A Peculiar Late Babylonian Recipe For Fumigation Against Epilepsy

Strahil V. Panayotov, BabMed Project, Free University Berlin.

Fumigation is a term for healing through the power of smoke. It is a wide-spread therapy in many traditional healing systems and it was also used in Ancient Mesopotamia.

Through fumigation the Babylonian medical practitioner could heal different illnesses: depression, epilepsy, troubles with the ears and the eyes, or even hemorrhoids. A solution of potent drugs produced the smoke. To produce each blend, different substances were mixed with plant’s sap and/or oil in special vessels [fig. 1].

Panayotov Fig 1
Image drawn by Ann Searight. Walker, C.B.F. 1980. Some Mesopotamian Inscribed Vessels. IRAQ 42: 84-86.

Then, in order to produce the smoke, the medical practitioner poured out this mixture over hot cinders. Afterwards the sick body parts were exposed to the smoke. Fumigation has a quick-acting physical effect, especially when the smoke is inhaled. This is due to the swift way of administering drugs that is much faster then internal medication. Furthermore, using aromatics for fumigation (Babylonian medical practitioners often mentioned conifers, and especially their pleasant smell) most likely induced psychological effects, which are comparable to aromatherapy.

Well, this is only one kind of fumigation. Yet, when a demon had to be expelled stinky and pungent fumigants came into play, as it is the case for the translated recipe below. It dates to the time around or shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, at the end of the 4th century BC. The cuneiform tablet was found in ancient Uruk – nowadays in South Iraq. The fumigatory mixture is extraordinarily interesting. It was prepared to cure epilepsy as well as the demonic attacks causing it. The main ingredient consists of parts of the head of a dead young male goat. The whole ritual process could be reconstructed as follows: the medical practitioner recited a spell ‘O, evil, evil’ in the both ears of a young male goat. Perhaps, in this way the flesh of the young male goat was magically activated to produce the potent substance, needed to fumigate out the demonic presence. Then the practitioner slaughtered the young male goat. He took different parts of the head of the young male goat mixed them with naphtha, saps of plants, oils and plants. He prepared a solution, which he first gave to the patient to drink and eat. Then, with that very same mixture, the body of the patient was anointed and at the end he was fumigated [fig 2].

Thureau-Dangin, TCL 6 no. 34 (photo courtesy of the author).
Thureau-Dangin, TCL 6 no. 34 (photo courtesy of the author).

TRANSCRIPTION:
If [ep]ilepsy, Lugalurra-epilepsy-demon, Hand of God, Hand of Goddess befall a man: in order to remove it – it’s ritual: you take a young male goat, you recite [in] its right and left [e]ar the incantation ‘Oh, evil, evil’, (and) you slaughter (it). You take blood of the eye, the pupil of the eye, the covering-tissue of the depressions of the head and the neck, the dark fluid of his two eyes, naphtha, fish oil, cedar blood, maštakal[1]-plant, seed of maštakal-plant, owl blood, skin of a qiššû-cucumber,[2] tendril of qiššû-cucumber – pure fumigants, taramuš-lupine plant, imhur-līm[3]-plant, imhur-ešrā[4]-plant, [you (crush and?) m]ix [(them) together.] He shall eat it (and) drink it, you anoint him and fumigate him over cinders, and then he will get better. [14 drugs for] fumigation with a young male goat.

The peculiar substances mentioned in this recipe have certainly also symbolic significance, which, we may assume, sometimes go along with the chemical usefulness of the substances, since Babylonian traditional medicine was based on empirical experiments that had lasted for thousands of years. Some of the substances, such as ‘owl blood,’ were alternative names for drugs and some were not. We know this because some passages of the text were discussed in ancient commentary, which helped healers understand the extraordinary substances better.

Further reading:
Frahm, E. 2011. Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries, Origins of Interpretation. Münster: Ugarit.

Geller, M. 2010. Ancient Babylonian Medicine, Theory and Practice. Chichester (GB) & Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell.

Labat, R. 1961. A propos de la fumigation dans la médecine assyrienne. Revue d’assyrologie et d’archéologie orientale 55: 152-153.

Stol, M. 1993. Epilepsy in Babylonia. Groningen: Styx.

Thureau-Dangin, F. 1922. Textes Cunéiformes VI. Tablettes d’Uruk. (TCL 6) Paris: Paul Geuthner.

Walker, C.B.F. 1980. Some Mesopotamian Inscribed Vessels. IRAQ 42: 84-86.


[1] Unknown plant used often for purification. Scholars often translate it as soapwort, which is not certain at all.

