In the opinion of the men of the XXth Century, real Medicine was born in the XVth Century. Before that, there was only stupidity, delirium, fantasy and charlatanism.
Beside this, runs another idea, less conventional, but just as categorical: modern Medicine is cold and inhuman; its progresses are illusionary, and its harms perverse, for they are hidden under apparent cures operated by chemistry which, in the long run, is more dangerous than the ill. The Medicines of Antiquity were able to conciliate the Spiritual with the Physical, gently treat both the soul and the body, thanks to a natural pharmacopoeia.
Between these two partisan judgements, what is the truth about these forgotten Medicines of Antiquity?
“If the patient has a pain in the temples which lasts all day: it is caused by the intervention of a phantom. When the exorcist has done his job, you, the doctor, will massage the sufferer with an unguent composed as follows […] If the patient in the phantom’s clutches has not been calmed, either by the doctor’s operation, or by that of the exorcist, here is another remedy to be applied […]”
Such are the teachings delivered in a Mesopotamian medical treatise. Medicine was in fact born in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and the Euphrates: specialists agree on this point. From the IIIrd millenium, empirical and exorcist doctors tried to combat physical ills, the first by relying on observation and using a very diversified pharmacopoeia, the others by trying to understand the rupture, the dissonance which had occurred between their patients and the cosmic order, the supernatural powers. Far from being in competition with each other, the two therapies conjugated their efforts to relieve pain, chase away illness.
For the Mesopotamians, sickness had three causes:
– The gods could directly inflict you with it, following an offence, but that wasn’t the most frequent case.
– Most of the time, they simply removed their protection and left you in such a state that any demon could take hold of your body and communicate illness to it.
– Finally, the illness could be provoked through black magic. He who knew certain formulae could obtain from the demons that they penetrate the victim’s body.
In all cases, the illness was assimilated to a fault, to an offence to the cosmic order. The sufferer had transgressed it at one moment or another, sometimes without even realising it. Which is why the doctor would ask him questions, envisaging all of the possibilities:
“Did you sow discord between father and son, between mother and daughter, between brother and brother, between friend and friend?”
“Did you say “yes” for “no”?”
“Did you have the legitimate son expulsed from home and the illegitimate son installed there?”
“Did you move any fence, boundary stone or limit?”
“Did you violate your neighbour’s home?”
“Did you lie down with his wife?”
“Did you expulse a virtuous man from his family?”
“Did you put righteousness on your lips and falseness in your heart?”…
To this interrogation, which sounded hearts and minds, was added another, which looked to find out how the patient had contracted the illness. A cuneiform tablet passes in revue the risks taken by the sufferer:
“In his goings and comings, did he not participate in some libation, dip his foot into dirty water, look at water that had been used for ablutions, touch an impure or bewitched woman, notice or brush against someone with dirty hands, touch someone whose body was dirty…?”
So, for the Mesopotamian doctor, identifying the illness obviously comes down to seeking the cause in a manifestation of anger from the gods. To establish the prognosis and begin the ideal treatment, he must therefore communicate with the gods, reconnect the tie broken by the sufferer, and this communication takes place thanks to divination. Methods are not lacking. He can have recourse to empyromancy and observe the movements of the flame; lecanomancy and examine the forms obtained by mixing oil and water. He can analyse the sufferer’s dreams (oniromancy), study his astrological sign… But, most often, he uses hepatoscopoeia, that is to say the examination of the liver of sacrificed animals. The liver is examined in situ, then extracted and turned so as to present the lower back part of it and orient the bottom of the gall bladder toward the exterior. Conclusions are drawn from the smallest deviation from normal. Schematic liver models have been found engraved in bronze or stone, which served as references. It can happen that the doctor-seer relies on diverse annunciating signs, as is stated on the tablet which affirms that if, while going to see his patient, the doctor notices a falcon flying on his right, the patient will recover his health, but if the falcon is flying on his left, the patient will die…
To be continued.