Dr. Ulrike Steinert

Projecttitle: Body – Sickness – Healing: A Study of Women’s Health Care in Ancient Mesopotamia


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 analogies 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.

Moreover, research on medical cuneiform texts in the last years has started to elucidate the important role of analogies between body and environment in Mesopotamian medical thought and healing practices. Thus, healing spells often equate or compare processes in the body with those in the natural or cultural environment; and these analogies or metaphors appear to be linked to therapeutic strategies and the choice of materia medica.

The present project aims at a philological edition of Mesopotamian cuneiform texts dealing with women’s health issues, uniting previously published and hitherto unpublished textual material, dating predominantly from the second and first millennia BCE. The edited text corpus can be broadly divided into diagnostic and therapeutic texts, the latter of which fall into the groups of incantations/rituals and medical prescriptions.

This corpus of texts concerned with women’s health issues offers a delimited corpus to investigate interrelations between body/disease concepts and therapeutic practices, both from a general and a gender-specific point of view. Thus, the present project will include an analysis of ancient healers’ knowledge and conceptions of the female body, its physiology and anomalous bodily processes.

The main focus of the analysis 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 in the environment served to conceptualise and explain the physiology and pathologies of the female body, asking to which extent these concepts are similar to body and disease concepts encountered in other Mesopotamian medical texts not concerned with diseases specific to women.
Another aim of the project is to explore treatment strategies as well as materia medica and its uses in women’s health care 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, and to elucidate whether treatments for women differed in important ways from treatments employed for other health problems that are not gender-specific.

At its core, the project aims at clarifying the following key questions:

  • On the basis of which metaphors or analogies does Mesopotamian medicine conceptualise processes in female body? Are they gender-specific or general?
  • Do we find recurring principles and leading concepts in Mesopotamian women’s health care texts that describe or explain disease processes (e.g., concepts based on the notion of irregularity, or on principles such as hot-cold, wet-dry)? How are they linked to other disease aetiologies, especially to notions of “supernatural” disease agents such as deities, demons, ghosts or witchcraft (which have been regarded as the predominant explanations of disease in previous research)?
  • Which connections can we identify in Mesopotamian women’s health care texts between the knowledge of anatomy/physiology, pathology/nosology on the one hand, and the knowledge of medical substances and therapeutic practices on the other?