I smell a rat! Fumigation in Mesopotamian and Hippocratic recipes for women’s ailments – Part 2

By Ulrike Steinert

In this post, I will introduce Hippocratic prescriptions for fumigation from below and compare the uses of this treatment form in Mesopotamian and Hippocratic gynaecology. Some Hippocratic recipes — like the Akkadian BAM 237 discussed in Part 1 —  just list the ingredients, which have to be thrown into the fire, adding a short instruction for application. Other Greek recipes describe a procedure very similar to the Babylonian text K.8678+ (see Part 1), especially the instruction to dig a hole in the ground as a receptacle for the fumigant:

Diseases of Women (DW) 2.195, L 8.376 (Totelin 2009, 253):
Another fumigation: it is necessary to dig a hole and to roast grape stones, in the amount of two Attic choinikes; let him throw some of this ash in the hole, continuously dropping sweet-smelling wine. Seating herself around <the hole> and taking her legs apart, let her be fumigated.

A few Hippocratic recipes state that the woman should be completely covered with clothing during treatment, so that none of the fumes would escape around her. We find the same instruction in a Mesopotamian recipe (12th cent. BCE) for releasing postpartum blood and “fluids” that are “blocked” in the womb:

(If) a woman gives birth and subsequently she has intestinal trouble, her excrement? […], her intestines are blocked, her fluids and [her] blood are (b)locked [in her belly?], to make her release (it): kukru-aromatic, juniper, atā’išu-plant, ṣumlalû-aromatic, “sweet reed”, ballukku-aromatic, myrrh, ṭūru-aromatic, abukattu resin, baluḫḫu-aromatic resin, root of atā’išu-plant. These eleven drugs you mix together. You gather charcoals of ašāgu-thorn into a kirru-vessel, you throw these drugs into it, you have that woman sit down above it, you wrap her with cloth(s).(W.G. Lambert, “A Middle Assyrian Medical Text”, in: Iraq 31 (1969), 28-39 obv. 1-9)

In some Hippocratic passages we notice the desire to make the procedure more comfortable for the woman by using a chair with a hole in it placed above the fire on which she could sit during the treatment (DW 2.114, L 8.246). Several instructions warn to take care not to burn the patient (e.g. DW 1.75, L 8.164). It is probable that the Babylonian healers also used such a chair, but this is never explicitly stated, and it is likewise possible that the patient had to squat above the fumigation apparatus as shown in the illustration.

An African woman is fumigated during delivery. From: Gustave J. Witkowski, Histoire des accouchments chez toys les peubles, 1887, fig. 282. Source: http://ihm.nlm.nih.gov/images/A30263
An African woman is fumigated during delivery. From: Gustave J. Witkowski, Histoire des accouchments chez tous les peuples, 1887, fig. 282. Source: http://ihm.nlm.nih.gov/images/A30263

Both Babylonian and the Greek recipes leave us with unanswered questions. How did the Hippocratics and the Babylonian healers explain the effect of the treatment in view of the contrasting symptoms for which they applied fumigations? How was it possible that fumigation of the genitalia could at the same time stop bleeding and release fluids locked in the womb?

The Hippocratics apparently attributed a drying effect to some fumigations, since they explain in one prescription for stopping fluxes that the ingredients should be mixed only with a little vinegar, in order not to moisten the womb too much.[i]

Likewise in Akkadian, the choice of “human bone” as fumigant for bleeding (in BAM 237) can be explained on the basis of its dryness: blood is contrasted with bone as “wet” with “dry”, and at the same time entails a colour contrast. Thus, the name of the drug “human bone” could have referred to the drying effect of the substance.

On the other hand, in the Hippocratic recipes the effect of fumigations to induce bleeding is sometimes described as “expulsive” (e.g. DW 1.78, L 8.186), and DW 2.133 explains that when the womb attaches itself to the hip joint, with the result that the womb becomes twisted sideways and closed, a fomentation is able to fill the womb with air, straighten and open it. Missing similar explanations for our second Babylonian example K. 8678+, it is hard to say whether the fumigation was supposed to open the womb (remove blockages) or to irritate it.

Some of the fumigations in the Hippocratic corpus were certainly quite irritating to the nose! A common treatment in Hippocratic gynaecology when the womb had moved upward in the body was to apply fragrant, sweet-smelling substances to the vagina (by fumigation or pessary), while foul-smelling substances like animal excrements or hair had to be inhaled by the patient in order to lure the uterus back downwards.[ii] This principle does not hold for fumigations with a different therapeutic purpose. Thus, beside recipes using fragrant substances such as myrrh, ingredients as stag horn and cow dung are recommended for a fumigation to stop fluxes (DW 2.195, L 8.376), and wolf’s turds and donkey hair are burned to help conception. We have likewise encountered similar materia medica as Dreckapotheke in one Mesopotamian prescription, and in both traditions their application entails symbolic meanings. But in contrast to Hippocratic medicine, in Mesopotamia such substances were not restricted to the treatment of women.[iii]

But beware! It is known that in Mesopotamian medicine some ingredients like “dog turds” and “wolf fat” were secret names (Decknamen) for medicinal plants, and often should not be taken literally! Thus, in a plant compendium, “human bone” is a secret name for the (unidentified) plant “shepherd’s staff”, and it is possible that the scribe of BAM 237 consciously used this code to keep his knowledge secret from the uninitiated, making a fool of a 21st century interpreter… The debate about the actual use of Dreckapotheke in Mesopotamian medicine is still going on, and it could reshape our perspective on ancient medical practice!

[i] DW 2.114, L 8.246; cf. DW 2.195, L 8.376 for recipes which apply dry and astringent ingredients such as horn, roasted flour/grain, dry cypress, gallnuts and astringent dark wine.

[ii] E.g. DW 2.123, L 8.266; DW 2.127, L 8.272.

[iii] For ingredients such as excrement in Hippocratic gynaecology see e.g. von Staden 1992.


L = Littré, Émile (1962) Œuvres completes d’Hippocrate. Tome Huitième, Amsterdam.

von Staden, Heinrich (1992) “Women and Dirt”, in: Helios 19, 7-30.

Totelin, Laurence (2009) Hippocratic Recipes. Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece. Leiden, Boston.