Mesopotamian medicine

S Afr Med J. 2007 Jan;97(1):27-30.

Abstract

Although the Mesopotamian civilisation is as old as that of Egypt and might even have predated it, we know much less about Mesopotamian medicine, mainly because the cuneiform source material is less well researched. Medical healers existed from the middle of the 3rd millennium. In line with the strong theocratic state culture, healers were closely integrated with the powerful priestly fraternity, and were essentially of three main kinds: barû (seers) who were experts in divination, âshipu (exorcists), and asû (healing priests) who tended directly to the sick. All illness was accepted as sent by gods, demons and other evil spirits, either as retribution for sins or as malevolent visitations. Treatment revolved around identification of the offending supernatural power, appeasement of the angry gods, for example by offering amulets or incantations, exorcism of evil spirits, as well as a measure of empirical therapy aimed against certain recognised symptom complexes. Medical practice was rigidly codified, starting with Hammurabi's Code in the 18th century BC and persisting to the late 1st millennium BC. Works like the so-called Diagnostic Handbook, the Assyrian Herbal and Prescription Texts describe the rationale of Mesopotamian medicine, based predominantly on supernatural concepts, although rudimentary traces of empirical medicine are discernible. There is evidence that Egyptian medicine might have been influenced by Mesopotamian practices, but Greek rational medicine as it evolved in the 5th/4th centuries BC almost certainly had no significant Mesopotamian roots.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Ancient Lands
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Medicine, Traditional / history*
  • Religion and Medicine*