Understanding Mesopotamian medicine

A general misunderstanding which persists among historians of ancient medicine is that Mesopotamian therapies are predominantly 'magical' or heavily influenced by 'magic', since therapeutic prescriptions often appear together with incantations and so-called 'rituals'. These actually represent supplementary medical procedures. The medical 'incantations' of the NinMed corpus are less magical than etiological, with the purpose of explaining the nature or possible origins of disease.

One further misconception of Mesopotamian medicine is the apparent lack of explicit medical theory, corresponding to a theory of humours in Greek and later Roman medicine. This is usually perceived as an attempt to render medicine more scientific and nature-based and less oriented towards religion, gods, and demons. But it would be difficult to imagine such a complex array of medical information from Nineveh being completely devoid of theory. Yet unlike the Greeks, Babylonian scholars did not engage in philosophical essay writing with the purpose of expounding theory in any of the scientific disciplines, including medicine. Once the Nineveh Medical Encyclopaedia is published in full, this will allow historians of medicine to cast a fresh eye over this vital data and eventually to be able to draw out the implicit theory of Mesopotamian medicine, based upon the availability of such extensive new data on ancient medicine.

Mark J. Geller

Mark J. Geller, 'Understanding 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/understandingmesopotamianmedicine/]

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