Tuesday, November 11, 2014

3000 B.C.: The baru will predict your future

This is the oldest known Sumerian Medical book.
The Baru  memorized remedies and incantations,
many of which are recorded in texts like this.
(drhajar.org: Arabian Gulf: Cradle of Medicine)
Divination is the interpretation of omens or signs to predict the future.  Most ancient societies, from Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient India, Ancient China and Ancient Rome, all believed in omens.  And there were good and bad omens.  (1,2)

You were sick.  You have sinned.  You are impure.  You are in disharmony with the world.  You are a burden on society.  You are unclean.  So you must go to see a healer, who in most cases was a priest, for healing.

Since your disease, your symptoms, was caused by magic, you needed a magical cure.  The healer would give you an incantation incantation to site to ward off the evil.  Although, if you could afford it, he'd use a divination to learn how you got sick in the first places, as this was how the best cures came about.  .

Through divination a priest might learn that the ailment could easily be cured, and this made you optimistic, or gave  you hope.

On the other hand, however, the priest might learn that your illness is futile that that you will die, and in that case fill you with gloom and pessimism.

A healer could predict success in wartime, and inspire soldiers.  Or they could predict a loss, and therefore cause resignation among soldiers.

Priests who offered divination were called baru, the diviner.  They were specially trained in the divination.  They asked you questions:  Did a bird cross your path.  If it did, was it to the left or right.  If you saw birds flying to your left when you broke your foot the birds brought back luck.  This was no coincidence.  You were cursed.  The remedy was to chant this incantation or to put this amulet on a chain around your neck, or over your doorway or window.(2)

There were other means of getting omens, depending on how much you could afford.  Probably the most expensive, yet most revealing, would be to have a baru examine the liver of a sacrificed animal

By studying the liver, most often by sacrificed animals such as sheep, the baru could learn much about the future.  According to Henry Osler in his series of lectures at Yale University in 1913:
Of all the organs inspected in a sacrificial animal, the liver, from its size, position and richness in blood, impressed the early observers as the most important of the body.  Probably on account of the richness in blood it came to be regarded as the seat of life --- indeed, the seat of the soul.
The liver to the Babylonians was similar to the heart to the modern world:  it was the soul of life; the center of vitality.  "Hepatoscopy," Osler said, "thus became, among the Babylonians, of extraordinary complexity, and the organ of the sheep was studies and figured as early as 3000 B.C.  In the divination rites, the lobes, the gall bladder, the appendages of the upper lobe and the markings were all inspected with unusual care."

Readings:  gallbladder... liver....

Cheaper methods would be to drop oil over water and watch what happened.  Or a flame was lit and the flickering was examined, conclusions drawn.

Knowledge that the baru had was esoteric.  Many religious texts ended in...
May he who knows instruct him who knows.  And may he who knows not read this." (2, page 433)
He who does not keep the secret will not remain in health -- His days will be shortened." (2, page 433)
There were other similar sayings, although the meaning was relatively the same.

  1. Osler, William, "Evolution of Modern Medicine: a series of lectures at Yale University to the Silliman Foundation in April 1913, 1921", New haven, Yale University Press, pages 18-19
  2. Sigerist, Henry E., A history of medicine," 1955, 2nd edition, volume 1, pages 453-5, 433
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