Thursday, October 23, 2014

5000-2000 B.C.: Sumerian rituals prevent asthma

Map of Sumeria compliments of Wikepedia. 
Around 5000 B.C. the Sumerians were a growing society in ancient Mesopotamia, and by 4000 B.C. they were the most abundant group of people in the world. 

From the beginning of their existence they worked to create the cornerstones necessary for the formation of a civilization, which included a written language, a system of mathematics, a mythological world, and even a system of medicine.   

The exact date as to which they formed this first civilization is a matter of debate. Some say by 3500 B.C. they had the necessary ingredients, although some suggest a better date would be 3200 B.C., which would have been about the time cuneiform was established as a system of writing.  Regardless, the Sumerians are often credited as forming the first civilization as many of the systems they created helped shape later civilizations, including our own.

The basic tenant of a civilization was that by people working together more could be accomplished.  By all people working together for the collective, this allowed for kings and queens and those working among the small aristocracy free time to think and to create. 

Perhaps it was due to this that the Sumerians were, according to Henry Sigerist in his 1922 history of medicine, able to create a culture that lasted for thousands of years.  

Even after Sumerian civilization ceased to exist, much of what it created continued to be used for several thousand more years, some even to this day.  For example, Sigerest notes the following: (Sigerist, page 284)
Another map of ancient Mesopotamia. 
"Their (the Sumerians) cuneiform script was taken over by the Semites in the north and other peoples, and was used for the writing of a number of different languages.  They began a new month with every new moon, adding an extra month to the year from time to time.  The calendar of the oriental Jews and of the Mohammedans is still based on the moon year.  Their numeral unit was 60 and we still divide the hour into 60 minutes, the circle into 360 degrees."  (10, 384)
Since their boundaries were far more open than the Egyptians, their culture spread not only to the various tribes existing in Mesopotamia, but also to Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Persia, and far beyond Western Asia, and probably even India and China.  These societies assimilated not only Sumerian culture, but their science, theology, and medicine. (10, pages 380, 384)

It must be understood that Sumerians had a very gloomy view of life and death, and their goal was basically to continue the ebb and flow of life  This view evolved, perhaps, because they were not concerned with the after life, which mainly consisted of "Shoel, or hell," said J.M. Roberts in his 1999 book "Prehistory and the first Civilizations."  (4, page 85)

"Yet at least one ritual involved virtual suicide," Robert's explains, "for a Sumerian king and queen of the middle of the third millennium were followed to their tombs by their attendants who were then buried with them, perhaps after taking some soporific drink.  This could suggest that the dead were going somewhere where a great retinue and gorgeous jewelry would be as important as on earth."   (1, page 85)

Perhaps one of the first cornerstones of a society was to create a mythology whereby there was life after death.  Perhaps this was the realization that came from observing all the pessimism that resulted from the people knowing there was nothing after death.

So, over time, to improve morale in an otherwise pessimistic world, Sumerian leaders created a mythological world of gods, demons and spirits.  These mythological figures controlled every aspect of human life, even deciding who moved on to hell, or who moved on to some better world.

These views culminated in a the belief that all sickness and injuries were the result of the gods, or were punishments handed down for improper behavior.  In other words, if you got sick it was your own fault. An example may be seen in the following passage:
Go forth, lead her forth to suffer her punishment; disease of the eyes, of the hips, of the feet, of the heart, shall strike her. (2, page 28)
There were methods of treating the sick and injured, all of which involved magic. There was an array of herbs and incantations to help you.  Yet the Sumerians believed if you got sick you were probably doomed, so their main emphasis was on prevention.  

For this reason, the priests were responsible for holding rituals at the various temples to the gods.  Each individual could perform rituals as well, and these smaller rituals were performed at various smaller temples. 

Roberts explains that "these gods demanded propitiation and submission in elaborate ritual.   In return for this and for living a good life they would grant prosperity and length of days, but not more.   (4, page 83-84)

Roberts also notes that:
No other ancient society at that time gave religion quite so prominent a place or diverted so much of its collective resources to its support.  It has been suggested that this was because no other ancient society left humans feeling so utterly dependent on the will of the gods (4, page 83-84)
Sumerian medicine, and later Babylonian medicine, pretty much involved placing the sick in the streets and every person who walked by was required to ask what was ailing the invalid. As noted by the great Greek historian Herodotus:
"They bring their sick to the market place, for they do not employ physicians. The passer-by approaches the patient and questions him concerning the sickness with which he is afflicted, to know if he himself has suffered in the same way or has seen any one so suffer. All those who go and come confer with him and suggest the remedy which has cured them of the same disease, or which to their knowledge has cured others similarly affected. No one is permitted to pass by the patient without interrogating him concerning his sickness."
In this way, however, there were no physicians per se, as Herodotus noted. Although, in actuality, every Mesopotamian citizen was a physician of sorts, with some being more proficient at it than others.  The same was noted by a Hebrew prophet:
Is it nothing of you, all that passby.  Behold and see, whether there be any pain like mine. (1, page 17)
However, Sigerist notes that there is a ton of evidence that there were physicians in every civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, and that they were mainly priests who cured by their magic. (3, page 425)  

I describe the Mesopotamian physician in 2000-539 B.C.: Assyro-Babyonian physicains.

Even despite the effort to improve upon the psychological well-being of an otherwise gloomy society, the effort must have been fleeting.  By seeing death and destruction frequently during the course of their daily lives, it would be an onerous task to change the spirits of an otherwise disconsolate society.  

It was eminent that such a gloomy view of life could not sustain a society, and ultimately, sometime around 3000 B.C., Sumerian civilization became weak and faded into oblivion.  

However, the seeds that formed Sumerian civilization continued to grow, and they benefited the next civilizations that formed between the two rivers.  

References:  See post "4000-539 B.C.: First civilizations advance medicine, part 4""

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