Assyrian/Babylonian medicine developed in Mesopotamia from 3000 B.C. to 1648 B.C. The Babylonian doctors operated within a culture that believed in fearsome gods who used illness to punish people for their sins. These gods included Nergal, god of plagues, Namtaru, the sick-maker, Ashaku, fever demon, and Pazuzu, demon of sickness. The gods were capricious and sometimes would punish not the sinner but others in the sinner’s family. Therefore Babylonian doctors needed to use not only medical techniques but also prayers, chants, and rituals to propitiate the angry gods. Often the doctors (Asu) were accompanied on their visits to patients by the Ashipu, exorcist-priests.
Because illness was inflicted by demons as punishment for the patient’s sins, correct treatment necessitated first discovering which sin the patient had committed. Diagnosis began by asking the patient what sin had been committed. If the patient wasn’t sure, the ashipu might read to the patient from a list of possible sins. When the correct sin was found, the ashipu was able to identify the demon and begin the struggle to expel the demon from its occupation of the patient’s body.
Sickness demons often had to be coaxed or tricked to leave a patient. Some common methods were to offer an alternative body to be occupied, such as a pig, or to make promises of offerings and worship that would be offered if the demon would leave the patient’s body. Another technique was to make the patient disgusting to the demon by smearing the patient with excrement and filth.
While the Ashipu struggled with the demons, the Asu physicians had been developing a repertoire of treatments which included such advanced techniques as cataract surgery and the production and distillation of drugs. Asu herbal and surgical treatments were employed in conjunction with Ashipu demon expulsion techniques to maximize success.
Materia Medica and Important Texts
The Babylonian Asu physicians utilized an extensive repertory of herbal medicines. Their materia medica included using salt as an antiseptic and saltpeter as an astringent. They also made use of milk, snakeskin, turtleshell, cassia, myrtle, thyme, willow, pear, fir, fig and dates. Herbal treatments were distilled into decoctions by boiling them in water, to which they added alkali and salts.
One of the oldest known medical treatises in existence, dated from 2200 to 2100 B.C. and discovered in Nippur, was written by a Babylonian physician on a clay tablet.
- Contenau, Georges, Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1954.
- Kramer, Samuel Noah, From the Tablets of Sumer: 25 Firsts of Man’s Recorded History. Indian Hills, CO: The Falcon’s Wing Press, 1956.
- Thorwald, Jugen, Science and the Secrets of Early Medicine : Egypt – Mesopotamia – India – China – Mexico – Peru. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York : Harcourt Brace and World Inc., 1963.