Feasting with the Dead

Mosaic from royal tomb. Photo Alma E. Guinness

Mosaic from royal tomb. Photo Alma E. Guinness



On the last day of the month, as the moon disappeared, Sumerians gathered to celebrate family ties, everyone bringing food to share. The ancestors also took part in these gatherings. The ceremony was called kishiga meaning “food on the ground” by the Sumerians and later kispu by the Akkadians. “Food on the ground” probably referred to the practice of leaving offerings for the dead on the bare earth. The dead were believed to be slight waifs needing little food or water, but they still required regular feedings. Unfortunately we do not know exactly what food was served, but it was probably simple rather than elaborate fare and no doubt included bread and beer.

The timing of the monthly gathering at the disappearance of the moon is curious, because it suggests that menstrual seclusion might not have been practiced among the Sumerians. In most nonindustrial societies women either naturally bled at the disappearing moon, or herbal and other remedies were used to encourage this to happen. The presence of menstruating women at this gathering would mean there were no fears about menstruating women being vulnerable to ghosts, no fears about menstruating women spoiling food, and probably no special diet for menstruating women as well. Either that, or women who were menstruating did not take part in the ceremony and left food preparation to non-menstruating women (or even men). Still another possibility is that the women in menstrual seclusion ate special foods that were prepared for the meal with the ancestors, and they took part in the ceremony not by being present but by having the blessed food brought to them. This last conjecture is plausible because in one myth the gods have a banquet in heaven which the goddess Ereshkigal cannot attend as she is needed at her post in the underworld, and the gods invite her to send a representative to bring banquet food to her. The eating of the food, not presence at the table, counts as participation.

The kispu occurred at other times during the year in addition to the monthly holy day, and sometimes the kispu was a state holiday sponsored by the king. He would arrange this meal to honor past kings (including kings from former dynasties), the dead subjects of the kingdom who might not have descendents to make the required offerings, and those soldiers who died in service to the king.

The monthly meal for relatives dead and alive was not the same as the funerary meal for the newly deceased. In this ceremony, of which we know very little, bodies were usually buried with food and water. Additional food offerings might be left on the graves, and sometimes there was a clay straw leading from the deceased’s mouth to the surface as a conduit for water.

We will wrap up this exploration of the cuisine of Mesopotamia with a look at the food of the gods.


Sources

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Bottero, Jean. Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

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