Towards a New Perspective on Babylonian Medicine: The Continuum of Allegoresis and the Emergence of Secular Models in Mesopotamian Scientific Thought

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Traditional accounts of Babylonian medicine see the two disciplines involved in healing in ancient Mesopotamia, viz. āšipūtu “exorcism or incantation-and-ritual-driven healing” and asûtu “medicine”, as complementary disciplines, collaborating in the treatment of individual patients. Ritter’s 1965 paper on the two disciplines, for example, sought to differentiate them, while at the same time arguing that they often collaborated in the treatment of individual patients. The new edition of AMC in this volume already overturns one of Ritter’s primary working hypotheses, namely that Babylonian medicine (asûtu) lacked the type of carefully organized, discipline-defining compendium known for āšipūtu, where The Diagnostic Handbook clearly plays this role. Now that The Nineveh Medical Compendium – the medical corpus that AMC defines – can be seen as functionally equivalent, in certain ways, to The Diagnostic Handbook, this paper seeks to overturn two other common descriptions of Babylonian medicine that derive, however indirectly, from the idea that the medical corpus is amorphous or open-ended: (i) the belief that asûtu and āšipūtu were complementary and cooperative disciplines and (ii) the supposedly non-theoretical character of Babylonian medicine (asûtu). This paper argues that these two disciplines were, for the most part, in competition for the attention of the crown as well as for social standing more generally. Each of these two disciplines (asûtu and āšipūtu) maintained its own disciplinary identity and compendia and, perhaps more importantly for Mesopotamian intellectual history, its own models of disease etiology and causation. These different models of etiology and causation in asûtu and āšipūtu only become apparent, however, when we adopt a properly “architectonic” approach to reconstructing the technical compendia that were used by each of these two disciplines. And, as a consequence, the position of any given line or fragment within a particular, discipline-specific compendium is one of its most important, even definitive, properties. This type of “architectonic approach” is unusually powerful, when we look at the diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, because there we find a decisive split. The etiologies of gastrointestinal disease within exorcism-driven healing (āšipūtu) rely, almost exclusively, on postulating ghosts or demons as causal agents, while Babylonian medicine (asûtu) turned to increasingly “secular” etiologies based on analogies between the unseen processes of the gastrointestinal tract and visible processes in the natural or social world. These distinctively secular etiologies in the medical corpus are registered, above all, in medical incantations that parody the established incantations of the competing discipline of āšipūtu.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAssyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues
Subtitle of host publicationMedicine, Magic and Divination
EditorsUlrike Steinert
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018

Publication series

NameDie babylonisch-assyrisch Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen
PublisherDe Gruyter