Category Archives: translations

How to cure a ‘headache’ in a Mesopotamian way?

Strahil V. Panayotov
(The BabMed, ERC-Project, Free University of Berlin)

In 7th century BC Nineveh, in an area located within today’s much-troubled Iraqi city of Mosul, an astonishing episode of human history occurred. Thousands of texts from all corners of the Assyrian empire were brought into the royal capital of Nineveh in order to create the first universal library in human history. The majority of the excavated tablets are now being kept in the British Museum, London.  (On these tablets, see this article and this post).

Among the texts transported to the Ashurbanipal library, there were works of literature such as the tale of Gilgamesh, written descriptions of rituals and prayers, litanies, explanatory works, and large collections of omens, or royal letters. Numerous collections of healing texts, magical and medical prescriptions, rituals and incantations also found their way into the archives of Nineveh (SAA 7, chapter 7). Among the thousands of manuscripts dealing with healing, one collection stood out. It was written down in cuneiform by highly educated scribes who carefully edited a handbook with medical prescriptions, incantations and rituals on behalf of king Assurbanipal. This handbook was arranged into distinctive series, addressing body parts in a sequential order from head to toe. Each series had its own name and chapter called simply ‘tablets’ in Akkadian. The majority of tablets in this handbook carried the same colophon (i.e. inscription at the end of a tablet with facts about its production):

Palace of Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of the land Assyria, to whom (the gods) Nabû and Tašmētu granted understanding, (who) acquired insight (and) a high level of scribal proficiency, that skill which among the kings, my predecessor(s) no one has acquired. I (i.e. Ashurbanipal) wrote, checked, and collated tablets with medical prescriptions from head to the (toe-) nail, non-canonical material, elaborate teaching(s) (and) the advanced healing art(s) of (the gods) Ninurta and Gula, as much as exists, (and) I placed (them) within my palace for my reading/reciting. (BAK, no. 329)

The colophon illustrates that this collection aimed to include all the existing healing knowledge and to thus create an encyclopaedic handbook that would serve as a reference source for the royal palace. We might imagine that such a precious collection could have been accessed and consulted only by royal or high-profile physicians.

The first series from the handbook was called ‘If a man’s cranium contains heat (fever).’ We will look at the first prescription and incantation of the third tablet (CDLI no. P365746):

Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The third tablet begins accordingly:

If a ‘headache’ due to ghost affliction (lit. ‘Hand of a ghost’) continuously persists in a man’s body and cannot be loosened, (nor) does it cease despite bandage(s) and incantation.

The beginning of this diagnostic part gave the name of the third tablet, since in Mesopotamia the first line of a certain text was used to designate the whole text.

‘Headache’ in its broadest sense is an interpretive translation of the Sumerian term SAG.KI.DAB.BA ‘seized forehead/temple/brow’. The suffering was caused by a ghost, which originated in a diseased person (Geller 2010: 154-55 and passim). The title of this tablet suggests that if a normal treatment with bandage(s) and an incantation were not helping in such a case, one needed special therapies, preserved on the tablet. It contains extraordinary prescriptions and incantations which were specifically designed to counteract a ‘headache’ from a tough ghosts’ afflictions. In the first prescription, directly following the diagnostic part, the healer had to sacrifice a bird, and mix some of its body parts in a resin of a plant. This mixture was then magically enriched with an incantation:

You slaughter a captured goose. You take its blood, its throat, its gullet, its fat, the rind of its gizzard. You char (them) over charcoal. You mix (them) within cedar ‘blood’, and then three times recite the incantation ‘Evil Finger of Mankind’. You repeatedly anoint his head, his hands and everything that affects him and he shall get better. The ‘headache’ will be eradicated. (modified after Scurlock 2006: no. 113)

The animal substances were charred, and subsequently mixed within cedar ‘blood’. The designation cedar ‘blood’ is a metaphor of the sometimes reddish appearance of cedar resin, which flows out of the tree like blood from a body.

