Drugs in Babylon and Assyria

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Drug Histories
Drugs in Babylon and Assyria

In this episode we look at drugs in the Assyrian and Babylonian eras, roughly spanning 1,900 B.C. to 539 B.C.[1] Here are some excepts from the episode:

… As might be expected from a knowledge of history, what is known about drugs and medicines from this period is gleaned from clay tablets on which were written letters and information about various conditions and their treatments.

… “Our knowledge of the medicine of the Babylonians and Assyrians is derived almost exclusively from the great library of clay tablets gathered in his palace by King Ashurbanapal of Assyria, who ruled from 668 to 626 B.C., and which was discovered by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1849 in the course of his excavations … in … Nineveh, which was the capital of the later Assyrian Empire.” “About 30,000 fragments of the clay tablets of the collection, which may well have numbered over 100,000 when complete, have found their way into the British Museum.” 

… Incantations were based on the belief that disease is due to demoniac possession or influence; a belief which, in Babylonia and Assyria, extended to all the mishaps and accidents of life. Some cures, therefore, involved driving the demon out of the body, either forcing or coaxing him out. Incantations as a means of bringing this about are therefore to be viewed as the antitoxins of primitive medicine, acting primarily on the demons, and merely as a resultant incident bringing about the cure of the patient. Babylonian-Assyrian medicine never cut loose from this close association with incantations. Combined with incantations, moreover, certain ceremonies were enacted, to symbolize the manner in which the relief of the patient from the grasp of the demons was to be expected. These rites lead to the actual introduction of medical remedies.

… Overall, it appears that over three hundred substances used as drugs are mentioned in the Babylonian and Assyrian texts. The largest share is taken by plants and shrubs, and among those that may with greater or less certainty be identified are mint, liquorice, rape or colewort, coriander, cummin, carraway, cassia, onions, leek, radish, mustard, lily, jasmine, nard, mushroom, colocynth, portulaca, anise, rocket, Star of Bethlehem (ornithogallum) and cyno- glosson; and a large variety of reeds and thorny plants.

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[1] https://kids.britannica.com/kids/article/Babylonia-and-Assyria/352812

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