Mysteries of Mesopotamia: The Medicine and Magic
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Mysteries of Mesopotamia: The Medicine and Magic

One of the most remarkable examples is a latter sent by Zimrilim, king of Mari in the eighteenth century BCE, to his wife, advising her to take steps to prevent the spread of a contagious disease, “I have heard that the lady Nanname has been taken ill,” the ruler writes.

Mysteries of Mesopotamia: The Medicine and Magic

By Mr Ghaz, December 9, 2010

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Mysteries of Mesopotamia: The Medicine and Magic

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Medicine and magic were inextricably linked in Mesopotamia, and both were also closely tied to divination. Sickness was generally thought of as punishment for some transgression, witting or unwitting, against the gods; alternatively, it could result from the actions of malicious demons like Lamashtu or through black magic.

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The first step in treating sickness was to work out what might have brought on the condition-a task for the baru-priest, or diviner. The various types of malady were associated with different supernatural forces, so a typical diagnosis might be “the hand of Ishtar,” “the hand of Shamash,” or “the hand of a ghost.” Whoever had because it was said to have “seized” the patient.

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Another type of priest, the ashipu, or exorcist, then had the task of driving out the evil spirit responsible for the complaint. Lists of incantations prepared for student ashipus have survived, and the headings into which they are divided give a clear idea of a typical caseload: “Headaches”; “Toothaches”; “Eyes pain”; “To cure snakebite”; “To cure scorpion stings”; “To remove a curse”; “Magical rites for town, house, field, orchard, river.”

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The ashipu’s job started on the way to the patient’s house, when he would keep a close eye out for prognostic omens. Again, some examples have been preserved: “If he sees a black pig, the patient will die. …If he sees a white pig the patient will be cured. … If he sees a red pig, the patient will die on the third month or the third day.” At the house he would dress up in clothing appropriate for the ritual: one required the ashipu to dress in red and wear a red mask, holding a raven in his right hand and a falcon in his left. He then recited the required incantations while carrying out symbolic actions with the aid of everyday objects such as onions and dates. A spell to remove a curse read: “By the conjuration of Ea/Let the curse be peeled off like the skin of this onion/Let it be wrenched apart like this date/Let it be untwined like this wick.”

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One practice that ashipus occasionally resorted to involved transferring the evil spirit responsible for a malady from the patient to an animal surrogate. A tablet from Assyria recounts how a sick man would be encouraged to sleep next to a goat kid. At dawn the demon would move from the patient to the kid, and the exorcist would then slit its throat, putting an end to the disease. The deception even stretched to dressing the kid in the sick man’s clothes, sandals, and skullcap.

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Alongside the witchdoctor-like rituals of the ashipus, a more pragmatic form of medicine was practiced by physicians known as asus. While never questioning the supernatural causation of disease, the asus limited themselves to treating the symptoms with practical remedies. One clay tablet from the late third millennium BCE lists fifteen different medications, sadly without specifying the conditions for which they were prescribed. They include infusions and decoctions to be taken internally and salves and embrocations for external use; enemas and suppositories were also employed. The ingredients include medicinal substances such as cassia, asafetida, myrtle, and willow, as well as natural ingredients such as salt (prized for its antiseptic qualities) and saltpeter (an astringent). Herbal draughts were often mixed with milk or beer to make them palatable.

Asus were respected professionals whose services were sought by the highest ranks of society; letters from palace archives tell of court physicians being sent like royal envoys from one city-state to another. Some of the correspondence in these collections also suggests an altogether more realistic approach to basic questions of health and hygiene than the priestly rituals of the ashipus would ever have suggested.

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One of the most remarkable examples is a latter sent by Zimrilim, king of Mari in the eighteenth century BCE, to his wife, advising her to take steps to prevent the spread of a contagious disease, “I have heard that the lady Nanname has been taken ill,” the ruler writes. “She has many contacts with the people of the palace. Many ladies visit her house. Give strict orders: no one should drink from the cup she uses; no one should sit in her seat; no one should lie on her bed. She must no longer entertain guests. This disease is catching.”

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Comments (1)

They are still many myths around mesopotamia.

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