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Wise Women 4: Mourners

Singers of Dirges

In addition to presiding over births, a wise woman may also have a role at the liminal time of a death in the community. This is also a role with broad cultural currency in the ancient world. According to John Gray, not only at birth but

at death too it is the women who play the significant part as, for instance, the professional “keeners” in Jeremiah ix, 16 ff., who incidentally are also called חכמות “wise women,” a term reminiscent of the Skilful Ones, kṭrt of the Ras Shamra texts. (John Gray, The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament [Brill, 1957] 179)

In Jeremiah 9, the prophet calls upon the female mourners to lament for the coming destruction of Jerusalem:

Thus says the LORD of hosts:
Consider, and call for the mourning women to come;
send for the skilled women (חכמות) to come;
let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water. (Jer 9:17-18)

Once again, I would advise readers that I am not implying we should understand all the Bible’s wise women as “professional” mourners, any more than I would claim they were all midwives. If you want to know what I think the “core” of ancient Israelite wise-womanhood was all about, you’ll find it in my first two posts (mothers, mediators). Having thus established the “core,” however, it is fruitful to explore as well some possible variations suggested by the roles wise women play in other ancient cultures.

In many ancient cultures mourning was a distinctively feminine function. The women who performed this function were often religious professionals. (I note in passing that all of the hospice workers of my personal acquaintance happen to be women.) In any event, mourning was often considered the domain of women. In ancient Israel as in many traditional cultures, women prepared the body of the deceased for burial: bathing it, trimming the nails, wrapping it up and applying perfumes and spices. Then, women led the public lamentation.

In the Ugaritic Legend of Aqhatu, for example, Anatu weeps for Aqhatu and perhaps also sings a dirge, accompanying herself on a lyre (KTU 1.19:I.1-8) (Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Brill, 2003] 523). Similarly, in the Legend of Kirtu there is reference to the dirges of female mourners that would soon be heard when Kirtu is dead (KTU 1.16:I.3-5) (Marsman, 523). In this same text, Kirtu’s daughter Thatmanatu’s mourning for her father is narrated in great detail—far moreso than the mourning of Kirtu’s son Iluha’u. “We may conclude,” writes Marsman, “that, although both men and women mourned the dead, women were more prominent in the performance of wailing rites, often in a professional capacity” (525).

In ancient Greece as well women—both professional religious practitioners and female family members—traditionally sung lamentations at a person’s death. Mourning was, in fact, one of the few ways women wielded public power in Greece. Some even theorize that Solon and other early Greek legislators condemned professional mourning precisely in order to restrain the public voice of women.

Women were no less the “mourners, musicians, and teachers” of Israel at times of bereavement (Angela Bauer, “Death, Grief, Agony, and a New Creation: Re-reading Gender in Jeremiah after September 11,” Word & World 22/4 [Fall 2002] 380). In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find women weeping, singing dirges, or reciting laments at public funerals in Judges 11:40 and 2 Chronicles 35:25 (where “singing women” are paired with “singing men”). As Jeremiah 9 reveals, the image of women dirge-singers was so culturally familiar that the prophet could evoke it to call the people to national lamentation. In the book of Lamentations, the fallen city of Jerusalem is itself depicted as a female dirge-singer (Lam 1:16).

As with the event of childbirth, it is perhaps possible to discern something of the “folk religion” surrounding death and dying in ancient Israel. This will be our focus in the section that follows.

The Cult of the Dead

No less than birth, death is a passage that seems in every culture to generate rituals by which a community reorients itself to new realities. Unfortunately, discussions of a “cult of the dead” tends to evoke images of occultism, rank superstition, or low-budget horror movies. My goal in the remainder of this post is to approach the topic phenomenologically. This means I won’t attempt to evaluate the beliefs and rituals of ancient Israelite folk religion in theological terms. (The Hebrew Bible condemns many of these elements; that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. On the contrary, it is proof of their pervasiveness.) Rather, I simply want to approach these aspects of early Israelite faith on their own terms and hopefully discern their underlying internal logic.

