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The Babylonian Underworld

The Human Condition

According to Babylonian belief a person separates into two constituents on death, namely the material corpse, called esemtu, and an immaterial spirit called etemmu, death spirit. This etemmu is not to be confused with the concept of a soul; the etemmu is not the life-force of the deceased which somehow continues to exist, but it is rather the reason for death in the first place.

To understand this, one has to look at the mythical creation of man. According to myth, man was created from the flesh of the dead god Kingu mixed with clay and blood. In most Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian creation myths this concoction is a live human being. In the Atrahasis myth however, the human being is then fused with the etemmu, which seems supposed to be a personification of mortality. Man is created from the flesh of a god, but the etemmu makes him less than a god, he can die.

However, while the esemtu remains on earth to be buried (often in a room underneath the house of the deceased's family), the etemmu lives on to pass into the underworld.

For gaming purposes we consider the etemmu as consisting of both psyche and shadow.

The etemmu receives sacrifices (kispu) for the dead which are offered by surviving relatives. This generates memoriam, which in turn may affect the rather bleak existence in the underworld which the etemmu faces otherwise.

Neglected but strong etemmu may leave the underworld and return to the living world where they become evil spirits. The same may be true for such etemmu who, as wraiths, succumb to their shadows and become spectres. Weaker etemmu become drones who do nothing but eat dust and drink stale water in the underworld.

There is a kind of hierarchy or status among the dead - fathers of a multitude of sons lead a better afterlife than those who only had one or two sons in life. Lazy people are powerless, while those who died young or as soldiers are rewarded for their short life. Stillborn children sit side by side with the gods of the underworld while sinners (disrespectful men, outcasts, oathbreakers) are shunned. Those who die being burned alive do not go to the underworld at all.

It's interesting to note that the dead often are described as having wings or even a birdlike appearance including feathers. There even is a legal document the subjects of which (buyer, seller, witnesses) are netherworld birds.

Various necromantic rituals exist to call the etemmu of a deceased relative (usually the most recently deceased) out of the underworld to return to the living world for one of two purposes: either the etemmu is laden with sins, illnesses or guilt to take these with it into the underworld and rid the living relative in question of them, or it is called upon for divinatory purposes (see the accompanying text on Babylonian magic).

The Underworld

The Babylonian underworld is a dark shadow of the living world. There is no light. Cities exist, and the stronger etemmu live in these cities as they lived in their lives. The dark cities are ruled by gaunt, pale and often ugly blood drinkers called Akhkharu. These are childer of Ereshkigal and Nergal, the two Kindred who preside over the underworld.

The Akhkharu are able to drink up the pathos of etemmus which courses through them in the fashion of blood. The etemmu, however potent they may be, are mere slaves of the Akhkharu who in turn are ruled by the seven Annunaki, childer of Ereshkigal and all kindred of the 5th generation, while most of the remaining Akhkharu are of 6th or lesser generation and would be prosecuted in the living lands.

The underworld is reached through a cave in the eastern mountains or through access tunnels in Cutha. There may be other entrances as well.

The underworld swallows all light, so that even the brightest source of light only provides a feeble dimness and allows only for a couple of meters of clear sight. At night, the sun sheds a weak and useless light on the scenery, while the moon spends its days here. Both give the impression of open sky, and the moon is accompanied by the stars which cannot be seen in the living lands currently, but they do nothing to actually illuminate the underworld.

The abyss of the underworld is usually reached via seven steps on a ladder, then a descending path which ends at the first of seven gates. All seven gates are guarded and no living person is allowed to pass.

If ever people from the living lands visit the underworld by less-travelled byways, they are best advised not to wear sandals and clean clothes, not to use any ointments, and not to carry weaponry. These things are said to mark such living people out to demons and other denizens of the underworld who will attack immediately. They should be quiet and not greet their family if they meet them but rather ignore or flee them.

Even then they will only be allowed to leave the underworld if they yield someone else to stay in their place.


Cutha, the city of Nergal, lies northeast of Babylon and northwest of Kish. It is surrounded by black, scorched earth; while the sun shines down mercilessly on the city, within its narrow streets the heat is stifling, but the light is swallowed by sinister shadows.

The people of Cutha are thin and ghoulish. Many are covered in blisters and open, wet wounds. They cling to life tenaciously and they are hard to kill. Their life has but one purpose: all of the city was built to pacify the underworld and soothe Nergal and Ereshkigal so they abstain from raising the dead and command them to conquer the world of the living.

The gods of Cutha abstain from sending their ambassadors to other cities; neither doe they expect the other gods to send their childer here except when circumstances call for it. Cutha is the only place in the land of the living where even the forbidden childer of the 5th generation may walk the night streets without fear of punishment.

The temples of Cutha are abattoirs in which many prisoners of war or convicted evil-doers have found a violent and slow death. The Akhkharu walk among the people, as do the the bird people from the underworld who may be seen even in the living lands when the shroud between the worlds of the living and the dead wears frighteningly thin on certain nights.

Cutha is also a city of learning. This is the place to go to find forbidden lore and black magic rituals. Somewhere hidden in its vast libraries and collections of ancient artifacts may even be the bronze pillar of Enoch on which all the secrets of the world are said to be engraved.

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