Everything was thoroughly mixed and an ointment was created, over which the healer had to recite this incantation:

The pointing of the evil finger of mankind, the evil rumor of the people, the bitter curse of god and goddess, the transgression of the limits of the gods – in order to continually go around safely in the presence of the(se things), to loosen their curse . . . he is the god . . . the regions, [Enki, son] of the Abzu and his son Asalluhi, [gods … : Ea] and his son Marduk, [gods … ] I … have changed …‘hand’ of ghost . . .” (Scurlock 2006: 39, no. 114a; see also p. 113, fn. 389).

Thus, the magical power of the incantation was transferred into the ointment, creating a potent cure. The healer anointed first the head, then the hands and all affected body parts until the ‘headache’ was gone.

Beside the goose’s blood and the fat, body parts and organs connected to food intake and digestion were selected. This suggests a certain symbolic significance: the suffering had to disappear, like the goose digested its food. But, the cure was not only magical. The use of cedar resin implies natural oils with a pleasant smell. It might well be that the fatty ointment had a pleasant smell, which made the patient feel better especially by massaging it into the skin. Thus, magic, massage, and aromatherapy were all part of this prescription.

Similar texts, and possibly fragments belonging to the same tablet (fig. 1), are lying still in the soil of Iraq. We can only hope that the ancient Assyrian capital Nineveh, which now lies within occupied Mosul, will not be vandalized again, and blown into the air like Nimrud.

Literature:

BAK = Hunger, H. 1968. Babylonische und assyrische Kolophone. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 2. Neukirchen-Vluyn.

SAA 7 = Fales, M. and Postgate, J. N. 1992. Imperial Administrative Records, Part I. State Archives of Assyria VII. Helsinki.

Scurlock, J. 2006. Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Magic and Divination III. Leiden–Boston.

Geller, M. J. 2010. Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Theory and Practice. Chichester (GB)–Malden, Mass.

Further Readings:

Finkel, I. L. 2014. The Ark Before Noah. London, pp. 44-45; 60-65.

Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes (Link http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/mjw65/jmc/de.html)

Scurlock, J. 2014. Sourcebook for Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine. Writings from the Ancient World 36. Atlanta, Georgia.

From Dificio di ricette to Bâtiment des recettes: The Afterlife of Italian Secrets in France

By Julia Martins

Title page of the 1574 edition of the Opera nuova intitolata dificio di ricett. Image from Archive.org. 

In 1525 a book called Opera nuova intitolata dificio di ricette was published in Venice. The book promised to reveal all kinds of secrets to the reader, from cosmetic to medical recipes. This anonymous Italian best seller (which we may call in English ‘Palace of Recipes’) was a collection of 187 short and straightforward recipes, most of them only 5 or 10 lines long. The printer combined utilitarian and pragmatic secrets (including treatment of everyday ailments) with playful elements. Indeed, a taste for the wonderful and a desire to entertain guests were a vital component of this book. After all, the printer included instructions to perform magic tricks such as ‘how to make a candle burn under water’. The work was a commercial success in Italy, and was reprinted 28 times in the forty years after its publication.

The Dificio di ricette also circulated across Europe in many different languages, giving it a truly Pan-European flavour. The work was translated into French in 1539 and in 1545, also translated into Dutch via the French translation. This kind of indirect translation was common in the secrets genre. As William Eamon has shown, Alessio’s Secrets were also translated in English through the French translation. It is notable that in both cases, the French translation served as a cultural and linguistic mediator and it was in France that the Palace of Recipes reigned supreme.

Title page of the Bâtiment des Recettes, printed in Paris by Jean Ruelle in 1560
Title page of the Bâtiment des Recettes, printed in Paris by Jean Ruelle in 1560

Titled the Bâtiment des recettes, the French edition of the work found even greater success than the Italian one. Between its first French publication in 1539 and the final edition in 1830, the book was published 60 times. The main reason for this enduring success is probably the fact that, in 1631, the Bâtiment des recettes was added to the series of books printed in Troyes and commonly known as the ‘Bibliothèque Bleue’, since all the editions had blue covers. This collection of cheaply printed booklets included many books of secrets, and the Bâtiment des recettes continued to be sold in France until well into the 19th century.

