Like an alien in a strange old world – Reading Mesopotamian medical texts on women’s healthcare

By Ulrike Steinert

Decoding medical cuneiform texts often makes you feel a bit like a detective who has entered a mysterious, foreign world of words and ideas. Not few of my Assyriologist colleagues would probably favour other topics, rather than studying Mesopotamian medical texts, because they are hard to understand, full of strange disease names and unknown drugs, and because these texts have a reputation of being technical, monotonous and boring.

Not surprisingly then, Mesopotamian medical texts remain a poorly known corpus, and few scholars have worked on the subject or published books for a general audience.[i] Although the majority of the texts are still unavailable in proper editions and translations, the situation is steadily improving. Beside a growing number of publications every year, cuneiform medicine is becoming an increasingly recognised topic, and a few research projects are currently investigating these texts, preserved on thousands of fragments of clay tablets and scattered in various museums.[ii] The fragmentary nature of the corpus, consisting of diagnostic and therapeutic texts as well as handbooks on materia medica, written during the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE, and the difficulty of decoding them connected with the cuneiform writing system and the genre (especially the use of many multivalent logograms) have contributed to the lagging behind of research in this field, compared e.g. to Egyptological research on medical papyri.

Let me describe some of the difficulties posed by the Mesopotamian medical texts, specifically those concerned with treating women, to a modern reader. These difficulties result to a considerable degree from cultural differences e.g. between ancient and modern concepts of physiology, disease and therapy.

One problem for the modern scholar is to grasp ancient disease concepts and ideas of physiology from symptom descriptions. The gynaecological texts form a small sub-corpus among the majority of medical tablets devoted to diseases which are normally not gender-specific and which use the male body as a general model. Thus, while the latter diagnostic and therapeutic texts begin with the formula “If a man (suffers from ailment X/symptoms X, Y, Z)”, the gynaecological texts begin with “If a woman …”. The gynaecological corpus, not unlike the modern medical discipline, focuses on female reproduction: (in)fertility, complications occurring during pregnancy, birth, and in childbed, but also includes treatments for abnormal vaginal bleeding and other fluxes, as well as renal, rectal and gastro-intestinal ailments in women. Yet, because the perspective of gynaecological texts was restricted to the diagnosis and treatment of abnormal phenomena, they do not contain descriptions and explanations of normal physiological functions, such as menstruation, which have to be inferred from the sparse information gleaned from the medical texts or other text genres.

A Babylonian tablet with medical prescriptions for women, ca. 7th cent. BCE. Source: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (http://cdli.ucla.edu/dl/ photo/P238756.jpg)
A Babylonian tablet with medical prescriptions for women, ca. 7th cent. BCE. Source: Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (http://cdli.ucla.edu/dl/photo/P238756.jpg)

For instance, Babylonian healers collected treatments “to stop a woman’s blood” in case “a woman’s blood flows and does not stop”, leaving us at loss to decide whether this refers to unusually heavy menstrual bleeding or to abnormal haemorrhage due to other causes. Beside blood, the texts also treat discharge of “fluids” (literally “water”) from the vagina, which depending on the context, refers to phenomena which modern medicine has come to differentiate, like amniotic fluid (premature rupture of the membranes) and vaginal discharge due for instance to leucorrhea. It becomes clear that the Babylonian healers do not share our differentiations of symptoms and diseases, and that progress with the texts will only be made by investigating their system of ideas about what goes wrong in the body when disease occurs.

This undertaking is somewhat hampered by another characteristic of Mesopotamian medical texts, namely that the writers (Babylonian and Assyrian healers and scholars) rarely recorded their theories (e.g. discussions which took place in the classroom and in scholarly discourse). Yet, some of their concepts of the body, health and disease emerge, often implicitly, from disease aetiologies, names, and from metaphors found especially in the incantations that accompanied medical treatments. These characteristic traits of Mesopotamian medical texts form a contrast to Greek and Roman medical writers who often speculated in writing about physiological processes such as menstruation, conception and the nature of female illnesses based on humoral theory.

Another challenge arising from Babylonian medical texts is to understand the “logic” of ancient medical treatments and recipes even though the majority of the drugs are unidentified, and to reconstruct the cultural context in which the texts were used, e.g. how medical consultation and application of treatments actually took place. Thus, it is still debated whether Babylonian (male) healers actually examined women (and applied the prescribed remedies like tampons), or whether the symptom descriptions in the texts stem from what the patients observed themselves and told the doctor. In upcoming posts on fumigation in Mesopotamian and Hippocratic gynaecology, I will illustrate an approach to discover principles of coherence between the use of particular materia medica and specific complaints.


[i] A real primer presenting a comprehensive overview of Mesopotamian medicine is Markham J. Geller’s Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Theory and Practice. Malden / Oxford, 2010.

[ii] The most ambitious of these projects in terms of scope is “BabMed”, a project at Freie Universität Berlin, consisting of a small research team led by Markham Geller. An overview of publications about Mesopotamian medicine can be found in the regularly updated bibliographies in Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes (http://www.ames.cam.ac.uk/jmc/de.html).


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