Medicine in Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamian diseases are often blamed on pre-existing spirits: gods, ghosts, etc., and each spirit was held responsible for only one disease in any one part of the body. Ancient mythologies tell stories of diseases that were put in the world by supernatural forces. One such figure was Lamashtu the daughter of the supreme god Anu, a terrible she-demon of disease and death. It was also recognized that various organs could simply malfunction, causing illness.

There were two distinct types of professional medical practitioners in the ancient Mesopotamian city-states. The first type of practitioner is called ashipu, who in older texts is identified as a sorcerer or the witch doctor. One of the most important roles of the ashipu was to diagnose the ailment. In the case of internal diseases or difficult cases the ashipu determined which god or demon was causing the illness.

He also attempted to determine if the disease was the result of some error or sin on the part of the patient. He prescribed charms and spells that were designed to drive out the spirit causing the disease. The ashipu could also refer the patient to a different type of healer called an asu. He was a specialist in herbal remedies, and in texts is frequently called “physician” because he dealt with the empirical applications of medication.

An important consideration for the study of ancient Mesopotamian medicine is the identification of the various drugs mentioned in the tablets. Unfortunately, many of these drugs are difficult or impossible to identify with any degree of certainty. Often the asu used metaphorical names for common drugs, such as “lion’s fat” (much as we use the terms “tiger lilly” or “baby’s breath”).

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.

Humans have five senses available to observe their environment and for physicians to observe their patients: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. However, the senses are employed with varying emphasis in Greek and Mesopotamian literature. Of the senses, ancient and modern physicians rarely describe symptoms in terms of taste.

Smell and hearing conversely are used in different cultures with varying emphasis. For instance, the 42 clinical cases inOf the Epidemics and the majority of sections of the Hippocratic corpus (with the exception of cough) ignore the senses of smell and hearing. The ancient Mesopotamian physicians, however, recorded both smell and hearing in their diagnoses.