What makes the Bâtiment des recettes so interesting is that it is not simply a translation of the Dificio di ricette. Rather it is a collection of different texts, themselves anonymous compilations of recipes. These include a collection of 26 ‘Secrets Specially Proposed for Women’ added by the printer Jean III Du Pré in 1539 and the ‘Pleasant Garden’ (Plaisant jardin) added in 1551. A translation from Italian, the ‘Pleasant Garden’ consisted of 202 varied medical recipes ‘developed by doctors very experts in physic’. Therefore, this 1560 edition contained more than double the number of recipes in the original Italian Palace.

Of the many editions of the Dificio, the 1560 French edition proved particularly popular and was most reprinted. Recently, Geneviève Debloc published an annotated critical edition of the 1560 edition of the Bâtiment des recettes. This is a very useful tool for historians, tracing the several different additions and suppressions in the Bâtiment des recettes throughout its four centuries of history, as well as providing us with tables that offer a systematic account of the ingredients used in the recipes (see my review here).

Thanks to digitisation and new critical editions, a growing number of early modern sources are becoming more easily accessible to scholars. We can compare and contrast complex texts, as in the case of the Dificio. Through a bibliographical approach, we are given the opportunity to read an important primary source in the history of knowledge in a new way – at the crossroads of the history of the book and the history of technologies in tracing the evolution in the composition of the text (including paratextual materials and changes in vocabulary), it is possible to understand how multiple agents were involved in the production of the book, from translators to printers. The Bâtiment des recettes can therefore be understood as both process and final product of these interventions. Through its fragmentary and polymorphic constitution, this re-edited recipe book gives us compelling insight into early modern life in France and Italy and its medical practices.

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Julia Martins is a PhD student at the Warburg Institute in London. Her research focuses on recipes about female fertility in Italian books of secrets (as well as their translations) from 1555 to 1700. Her aim is to show how knowledge about “women’s secrets” circulated in early modern print, drawing a comparison between Italian and French books of secrets and English midwifery manuals.

Translating Recipes 14: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 8 – BETWEEN 3

[This is the third of a three-part posting on BETWEEN-ness in recipes and their translation. For the first two parts, see here and here.]

The following is a translation of our long-translated Manchu medical recipe in dialogue form, to explore the between-ness of the recipe through a conversation among materials: fluid, powder, and flesh. In this dialogue-shaped translation of the recipe, the major characters are the major materials interacting in the story. There are three of them – Oil, Flour, Flesh – with an early cameo by Spoon. Here, the medium of the conversation is not sound, but instead touch and movement. When speech is touch rather than sound – when voicing is touching and enabling your conversation partner to be touched, moving and enabling your partner to be moved – then the conversation works somewhat differently from what we tend to expect. Here, a single instance of touching functions as a single unit of this touch-speech. The conversation becomes a dialogue in gestures and movements over, across, with, etc. The problem that animates the dialogue is the event that stimulates and initiates movement; resolution is the circumstance in which movement eases. It is a critical issue that must be resolved: a body has been poisoned.

Between: A Dialogue in Touch

Characters:

Flour

Spoon

Flesh

Oil

 

 

Flour: (pillowed powder pile, then a smooth arc planes the surface as a small spoon cuts through to measure out a portion)

Spoon: (smoothes a concavity in the powder before cradling it away to a bowl and releasing it to its next home)

Flour: (bids farewell, dissolving into liquid and becoming something new)

Flesh: (suffering from a relationship with a substance that does not wish it well; welcomes flour in its new liquid form, into its throatspace and down and down)

Flour: (meets flesh, tries to soothe its suffering as it passes through the throat and down, roils the unkind substance poisoning the flesh and tries to bring it back up and out again)

