Posted by: religionthink | March 1, 2010

On Tsalmâveth Or The Death Shadow

On Tsalmâveth Or The Death Shadow

While having a discussion on the description of death and the underworld some belief systems have the concept that texts imply that death maybe the end. However other texts may imply otherwise and the Hebrew  composite noun, tsalmâveth. This appears seventeen times in the Hebrew Tanach.  At times English biblical texts translate the word as “shadow of death” rather then “death shadow”.  Below are references to where each is found.

Job_3:5; Job_10:21; Job_10:22; Job_12:22; Job_16:16; Job_24:17; Job_28:3; Job_34:22; Job_38:17; Psa_23:4; Psa_44:19; Psa_107:10; Psa_107:14; Isa_9:2; Jer_2:6; Jer_13:16; Amo_5:8

After reading thoughts on the underworld in Greek mythology, my personal views of the Hebrew word tsalmâveth has changed, below is an example of the death shade. Here we see a ritual in which the death shadows are enabled to talk to the hero Odysseus.  Also, we have a description of the death shades and their characteristics, which in some ways are comparable to what we read in the texts  above. It is also possible that these texts may have been written around the same time period for the late Hebrew themes most of the references above (see notes for Psalm 107 in the  The JPS Torah Commentary. Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia: 1989.).

“Here Perimedes and Eurylochus held the victims, while I drew my sword and dug the trench a cubit each way. I made a drink-offering to all the dead, first with honey and milk, then with wine, and thirdly with water, and I sprinkled white barley meal over the whole, praying earnestly to the poor feckless ghosts, and promising them that when I got back to Ithaca I would sacrifice a barren heifer for them, the best I had, and would load the pyre with good things. I also particularly promised that Teiresias should have a black sheep to himself, the best in all my flocks. When I had prayed sufficiently to the dead, I cut the throats of the two sheep and let the blood run into the trench, whereon the ghosts came trooping up from Erebus- brides, young bachelors, old men worn out with toil, maids who had been crossed in love, and brave men who had been killed in battle, with their armour still smirched with blood; they came from every quarter and flitted round the trench with a strange kind of screaming sound that made me turn pale with fear. When I saw them coming I told the men to be quick and flay the carcasses of the two dead sheep and make burnt offerings of them, and at the same time to repeat prayers to Hades and to Proserpine; but I sat where I was with my sword drawn and would not let the poor feckless ghosts come near the blood till Teiresias should have answered my questions.

“The first ghost ‘that came was that of my comrade Elpenor, for he had not yet been laid beneath the earth. We had left his body unwaked and unburied in Circe’s house, for we had had too much else to do. I was very sorry for him, and cried when I saw him: ‘Elpenor,’ said I, ‘how did you come down here into this gloom and darkness? You have here on foot quicker than I have with my ship.’

“‘Sir,’ he answered with a groan, ‘it was all bad luck, and my own unspeakable drunkenness. I was lying asleep on the top of Circe’s house, and never thought of coming down again by the great staircase but fell right off the roof and broke my neck, so my soul down to the house of Hades. And now I beseech you by all those whom you have left behind you, though they are not here, by your wife, by the father who brought you up when you were a child, and by Telemachus who is the one hope of your house, do what I shall now ask you. I know that when you leave this limbo you will again hold your ship for the Aeaean island. Do not go thence leaving me unwaked and unburied behind you, or I may bring heaven’s anger upon you; but burn me with whatever armour I have, build a barrow for me on the sea shore, that may tell people in days to come what a poor unlucky fellow I was, and plant over my grave the oar I used to row with when I was yet alive and with my messmates.’ And I said, ‘My poor fellow, I will do all that you have asked of me.’

The Odyssey.  Book 11,  Translated by Samuel Butler

Below we have another example of the death shades in the under world.  We come to book 6 in the Aneid where the hero like the example above also makes a trip.  This is a lter description.  Here the relm of the dead and the description of it are more defined.

You gods, who hold the domain of spirits! You voiceless shades! You, Chaos, and you, Phlegethon, you broad, hushed tracts of night! Suffer me to tell what I have heard; suffer me of your grace to unfold secrets buried in the depths and darkness of the earth!

