Dr. Ulrike Steinert

Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Graduiertenkolleg 1876
Hegelstr. 59
55122 Mainz

E-Mail: usteiner@uni-mainz.de
Tel.: +49 6131 39-38358

Projecttitle: "Body – Sickness – Healing: A Study on the Interaction between Medical Concepts and Practices in Ancient Mesopotamia (2nd-1st millennium BCE)"


Historical as well as anthropological studies show that healing systems past and present are characterised by close interconnections between body and disease concepts on the one hand, and therapeutic practices on the other. For example, healing traditions from Greece to China have developed “systems of correspondences” based on homologies between microcosm–macrocosm, body and environment. Such systems are based on the central idea that health and wellbeing result from a balance between different elements or substances in the body, which have cosmic counterparts. In turn, sickness is explained as the result of an imbalance of bodily elements, and therapeutic interventions aim at restoring bodily balance. Another characteristic of such medical systems is that therapeutic practices and knowledge of healing substances and their effects are embedded in the theoretical system of correspondences, such that properties correlating with cosmic or bodily elements (e.g. warm/cold, wet/dry) are ascribed to medical substances, thus rendering them useful for the treatment of particular disorders and disturbances.

Ancient Mesopotamian medicine does not offer evidence for a comparable system of correspondences as is found, for instance, in the Galenic system of the humours. However, textual sources from the first millennium BCE indicate that Babylonian healers developed a similar system of astro-medicine, in which they correlated diseases, symptoms and body parts with the influence of particular astral constellations and with groups of therapeutic agents.

The present research project aims at a systematic investigation of the interrelations between body/disease concepts and therapeutic practices in Mesopotamian medical texts of the second and first millennium BCE. The main focus of the study lies on analogies between body and environment, which are primarily expressed in healing spells that equate or compare processes in the body with those in the natural or cultural environment. The study will explore the extent to which elements, entities and processes occurring in the environment served to conceptualise and explain human anatomy and physiology, normal and pathological processes.

Another part of the project will explore a group of identified medical plants and their uses in cuneiform medical texts, in order to gain new insights about the knowledge of local healers concerning medical substances, their effects, forms of preparation and application. The objective here is to detect, to which extent we can discover correlations between therapeutic techniques, substance use and particular disease concepts.

At its core, the project aims at clarifying the following key questions:
- Which role do environmental factors or “natural causes” such as climate, seasons, diet play in Mesopotamian disease aetiologies, especially in contrast to “supernatural” disease agents such as deities, demons, ghosts or witchcraft (which have been regarded as the predominant explanations of disease in previous research)?

- On the basis of which metaphors or analogies does Mesopotamian medicine conceptualise processes in the healthy and sick body? Can we find traces of a notion of bodily balance?
- Which connections can we identify between the knowledge of anatomy/physiology, pathology/nosology on the one hand, and the knowledge of medical substances and therapeutic practices on the other?
- Can this comparative approach enrich our understanding of ancient medical prescriptions and their indications beyond the debated method of retrospective diagnosis?