On Ghosts, Demons, Gods And Contagious Diseases

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 muštāiz from aāzu, “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 aāzu 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.

Scurlock, Jo Ann and Burton R Andersen, Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian medicine: ancient sources, translations, and modern medical analyses, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005, 17-20

4 thoughts on “On Ghosts, Demons, Gods And Contagious Diseases”

  1. Yeah, Vitruvius in his De architectura addressed about the same concern as Varro but took it up from the perspective of miasma rather than animalia quaedam minuta.

  2. “You might ask, ‘Did ancient Mesopotamians understand that some diseases were contagious?’ The answer is, ‘Yes, they did.'”
    Yet is this an amazing revelation in itself? If one sees an entire group of people dying from the same symptoms, the natural thing to do is to stay the hell away (pardon the pun), regardless of their knowledge of how disease works. One may say the people are ‘unclean’, ‘possessed’, ‘having an unbalanced qi’ or even ‘contagious’ but the instinct to avoid such people is the same, by simple observation. In that sense, it would be more unusual if a culture as advanced as the Babylonians, Egyptians or Minoans was completely blind to contagion altogether.

  3. Glen,
    What you say may be true in the case of epidemic, but at least the ancient Mesopotamian understanding was more subtle than that. It appears to me that it was certainly more subtle than what one sees in much of the world until the nineteenth century or even later. Perhaps, I wasn’t subtle enough in my explanation. 🙂

Comments are closed.