On they went dimly, beneath the lonely night amid the gloom, through the empty halls of Dis and his phantom realm, even as under the niggard light of a fitful moon lies a path in the forest, when Jupiter has buried the sky in shade, and black Night has stolen from the world her hues. Just before the entrance, even within the very jaws of Hell, Grief and avenging Cares have set their bed; there pale Diseases dwell, sad Age, and Fear, and Hunger, temptress to sin, and loathly Want, shapes terrible to view; and Death and Distress; next, Death’s own brother Sleep, and the soul’s Guilty Joys, and, on the threshold opposite, the death-dealing War, and the Furies’ iron cells, and maddening Strife, her snaky locks entwined with bloody ribbons.

In the midst an elm, shadowy and vast, spreads her boughs and aged arms, the whome which, men say, false Dreams hold, clinging under every leaf. And many monstrous forms besides of various beasts are stalled at the doors, Centaurs and double-shaped Scyllas, and he hundredfold Briareus, and the beast of Lerna, hissing horribly, and the Chimaera armed with flame, Gorgons and Harpies, and the shape of the three-bodied shade [Geryon]. Here on a sudden, in trembling terror, Aeneas grasps his sword, and turns the naked edge against their coming; and did not his wise companion warn him that these were but faint, bodiless lives, flitting under a hollow semblance of form, he would rush upon them and vainly cleave shadows with steel.

From here a road leads to the waters of Tartarean Acheron. Here, thick with mire and of fathomless flood, a whirlpool seethes and belches into Cocytus all its sand. A grim ferry man guards these waters and streams, terrible in his squalor – Charon, on whose chin lies a mass of unkempt hoary hair; his eyes are staring orbs of flame; his squalid garb hangs by a knot from his shoulders. Unaided, he poles the boat, tends the sails, and in his murky craft convoys the dead – now aged, but a god’s old age is hardy and green. Hither rushed all the throng, streaming to the banks; mothers and men and bodies of high-souled heroes, their life now done, boys and unwedded girls, and sons placed on the pyre before their fathers’ eyes; thick as the leaves of the forest that at autumn’s first frost drop and fall, and thick as the birds that from the seething deep flock shoreward, when the chill of the year drives them overseas and sends them into sunny lands. They stood, pleading to be the first ferried across, and stretched out hands in yearning for the farther shore. But the surly boatman takes now these, now those, while others he thrusts away, back from the brink. –

The Aeneid Book 6. Translated by H.R. Fairclough

Such readings changed the meanings and implications of the biblical texts for me personally.  Also, we can see in later Jewish texts like that of  Enoch become more and more defined.  This transition also happens in the Greek for the description of the underworld’s dead is less defined in the Iliad then in the Odyssey. Below is a description from the Iliad.

“When swift-footed godlike Achilles had stripped the corpse,
standing among Achaeans, he spoke these winged words:
“My friends, leaders and rulers of the Argives,
since gods have granted that this man be killed,
who’s done much damage, more than all the rest,
let’s test these Trojan by attacking them
with armed excursions round their city,
to see what they intend—whether they’ll leave
their lofty city now that Hector’s dead,
or stay there, still keen to fight without him.
But why’s my fond heart discussing this?
By our ships lies a dead man—unwept,
unburied—Patroclus. I’ll not forget him,
as long as I remain among the living,
as long as my dear limbs have motion.
If down in Hades men forget their dead,
even there I will remember my companion
Come, young Achaeans, sing a victory song,
as we’re returning to our hollow ships.
We’ll take the body. We’ve won great glory,
killing noble Hector—Trojans prayed to him
in their own city, as if he were a god.”
Achilles finished. Then on noble Hector’s corpse
he carried out a monstrous act”.

– Iliad  Book 22, Translation by Ian Johnston

We end this comparison of the death shade with a text from to make the point of how closely theses texts compare.  It is not certain who influenced who but the Greeks did trade in the ancient Near East which could account for the exchange:
Had I been as though I never was, Had I been carried from the womb to the grave. My days are few, so desist! Leave me alone, let me be diverted a while Before I depart — never to return — For the land of deepest gloom; A land whose light is darkness, All gloom and disarray, Whose light is like darkness.” (Job 10:19-22 NJPS)

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