In an ancient library in the destroyed city of Assur in Northern Iraq, archaeologists discovered clay tablets that document the medical training of a Mesopotamian doctor.
A man called Kisir-Aššur inscribed the clay tablets in the ancient cuneiform language – formed with wedges cut out of stone.
In his writings it was clear that the ancient Mesopotamians did not distinguish between what we today label as ‘magic’ and ‘medicine’.
As a result, their methods of healing involved both medical and magical treatments.
Medical treatments included bandages, poultices, potions and enemas to treat the physical side of illness.
To cure the spiritual side, the texts describe the use of rituals such as incantations and prayers to particular deities.
Instructions can be very simple – for example: ‘twining specific hairs and string a number of stones onto the string of hairs, (and) tie this ‘amulet’ to various body parts)’
Or the instructions can be quite complex and consist of several steps: ‘draw water from a river in a specific manner, perform a concrete ritual action, say a specific incantation seven times and drink the fluid’.
Other rituals call for offerings in the form of figurines to the gods.
They believed that ghosts or curses caused illness. Among these illnesses is jaundice – called ahhazu or amurriqanu – which was often treated via enema.
Illnesses affecting the body’s ‘strings’ (for example, muscles, nerves, tendons, sinews, and perhaps blood vessels in some instances) were called mashkadu, sagallu, or shasshatu illnesses.
One direct translation from the work of Kisir-Aššur talks about jaundice caused by bile, which was thought to be a primary cause of illness at the time.
He writes: ‘If a man is ill with bile, ahhazu-jaundice, or amurriqaanu-jaundice, to cure him: kukuru-plant, burashu-juniper, ballukku-plant, suadu-plant, ‘sweet reed’, urnû-plant, ataʾishu-plant, ‘fox-wine’, leek(?), ‘stink’-plant, tarmush-plant, ‘heals-a-thousand’-plant, ‘heals-twenty’-plant, (and) colocynth.
‘You weigh out these 14 plants equally (and) boil (them) in premium beer. You leave (the blend) outside overnight by the star(s). You sieve it (and) add plant oil and honey into it.
‘You pour (it) into his anus. ‘
The words in parenthesis are added to improve the reader’s understanding and many plants cannot be correctly identified and are therefore kept in Akkadian (the extinct Semitic language the cuneiform texts are written in).
A treatment for a scorpion bite is as follows:
‘Cut off the head of a lizard, you anoint the surface of the sting (with) its blood, and he will live’.
Another treatment listed in the ancient tablets:
‘If a man’s left temple afflicts him and his left eye contains tears: you crush (and) sift sahlû-cress (and) hashû-plant.
‘You boil (it) in beer, (and) you decoct (it). You bandage his temple with it, and he will get well.’