[2] Qiššû-cucumber, written dKu-ši ‘God Kušu’ is most probably syllabic secret writing of kuš8 =qiššû-cucumber. Suggestion is courtesy of Prof. Andrew George. Furthermore, the reading makes very good sense in the light of the fact that tillatu ‘tendril’ of dKu-ši was used. On the on hand, it is possible that the qiššû-cucumber could be deified; on the other the god Kušu could be symbolically represented by the qiššû-cucumber.

[3] The name means ‘it resists thousand (ailments)’.

[4] The name means ‘it resists twenty (ailments)’.

Eating of curds and whey: rennet in ancient medicine

Last month, I examined the issue of ‘curdled milk in the breast’ in Greek and Roman medicine. The texts I quoted all used the words ‘cheesy’ (turōdēs) or ‘to make cheesy’ (turoō) – they did not refer to rennet (putia), the curdling agent in cheese making. This month, I look into the role of rennet in ancient medicine, and particularly in ancient embryology and gynaecology. Rennet is a liquid found in the stomach of young mammals; it helps sucklings digest their mother’s milk. Used in cheese making, it causes milk to separate into curds (solid element) and whey (liquid element). In a well-known passage, Aristotle (fourth century BCE) compared the action of semen in generation to that of rennet in cheese making:

The action of the semen of the male in ‘setting’ the female’s secretion in the uterus is similar to that of rennet upon milk. Rennet is milk which contains vital heat, as semen does, and this integrates the homogeneous substance and makes it ‘set’. As the nature of milk and the menstrual fluid is one and the same, the action of the semen upon the substance of the menstrual fluid is the same as that of rennet upon milk (Generation of Animals 739b21-27. Translation: A.L. Peck).

Scholars have found similar analogies between generation and cheese-making in various cultures: semen is like rennet; women’s blood is like milk; children are like cheese.[1] In this context, it is interesting to note that actual rennet was used in ancient medicine either to help or to hinder conception, as well as for various other purposes. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides (first century CE) writes:

A weight of three oboloi of hare’s rennet taken with wine is suitable for those bitten by wild animals, for dysenterics, for women who suffer from discharges, for blood clots, and for coughing up blood from the chest; applied to the cervix with butter after menstruation, it aids conception, but if drunk after menstruation, it causes barrenees… (Dioscorides, De materia medica 2.75. Translation: L. Beck)

The reader can be forgiven for not immediately seeing the linking factor between these conditions. After several paragraphs, Dioscorides provides the key: rennet, he says ‘congeals substances that have been dissolved and dissolves substances that have been congealed’. Rennet dissolved clots of blood; in the case of bloody sputa and female discharge, it must have either liquefied that blood, enabling its elimination, or ‘curdled’ it; applied in a pessary, it facilitated the role of semen in ‘curdling’ the menstrual blood; but drunk after menstruation, it probably ‘dissolved’ any ‘curdled’ blood in the womb, that is, it caused what we would an early abortion; in dysentery it may have ‘curdled’ faeces in the intestine. What about the role of rennet in the treatment of bites? Bites were thought to cause blood clotting, hence the recommendation to use rennet.

After discussing hare’s rennet, Dioscorides turns to seal’s rennet, explaining that it is particularly good in cases of epilepsy and uterine suffocation, that is, the feeling of suffocation that accompanies movements of the womb. Both ailments were conceived as forms of ‘suffocation’ (pigmos). The rationale for the use of rennet might have gone something like this: suffocation is caused by a ‘choking’ agent; rennet can dissolve what is congealed; rennet will dissolve the choking agent in uterine and epileptic suffocation. Interestingly, seal’s rennet is the only rennet mentioned in the Hippocratic Corpus (a series of texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), where the following recipe is recommended for the treatment of uterine suffocation:

If the womb leans and lies against the groin: the skin of seal’s rennet, sponge and bryon (possibly a sea-weed); chope them fine; mix together with seal oil; and fumigate. (Hippocratic Corpus, Diseases of Women 2.203).

Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants (late fourth century BCE), informs us that the all-heal of Heracles, mixed with seal rennet, helps in epilepsy (9.11.3).

Why seal’s rennet? Surely it would have been simpler to get the rennet from a hare or a calf? Well, seals were seen as liminal animals in the ancient world: they breast-fed their cubs, yet looked like fish; they lived both on land and in water. Their rennet – and Dioscorides says that one must use the rennet of a cub who cannot yet swim – must therefore have been thought valuable in the treatment of diseases that themselves involved ‘liminal’ states: the ‘near-death’ condition that characterizes epileptic seizures and other forms of suffocation.

 


[1] See in particular Ott, Sandra. “Aristotle among the Basques: the’cheese analogy’of conception.” Man (1979): 699-711.