Early Mesopotamians conceptualized the universe as a sphere, one half occupied by the living, the other by the dead. Deities ruled both realms—Ereshkigal was queen of the Underworld and Nergal her consort. Other deities served at their court and gates through which the sun and moon could pass linked the two worlds together.
Graves were thought to provide access to the Underworld. At death, the spirit (Sumerian gidim) traveled to the Underworld, where conditions were dismal. The dead thirsted and ate dust. It was the responsibility of the living to provide sustenance for dead relatives.
[stextbox id="grey"]The wealth of objects found in Ur’s tombs and death pits may have been gifts for Underworld deities.[/stextbox]
“The Death of Urnamma,” a Sumerian literary text, describes a Mesopotamian king’s journey to the Underworld. First, he offered gifts to its gatekeepers. He then prepared a banquet because he knew the Underworld’s food was “bitter” and its water “brackish.” He presented gifts to the Underworld deities, giving vessels and garments to Ereshkigal and weapons to Nergal. Urnamma was then seated on a platform and a dwelling prepared for him. Finally, Ereshkigal assigned him rule over soldiers killed in battle and convicted criminals.
The wealth of objects found in Ur’s tombs and death pits may have been gifts for Underworld deities. For example, Puabi was buried with a number of gold chains typical of a man’s headdress. Perhaps they were meant as gifts for the gods. Although we cannot know for sure, later Sumerians, as seen in “The Death of Urnamma,” believed the deceased elites needed such offerings to court favor with Underworld deities.