By way of example, consider the following rituals associated with dying and the dead:

  • Loved ones gather at the home of the deceased to sing hymns and recite prayers. A religious professional may conduct a brief ceremony involving additional hymns and prayers before sunset on the night before burial.
  • The body is removed from the house feet-first in the belief that if the head faces backward the deceased may influence another member of the family to follow him or her in death.
  • The body is carried to the burial site in a wagon pulled by steers or oxen. It is considered bad luck for a new bride to meet the funeral procession.
  • Before burial mourners, even young children, honor the dead by stooping to touch or kiss the body.
  • At the graveside a religious professional performs a lengthy, dramatic, and often emotional interpretation of the central myth of the cult. This ritual is meant to assure loved ones that the deceased has completed the necessary initiations to safely enter the afterlife.
  • Offerings, most often flowers but sometimes other items of personal significance, are placed on or near the grave.
  • Loved ones periodically return to the burial site, either on the anniversary of the person’s death or on public days of commemoration. At these times, additional offerings are performed.
  • Though the dead are honored, they are also believed to pose a potential threat to the living. Surviving loved ones therefore light candles or lamps in their front windows to prevent the spirit of the deceased to return to their home.
  • Charms may be worn or simple rituals performed to protect oneself from ghosts: throwing salt on the hearth fire, carrying the left hind foot of a rabbit caught in a graveyard, carrying a snakeskin bag containing a toad’s eye, etc.

Are these the beliefs and rituals of an ancient pagan culture such as Egypt or Babylonia? No, in fact they are part of the folk religion of conservative Christians—namely, the rural folk of Appalachia (described here, here, and here)—albeit described in more-or-less clinical language. Greater connection with the modern world has wiped out many of these traditions; others show no sign of going away soon. Offering flowers at the graves of deceased ancestors on “Decoration Day” (what most of the country calls Memorial Day) is still a significant tradition in many Appalachian families. None of these rituals has the slightest bit of biblical warrant, but that is precisely the point: humans invent rituals to help them to cope with mystery, and death is one of the greatest mysteries there is. Where the Bible is silent, folklore tends to fill in the gaps.

Therefore, let us examine the folk religion of ancient Israel with respect to death and the dead. Elizabeth M. Bloch-Smith has examined the archeological and Scriptural evidence for Israelite death customs (“The Cult of the Dead in Judah: Interpreting the Material Remains,” JBL 111/2 [1992] 213–24.) Based largely on her work, the following patterns may be suggested:

(1) When a person died, he or she was honored with lamentation (2 Chr 35:25; Jer 22:18), the erection of a burial marker (Gen 35:20; 2 Sam 18:18; 2 Kgs 23:16-18; Isa 56:5) and sacrifices of food, drink, and other commodities (Isa 57:7, 9; 2 Chr 16:14).

(2) Remains of food and drink offerings are in fact prevalent in Israelite tombs throughout the Iron Age. Grave goods discovered in Israel and Judah include “vessels for foodstuffs, liquids, perfumes, spices, and oil for lamps, plus jewelry, tools, household and personal items, and talismans” (Bloch-Smith, 222). Such offerings, of which ceramic vessels were by far the most common, were thought of as a way of caring for the dead. A possible technical term for such care, פקד (pqd), is found in a number of Old Testament passages. In Mesopotamia, a paqidum was one who provided regular food and drink offerings for a deceased father or other relative (Bloch-Smith, 220). Bloch-Smith concludes,

Proper postmortem care (*pqd) was probably not a foreign practice but an integral aspect of Judahite and Israelite social organization. Moses denied proper care to the accursed Korahites (Num 16:29), and in a play on the root *pqd Jonathan attributed David’s absence in court to a trip home for a family ancestral sacrifice (1 Sam 20:6). (220–21).

