Introduction to Mesopotamian medicine

Medicine had a long tradition in Mesopotamia, with many different types of medical and medically related sources that give us insights into the ways in which this discipline was understood and practiced in one of the most ancient human societies. Importantly, this rich corpus only consists of original texts written on clay tablets in a wedge-shaped script called cuneiform. There are no later copies of the cuneiform sources, and this allows us to study first-hand how the human body, its illnesses and the corresponding treatments were conceptualised in Mesopotamia.

The Sources

The core text corpus of Mesopotamian medicine comprises sources of different genres, which reflect different aspects of the healing profession. Some texts belong to a branch of medicine that we may call 'diagnostic-prognostic' – these texts are concerned with providing a systematic overview of diseases, alongside the most representative symptoms and possible outcomes. Another branch of medicine that is well attested in the cuneiform sources focuses on the therapeutic side of healing profession, with the description of hundreds of treatments to be employed after the medical professional made a diagnosis and established the cause of suffering of his patient. In addition, there are handbooks giving information on particular medically relevant topics, such as the ingredients that were used in the production of medicaments. Lists of plants and minerals detail the appearance and medical importance of individual substances, most of which occur on their own or in combination with each other in the more elaborate therapeutic sources.

To some extent, these medical records of highly different genres were interrelated and formed the textual basis upon which the medical discipline was built in Mesopotamia. Being a physician in the great cities of Assyria and Babylonia meant years of experience with the inner workings of the various medical treatises and a detailed knowledge of everything that they represented.

These texts are also our main source of information when it comes to the study of Mesopotamian medicine. Further information can be gleaned from other sources that are medically relevant, even if they do not constitute the core text corpus of the healing art. These include, on the one hand, other written records like collections of magical spells and rituals, lexical lists with the names of diseases, as well as letters written by medical professionals. On the other hand, there are known medical instruments and visual imagery which, when combined with written sources, can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the activities and practices carried out by healers in Mesopotamia.

Krisztian Simko

Krisztian Simko, 'Introduction to Mesopotamian medicine', The Nineveh Medical Project, The Nineveh Medical Project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, 2022 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/asbp/NinMed/historyofmedicine/mesopotamianmedicine/]

 
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