The Best Doctor Is Also a Historian
The Rootcutter's inaugural essay series aims at exploring connections between ancient and modern medicines—and not only the connections we make, but also why we make those connections and what impact they have on how we think about and conduct modern medical practices, both as healthcare experts and as service users. This series has been generously funded by the Society for Classical Studies Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities grant.
Image: Cuneiform tablet, "Atra-Hasis," Babylonian Flood Myth (7th-6th century BCE), Mesopotamia. Held by The Met Museum. Please note, this image is for illustrative purposes and is not the tablet discussed in this essay.
Gut Feelings: Emotional and Abdominal Symptoms of Divine Anger in Mesopotamia
by Adam Howe
May 16, 2022
A cuneiform tablet describes the effects of divine anger on the abdominal-emotional system, including "heart-break" and suppressed appetite. Adam Howe reflects on what this tell us about embodied emotional states in Mesopotamian medical thought, as well as how this might connect with the concept of "eating" a taboo.
Dr. Adam Howe is a teaching associate of Assyriology at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the intellectual traditions of ritual, religion, magic, and medicine in first-millennium BC Mesopotamia.
The text BAM 234 is a cuneiform tablet written in the Akkadian language by a scribe named Urad-Aššur, a member of a family of exorcists living in the Mesopotamian city of Assur in the mid-seventh century BCE. The tablet contains instructions and incantations for performing a ritual against the māmītu curse, a kind of self-inflicted punishment for transgressing the divinely established order of society. The ritual uses figurine magic to materialize and destroy a personified, demonic form of the māmītu, accompanied by incantations that appeal to the sun god and divine judge, Šamaš. The text opens with an extensive description of the patient’s potential suffering, with symptoms of obvious medical concern alongside negative effects on the victim’s social standing and relationships.
Image: Cuneiform tablet, list of magical stones (mid- to late- 1st millenium BCE, Achaemenid or Seleukid), Mesopotamia. Held by The Met Museum. Please note, this image is for illustrative purposes and is not the tablet discussed in this essay.
. . . to "eat a taboo" meant to "break a taboo." Since the māmītu curse was conceptually related to broken oaths, it is tempting to posit a connection between this “eating” phraseology and the resultant abdominal symptoms."