Tomorrow I need to return a couple of books I have on interlibrary loan. One is Scurlock and Anderson’s Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine. This is an abnormally interesting work that exposes the amazing knowledge, the amazing ignorance, and the weird understandings that the ancient Mesopotamians had about disease. Being loaded with both modern and ancient medical terminology, it’s not exactly light reading. At nearly three and half pounds, it’s also abnormally weighty.
You might ask, “Did ancient Mesopotamians understand that some diseases were contagious?” The answer is, “Yes, they did.” Below is Scurlock and Anderson’s translation of one of several texts they cite in evidence of the ancient Mesopotamian understanding of contagious diseases. This particular text is a letter from Mari.
To Šibtu, speak, thus speaks your lord. I have heard that Nanname is ill with an illness, yet she is about the palace a lot and many of the women mingle with her. Now give stern orders that nobody is to drink from the cup from which she drinks; nobody is to sit on the seat on which she sites and nobody is to lie on the bed on which she lies and many women are not to mingle with her. That illness is contagious. [ARM(T) 10 129:1-20]
The word they translate “contagious” is muštāḫiz from aḫāzu, “to seize.” In the Št stem it is causative. Here as a Št verbal noun, it means something like “that which causes something to be seized.” Verbal forms of aḫāzu commonly refer to actions of demons or ghosts. Such usages make the following comment by Scurlock and Anderson all the more interesting.
Mesopotamian physicians attributed illnesses to gods/goddesses, demons/demonesses, and ghosts, rather than an imbalance of internal humors as Hippocratic physicians believed. Thus, they were open to the possibility of practical associations between illness and surrounding events and circumstances. They noted, for example, a greater likelihood for a person to become ill when in contact with someone with certain diseases; lexical texts equate “infected” with “the place that has been touched.”
I’m not completely sure to what lexical texts Scurlock and Anderson are referring. But Hh XIII 62, for example, reads UDU.[SA.AD].GAL.TAG.GA = MIN MIN lap-tu, “sheep afflicted (laptu, “touched”) by the rapādu disease (listeriosis?).” See CAD L, 83, for this and other similar examples. On MIN equaling rapādu disease as well as the far more common immeru, “sheep,” see CAD R, 147, and the immediately preceding context within Hh.
Does this mean that if western medicine had built on Mesopotamian ideas concerning gods/goddesses, demons/demonesses, and ghosts and not gone down the “imbalance of internal humors” path we would have arrived at a germ theory of disease sooner? I rather doubt it’s all that simple. In fact, by the mid 1st century BCE Marcus Terentius Varro (Varro Reatinus) was already worrying about “certain minute creatures (animalia quaedam minuta) which cannot be seen by the eyes” that cause diseases (Rerum Rusticarum, I, 12:2). Varro isn’t thinking of human to human communicable diseases and the path from him to Louis Pasteur isn’t exactly straight and unbroken but I think animalia quaedam minuta are a better place to start than ghosts and demons. However, if supernaturalism is wrong with regard to all diseases, it just may not be quite as wrong as is humorism with regard to some deceases.