Tag Archive: Mesopotamia


Alongside all the exorcist therapy, which became more and more complex over the centuries, the Mesopotamians elaborated an Empiric Medicine.  For example, they established a very meticulous, even finicky, list of symptoms with their appropriate therapies.  The Treatise of Medical Diagnoses and Prognoses studied by the French Assyriologist, R. Labat, offers no fewer than five to six thousand lines of text, distributed over forty or so tablets, of which at least half have come down to us.  It seems that nothing was left to chance.  For the nose alone, Labat draws up an impressive catalogue of infections:

“If the patient’s nose is bleeding […];  If the tip of his nose is wet […];  if the tip of his nose is yellow […];  if the tip of his nose has a red rash […];  if the tip of his nose has a white rash […];  if the tip of his nose has a red and white rash […];  if the tip of his nose has a black rash […]”

The enumeration of the symptoms is followed by the remedies to treat them.  They are indicated very briefly.  They precede the prognosis which is declared fatal or favourable.  The Mesopotamian pharmacopoeia known to us comports no fewer than two hundred and fifty medicinal plants, one hundred and twenty substances of medical origin and a good hundred of animal origin.  The remedies are usually absorbed with water, beer or palm wine.  Special jars with filters have been found, which were used for macerations or infusions.  But the medications were also absorbed or applied in the form of suppositories, enemas, ointments or collyria.  Certain illnesses seem to have been very well identified, such as paludism [malaria] with its

“recurring attacks, during which the patient alternatively presents accesses of fever, then chills and perspiration:  after which, he feels a sensation of heat in all his members, then is again taken with a strong fever, which then gives place to new chills and new perspiration…”,

or again epilepsy:

“If the person, while walking, suddenly falls forwards, keeping his eyes dilated, without them returning to their normal state, and if he is also incapable of moving his arms and legs:  it is the beginning of an attack of epilepsy…”

The medical act which combines the religious ceremony, the prescription and execution of treatment, is imprinted with great solemnity.  If it is to treat a high-ranking person, the priest doctor, dressed in ritual clothes, moves in procession in the company of “demons”, a choir and kettledrums, whose sound is supposed to chase away evil spirits;  the servants and family of the patient bring up the rear.  Once cured, the patient must pay homage to his doctor.  With praises formulated like this:

“He made the illness-demon, which was enveloping him in its outspread wings, flee.  He dispersed the ill which was hurting him.  He changed the man’s sufferings into joy;  he placed near him benefactory genies as guardians and tutors.”

Mesopotamian doctors formed a social corps with very high status.  They composed a whole hierarchy, at the top of which could be found the First Doctor to the King, himself.  Hammourabi’s Code (1750 before the present era) mentions the reglementation imposed on doctors.  Assimilating them to priests, it makes them practically untouchable and irresponsible.  However, Articles 215 to 240 are a lot stricter for the inferior categories of the medical corps, particularly the galfabu, or barbers, who practised minor surgery on the eyes, teeth, broken bones, war wounds.  There, the Code draws up sanctions as well as remunerations:

“If a barber has treated a free man for a serious wound with a bronze lancet, and if the man is cured;  if he has opened the cloud of the eye [cataract] of a man with the bronze lancet, and if the eye is cured, he will receive ten sicles of silver…”

What must we conclude about this Mesopotamian Medicine?  Good clinical observations, an attempt at classification, an attempt (still awkward though) to establish certain causal relations, an empiric pharmacopoeia which is already very complete.  But the Mesopotamians remain attached to a magical and expiatory conception of illness.  They attach extreme importance to rituals which have no chance of bettering the patient’s condition.

Despite everything, how can we not admire the contents of the Treatise of Medical Diagnoses and Prognoses which we have already mentioned?  This is a document in which the empiric approach supplants magic, and proposes an approach which can be qualified as rational, with no risk of anachronism.

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To be continued.

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In Mesopotamian Medicine, magico-religious therapy is the work of the ashipu, or exorcists, who pass after the baru, or soothsayers, have finished with their patients, once they have determined the nature of the offence and the identity of the offended god, which is the cause of the illness.  Ashipu is an Akkadian term which means “conjuror of ills” or “purifier of sullage”.  It is this conjuror who ritually proceeds to the expulsion of the malady, the dimitu, which has, as a tablet says, “risen from Hell”.  To cure his patient, the exorcist has recourse to prayer, sacrifice or magic.  The prayers are addressed to the divinities reputed for their power, omniscience, or else for their healing powers.  It is frequent to invoke several at once and even to provoke their confrontation.  The health of mortals can be the subject of discussion among the gods.  For example, between Marduk and his father Ea, a text reports:

“Marduk, when he saw him [the patient] in this state, went to find his father Ea, described to him the patient’s condition and said to him: “I don’t know what this man did to find himself afflicted in this way and I don’t know how to cure him!’  But Ea answered his son:  ‘You know everything!  What could I tell you, since you know as much as I do?’ “

Ea, Marduk, but also Shamash, Gula and Ishtar.  Here is an invocation to Gula and Marduk:

“May the divine healer Gula, who is capable of giving life to the dying, cure him by touching him with her hand!  And you Marduk, the compassionate one, pronounce the formula that will liberate him from his suffering, so that he will be completely pulled from danger!”

As for Ishtar, the exorcist is even more prolix, he flatters her in every way:

“Oh you, the light of the skies and of the Earth, the splendour of the whole world, oh you, the one enraged in fighting, powerful and irresistable in attacking […]  Goddess of the unsoundable, when you lower your gaze onto them, the dead come back to life, the sick rise […]  It is you that I invoke, I your servant, tracked and tortured by pain.  Look at me, Goddess, accept my supplication, look at me and listen to my prayer.  May your grace manifest itself, and may your anger be calmed.  Accord your grace to my feeble, sick body, to my tormented heart, full of tears and sighs… “

After the prayer, and if it is not sufficient, there is the sacrifice, considered here as a curative practice.  The sacrificed animal works like an offering to the god who is supposed to have been offended, and as a liberating transfer, for by substituting itself for the sinner, it assumes his punishment…

Magic intervenes a lot less than has been said.  But if it does, it is always in its double form:  white, for the patient’s good by seeking to exorcise the demon, and black with the aim of harming the patient by provoking the aggravation of his illness.  To neutralise the effect of black magic, it is possible to have recourse to a whole ritual based on figurines made from combustible matter, identified by the formulae addressed to the author of the spell.  To be liberated, the figurines must be thrown into the fire while ritual formulae of this type are pronounced:

“Ardent fire, bellicose gods of Heaven.  You, the most ruthless of your brothers, who judges quarrels as an equal of the Moon and the Sun, be my champion, dictate the sentence.  Destroy the man and the woman who have bewitched me […] consume them, oh fire!  Reduce them to ashes, oh fire!”

The prescriptions ordered by the gods are rather disconcerting for the patients, and the exorcist who transmits them must supervise their rigorous execution.  Here is one, which is rather hermetic:

“Here is what must be done to cure him:  you must take seven loaves of bread made from coarse flour and you must attach them together with bronze.  Then you must rub this man with them, and make him spit on the debris which fall from them while pronouncing over him a “Formula of the Eridu”, the whole after having taken him into the steppe, in a lonely place, at the foot of a wild acacia.  You will then give the ill which has struck him to Nim-Edinna, so that Nin-Kilim, the patron saint of little, wild rodents,will make these take on his illness.”

Here, the loaves of bread are supposed to recuperate the illness.  It is then enough for the patient to abandon the crumbs to the rodents of the steppe, to be healed.

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To be continued.

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?

Mesopotamian Medicine

“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…

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To be continued.

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