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medicine, Mesopotamia  

John Z. Wee

Cuneiform medical manuscripts are found in large numbers, mostly from 1st-millennium bce sites throughout ancient Mesopotamia. Included in the therapeutic tradition are pharmacological glossaries, herbal recipes with plant, mineral, and animal ingredients, and healing incantations and rituals. A Diagnostic Handbook created at the end of the 2nd millennium bce maps out a blueprint for medical practice that sketches out how a healer progresses in his knowledge of the sickness—initially interpreting bodily signs in ways reminiscent of omen divination, and only later arriving at a settled diagnostic verdict and treatment of the kind depicted in the therapeutic tradition. Mesopotamian aetiologies focused on malevolent agents external to the body, encouraging concerns for contagion, prophylaxis, and sanitation, while omitting significant roles for dietetics and exercise aimed at rectifying internal imbalances. Operative surgery was limited, because of the inadequacy of available analgesics and antiseptics. Suppliants seeking a cure visited temples of the healing goddess Gula in the cities of Isin and Nippur, while, among the professions, the “magician” and the “physician” were most associated with medical practice. After the 5th century bce, Calendar Texts and other astrological genres linked various ingredients to each zodiacal name, indicating certain days when a particular ingredient would become medically efficacious.