(3) The dead were regarded as “divine beings” (אלהים, ['elohim] in 1 Sam 28; Isa 8:19), possessing supernatural powers. Therefore—although the Deuteronomis(s) severely condemned the practice—they might be consulted through various types of intermediaries (see Isa 8:19), including human magico-religious specialists (“diviners,” “necromancers,” etc.) and cult objects such as the teraphim, often understood to be ancestral figurines. In this light, it may be relevant that there are a couple of stories where women traffic in teraphim. In Genesis 31:19, Rachel steals her father’s teraphim as she flees with Jacob and the rest of his family. Much later, Michal helps her husband, David, escape from her father, Saul, by hiding a teraphim in his bed as a decoy (1 Sam 19:13).

(4) In addition to divination, the dead were credited with the power to give life (Elisha’s bones, 2 Kgs 13:20-21; Hannah’s prayer for a child in 1 Sam 1:11—assuming this took place at some sort of ancestral sacrifice.)

(5) The dead may also have been thought vengeful and able to harm the living. Such a belief may explain David having the hands and feet of Ishbaal’s already dead murderers cut off (2 Sam 4:12). Was this done to avert the possibility of revenge from beyond the grave?

There may be additional oblique references to rituals associated with death and dying in the story of the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam 14). At two points in her encounter with King David, she uses expressions that suggest familiarity with the mortuary rituals of the wider Ancient Near Eastern culture.

First, she seems familiar with the use of cultic coals in exorcisms and purification rituals. As Michael S. Moore explains,

To communicate the depth of her dilemma the wise woman uses a revealing metaphor. She describes the clan’s demands as an attempt to “quench my coal which is left.” Rykle Borger has pointed out that this phrase is similar to an Akkadian phrase which describes a man without a family as one whose “cultic oven as gone out.” Thus it does not seem coincidental that the Hebrew word for “coal” in this text (gahelet) is also found in the Isaianic tradition in a passage mocking the use of cultic “coals” in Babylonian purification rites [Isa 47:14], or that the Akkadian word for “cultic oven” is a standard fixture in neo-Assyrian exorcistic ritual. (“‘Wise Women’ or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” Restoration Quarterly 35/3 [1993] 154)

Another mourning ritual involves pouring out water upon the ground. At a later point in the wise woman’s exchange with David, she portrays Israel’s fate with the words, “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up” (2 Sam 14:14). This metaphor also seems to have its roots in the technical language of ancient mortuary cults. In the previously mentioned Legend of Kirtu, when Kirtu becomes ill he tells his son Iluha’u not to mourn for him. Instead, he entrusts this task to his daughter Thatmanatu “because she is well-practiced in putting ‘her water in the field…the issues of her lifebreath on the heights’” (Moore, 156). Although the Ugaritic ritual texts give few details, the metaphorical connection between death, mourning, and pouring out of water suggest there is some kind of connection. (Might a similar ritual lie behind David’s actions in 2 Sam 23:13-17?)

Bloch-Smith argues that although the Torah attempts to regulate the cult of the dead, it doesn’t try to abolish it outright. The concern of the prophets and preeminently the Deuteronomist(s) is with the centralization of the cultus at the temple in Jerusalem. According to Bloch-Smith, the temple personnel never denied the dead’s powers nor the people’s right to honor them. “Individuals could still feed the dead,” she argues, “but not tithed food” (see Deut 26:14). And though they might continue to consult the dead in private, they were forbidden to enlist professional help in doing so (223).

This reconstruction could be right or it could be wrong, but in any event it seems clear that not every aspect of Israel’s religion is codified in Scripture. For good or ill, certain rituals (prayers, songs, symbolic acts) and presuppositions surrounded birth, death, and most likely other liminal junctures. All of them fall under the rubric of “folk religion,” the informal beliefs and practices passed down from generation to generation quite apart from any official endorsement. For various reasons, women were often the bearers of these traditions. They were part of the “tool kit” of at least some of Israel’s wise women.

What, then of the darker or less savory aspects of this picture of Israel’s “cult of the dead”? In my concluding post, we’ll look at one last wise woman and the way she used officially forbidden rituals in the service of others.


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  1. [...] deathly posts from Dr Platypus here and [...]

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