Babylonian Perspectives on the Uncertainty of Death?

Sophus Helle, University of Aarhus

In 2013, Christopher Metcalf published an article entitled ‘Babylonian perspectives on the certainty of death’, arguing that the Dialogue of Pessimism closes with a reflection on the inevitability of death. Despite its title, my paper is not a rejoinder to his argument, merely another perspective on the same topic. Besides the idea of death as inevitable certainty, one also finds death depicted in cuneiform texts as profoundly uncertain and unknowable.

My paper begins with a reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh l. X 301-322, Utnapishti’s monologue on death. Ut-napishti depicts death as a certainty, yes, but also as an oddly ‘empty’ certainty. Death itself may well be certain, but nothing about it is: it is radically unpredictable, and strikes without warning or reason. Further, Ut-napishti describes death as that which cannot be described, a sudden nothingness whose picture cannot be drawn. It is described in exclusively negative term: without face, voice, or presence it has no positive attributes. I will then trace parallels to this conception of death in other cuneiform texts.

These reflections will finally be brought to bear on the ending of the Dialogue of Pessimism, which Metcalf reads as a statement on human limitations. I will argue that it is also a statement on human uncertainty. In a world where everything can be turned upside down, perhaps suicide becomes appealing exactly because it promises to return control over the most uncertain aspect of life: death itself.