The Threat of Ancient Mesopotamian Zombies

Postcard of Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico. Off-topic? Yes, but very cool. ©Rykoff Collection/CORBIS

As we've discussed in previous STBYM episodes about zombies, the notion of shambling undead hoards strikes a real chord with our modern world. They're an endless checklist. They're a fantasy in which indiscriminate violence solves all our problems.

So zombiemania is largely a 20th century invention, but its cultural roots creep back through the ages -- all the way to our earliest recorded myth cycles. Shamble down 4,000 years of human history and you'll find a gloriously creepy mention of zombies in ancient Mesopotamia.

This was the age of Gilgamesh. The celestial Queen Ishtar ruled over the heavens and the Earth while her sister Ereshkigal ruled over the dead in the underworld. Humans of course lived in the space between, telling tales of heroic descents to a world beneath our own -- the sort of stuff we've continued to tell ever since.

In one tale, according to Alice K. Turner, Ershkigal even threatens to flood the earth with the dead "so that they might devour the living" if she doesn't get what she wants. I've also seen accounts that attribute the threat to Ishtar, as discussed in this blog post from Professor Jim Getz.

Why would the celestial Ishtar command undead legions rather than the queen of the underworld? Here's what Getz has to say:

"Ishtar as the goddess of sex and violence doesn't seem the obvious choice to have her own zombie army. However, if there is anything that modern sensibilities can add to this discussion it is definitely that zombies are currently very sexy. Perhaps, there is some cultural tie in here. Maybe we aren't all that different from our Mesopotamian forbearers."

Either way, we have a truly hoary threat of undead madness, 2,000 years before Jesus stepped forth from the grave.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.