wide variety, as one text stated:

The evil spirit, the evil demon, the evil ghost, the evil devil, From the earth have come forth; From the underworld into the land of the living they have come forth; In heaven they are unknown On earth they are not understood They neither stand nor sit, Not eat nor drink.

It appeared that Summers confused the issue of revenants and the return of the dead who could become vampires with ghosts of the deceased who might simply haunt the land. The ghosts were plainly noncorporeal—they neither ate nor drank, whereas the dead in the underworld had a form of corporeal existence and enjoyed some meager pleasures. The source of this misunderstanding was an inadequate translation of the last parts of the Gilgamish Epic. The line “The spirit resteth not in the earth,” was originally translated in such a way as to leave open the possibility of the dead wandering in the world of human habitation. However, more recent translations and a survey of the context of the last couplets of the Gilgamish Epic made it clear that the dead who died in the desert uncared for (the ekimmu) roamed restlessly not on earth but through the Netherworld. David Ferry’s translation, for example, rendered the passage thusly:

And he whose corpse was thrown away unburied? He wanders without rest through the world down there

The One who goes to the Netherworld without leaving behind anyone to mourn for him?

Garbage is what he eats in the Netherworld. No dog would eat the food he has to eat.

Thus while the idea of vampires did exist in Mesopotamia, it was not as prominent as Summers would indicate. Summers should not be overly chastised for his error, however, because even eminent scholar E. A. Wallis Budge made a similar mistake in his brief comments on tablet 12 in 1920:

The last lines of the tablet seem to say that the spirit of the unburied man reposeth both in the earth, and that the spirit of the friendless man wandereth about the street eating the remains of food which are cast out of the cooking pots.

However, neither Budge nor E. Campbell Thompson, whom Summers quoted from directly, made the error of pushing these several texts in the direction of a vampirish interpretation.


Ferry, David. Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992. 99 pp.
George, Andrew R., The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic. Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Spence, Lewis. Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria. London: G. G. Harrap, 1928. 411 pp.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., 1928. 356 pp. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1960. 356 pp.
Thompson, E. Campbell. The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia. 2 vols. London: Luzac, 1903–04.
———. Semitic Magic: Its Origin and Development. London: Luzac, 1908. 286 pp.