Flesh: (pulses after ejecting the flour from itself)

Oil: (pours from container to handflesh)

Flesh: (flesh slides on flesh to warm the oil; hands slide oil over belly)

Oil: (warms and slides and soaks into belly and hands)

Flesh: (bucks and roils, breaks and bleeds, angry and unplacated)

Oil: (keeps trying; drops into meat broth – or drops into buttered milk – and mixes and swirls)

Flesh: (takes the oil back into its throatspace and down and down and retches and roils and drinks…and again…and again…)

Oil: (pours from container to handflesh)

Flesh: (still roiling; flesh slides on flesh to warm the oil; hands slide oil over belly)

Oil: (warms and slides and soaks into belly and hands…and again…and again…)

Flesh: (roiling and retching…but less…and less…and on like that more and more gently…)

Oil: (sliding and dropping…now more faintly…and gently…and more gently)

Flesh: (stillness)

Oil: (stillness)

Translating Recipes 13: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 7 – BETWEEN 2

[This is the second of a three-part posting on BETWEEN-ness in recipes and their translation. For the first part, see here.]

Happy new year, readers of the Translating Recipes series! When last we met, I was telling you about the latest exploration of “Recipes in Time and Space” with some early thoughts on between-ness in recipes and beyond. We left off by considering the characteristics of the dialogue, a storytelling genre that embodies the spirit of between. You might want to take a moment to revisit that post, which addressed the importance of some basic components of the dialogue form: character, speech, and problem. Briefly put, in translating our Manchu medicinal recipe we would expect to see characters that are involved in some sort of a relationship speaking to one another about a central problem that animates the conversation.

For your reference and reminding, here is a straightforward rendering of the Manchu recipe that has been the focus of this series of translations:

A medicinal oil eliminating (harmful) poison.

One kind [of oil] used if a person has just been poisoned.

Before eliminating the poison, after taking a flour-based drug in accordance with the 30th prescription, and after that drug causes the poison to be vomited up, spread this oil on the navel part of the stomach.

If the person has consumed so much poison that a lot of internal things are going wrong and the condition has become very serious, after taking 15 – 20 drops of the oil and combining it with either the fatty broth from boiled meat, or butter combined with milk, drink it. Having already smeared this oil on the navel part of the stomach again after 2 erin periods, the following day smear it again two times.

If this has still not eliminated the poison, after taking one or more drops of this medicinal oil again according to the prescription, if you smear it according to the prescription all will be well.

When I think of translation as rendering, my thoughts now turn to the work of STS scholar and anthropologist Natasha Myers. We recently had a chance to talk about her new book, which explores many different senses of “rendering” – separating, surrendering, modeling, deciphering, and more – in a study that emphasizes the importance of movement and kinesthetics in making knowledge. That linking of rendering, movement, and materiality has inspired how I approach translation here, and specifically how I think about translating relationships and between-ness.

With that in mind, the translation that follows – a translation of our Manchu medical recipe in a spirit that emphasizes the between-ness inherent in the text – is going to take us back to the materiality of the recipe, letting us linger over the physical matter of the story and thus helping us understand the ways that between-ness creates material experience. This is a world where speech happens not with words, but in patterns of materials. What does the voice of a powder sound like? Is sound even the right medium for understanding the voicing of a powder? Can we hear it at all, or do we instead feel this voice via touch? What does the voice of a liquid sound (or feel) like? How do these voices communicate with each other in telling a larger story?

The translation takes the form of a dialogue, and this dialogue becomes a conversation among materials: flour, oil, flesh. Each material will have its own voice. (Though we are accustomed to associating speech and voice with the sonic, here voicing is something that happens through touch, not through sound.) The conversation will allow us to explore the conversational aspects of material experience itself. Thinking about the voices of powders and liquids and flesh in this way will help us to understand materials as individuals that engage in relationships with one another, that grow and develop and change as a result of those relationships. Tune in to Thursday’s post to read the full translation!