It was the kind invitation of Diana Stein from Birkbeck College London, to present a talk at an on-going seminar organised by the London Centre for the Ancient Near East (LCANE), which initiated my recent research stay at London and, together with GRK 1876 funding, provided me with the welcome opportunity to spend a few days at the Middle East Study Room (“Arched Room”) of the British Museum. The BM houses probably the largest and most important collection of cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia worldwide – a true El Dorado for an Assyriologist. More so, the BM is an El Dorado for an Assyriologist interested in the medical lore of Mesopotamia, my favourite research topic.
The numerous wooden drawers lining the niched walls of the Arched Room contain a sheer treasure of documents and texts of all genres and types that were written down during the long history of Mesopotamian cultures, over a period of more than 3.000 years, in which cuneiform writing was used. Among them is an extensive collection of texts devoted to healing, including medical recipes, magic spells recited to “activate” medical remedies or to drive away sickness, as well as elaborate rituals.
|Fig. 1: The Middle East Study Room at the British Museum. Photo © Ulrike Steinert. Taken courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.|
Engaging with written objects: An Assyriologist’s bread and butter
Coming to museums such as the BM in order to engage with the material objects containing ancient texts is still of great importance to Assyriologists today, even though cuneiform tablets of museum collections are now increasingly made accessible through online research databases with digital images or electronic text editions. Yet, due to the material properties of clay tablets, their age and often poor state of preservation, and also due to the three-dimensionality of cuneiform writing (which was imprinted into the moist clay with a reed stylus), it can still be essential to personally check or collate tablets “with your own eyes” (and with a good magnifying glass!) in the owning collection. Moreover, since many of these texts could only be recovered as fragments that need to be re-assembled and joined back together like pieces of a puzzle, the process of actual decipherment of preserved fragments can be a pain-staking and difficult task, especially if no other manuscript duplicating a text is known or available.
During the four days of my stay at the Study Room, I had the chance to re-assess a number of Babylonian tablet fragments containing remedies for women, mostly dating to the first millennium BCE, which are concerned with problems of female health such as abnormal bleeding, infertility, miscarriage and difficult delivery. They belong to a quite diverse corpus of manuscripts, some of which served as specialist handbooks and reference works, while others form shorter extracts or even students’ classroom notes and exercises. Although I have now worked on this material for several years and a publication of this text corpus is nearing its conclusion, every day at the Study Room still yields new insights and some progress (however small), which still allows me to improve my reconstructions and understanding of textual details, and to elucidate difficult or damaged passages that I was previously unable to decipher or make sense of.
|Fig. 2: What’s on my tray today? A few medical cuneiform tablets and fragments studied during my stay at the Middle East Study Room of the British Museum. Photo © Ulrike Steinert. Taken courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.|
It has also been a great pleasure for me to present a talk at the ongoing seminar and lecture series “Ecstatic Experience in the Ancient World”, which is convened by Diana Stein (Birkbeck) and Margaret Serpico (UCL) and takes place during this autumn term at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) (a programme can be found at the website of the London Centre for the Ancient Near East). Although ecstatic experience is known in some form in most if not all cultural and religious traditions, this topic has so far received little interest by scholars studying ancient Mesopotamia, making it a fascinating field for text-based and comparative research.
My presentation provided a kick-off discussing in which contexts ecstasy, defined as a state of altered consciousness, is encountered and discussed in cuneiform sources, how it is expressed and evaluated in this cultural tradition. The bigger part of my presentation however focused on spirit possession as a distinct class of medical conditions recognised in Mesopotamian medicine.
Spirit Possession in ancient Mesopotamia
Spirit possession as a phenomenon investigated in anthropological research and closely related to ecstatic experience commonly refers to a human being’s experience of being overwhelmed by an external force or powerful entity, which can be an ancestor, a deity, a ghost, demon or spirit. Possession has been described as including a broad spectrum of forms, ranging from trance as encountered in mediums and shamans, to pathological cases of dissociative identity disorder. In my talk, I presented a survey of “possession disorders” through the lens of diagnostic and therapeutic cuneiform texts, discussing their characteristics (external manifestations, aetiologies), and the forms of treatment applied to improve these conditions.
Based on anthropological studies, I argued that possession may be a more meaningful and suitable concept within the context of Mesopotamian medical traditions than the term “mental illness”, which is problematic because it ascribes a Cartesian dualism to a medical culture that does not clearly demarcate disorders of the body and mind. I also tried to disentangle which relations or differences exist between “possession disorders” characterised mainly by altered states of mind, mood and behaviour, and other types of ailments caused by superhuman agents (all of which are typically designated as the “Hand” of a deity or demon in Mesopotamian medicine). Lastly, the paper explored the similarities and relations between possession as a pathological condition and other states of altered consciousness, such as found in the trance of professional ecstatics/prophets becoming an instrument or mouth-piece of a divine agent.