BMCR 2005.04.55

Magic and Rationality in Ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman Medicine. Studies in Ancient Medicine 27

, , , Magic and rationality in ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman medicine. Studies in ancient medicine, 27. Leiden: Brill, 2004. xv, 407 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004136665. $110.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book is the work of a group of scholars, both philologists and historians, specialising in Near Eastern and Greco-Roman medicine, who held periodic meetings on the theme of magic and rationality during the year 2000-2001 at the Dutch Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences in Wassenaar. These meetings concluded with an international symposium in June 2001. There are fifteen papers, dealing with magic and rationality in Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman medicine, as well as with the relation between Greco-Roman and Eastern medicine (to which we should add Talmudic medicine, difficult to date but a preferred source for medicine in Babylonia). Equal attention is given to medical theory and practice. This work is particularly welcome at the present time when there is renewed interest in the study of magic and medicine.

As Philip van der Eijk shows in the general introduction to the volume, this work of comparative medical history allows us to take stock of important developments in research during the past decades. Recent studies have shown that contacts between the Near East and the Greco-Roman world were much more important than was earlier suspected, and that much of Greek medicine was taken over from Mesopotamia and Egypt, a fact which was previously ignored. On the other hand, contrary to common opinion, Greek medicine was not necessarily more rational than its Eastern counterparts, especially if we look not only the Hippocratic Corpus and Galen but also the magical inscriptions and papyri or temple medicine. Van der Eijk notes that today we not only separate the irrational from the rational, but we also distinguish several levels of forms of rationality. Several of the papers in the volume show that the difference between Greek medicine, centered on theories and etiology, and Eastern medicine, centered on prognostic (in the tradition of divinatory practice), ought to be relativised, for both types were practised in both cultures.

The first paper, an article by M. J. Geller already published in Archiv für Orientforschung 48/49, 2001/2002, draws the broad lines of the comparison between Eastern and Greco-Roman medicine. The Corpus Hippocraticum (in which the so-called Cnidian elements demonstrate many parallels with contemporary Babylonian medicine) represents, according to this scholar, a transition period between an anonymous medicine, for example that found in Akkadian sources, and a medicine of authorship, such as that of Galen, Diocles or Herophilus; between a medicine which attributes the cause of diseases to external factors (divine or natural), and a medicine which identifies an internal disorder (humoral theory); between a medicine which prescribes drugs and a medicine which favours diet and purgation. M. J. Geller presents the hypothesis that there was an oikumene of Near-Eastern and Mediterranean medicine, from which Greek medicine, though rooted in the former, gradually drew apart. This hypothesis is adopted by R. David who, in the conclusion of his paper on Egyptian medicine during the Pharaonic and Greco-Roman period, suggests that, before the foundation of the medical school of Alexandria, Egyptian medicine, known mainly from papyri, and Greek medicine were very close; it was later that they “followed separate routes” (p. 145) while continuing to influence each other.

The other papers, all of them of a high scientific level, focus on the comparison or contact between Eastern and Greco-Roman medicine (Stol, Arnott, Thomas), on magic and rationality in Eastern (Maul, Heessel, Farber, Geller) or Greco-Roman (Langholf, Hanson, Horstmanshoff) medicine, and on the comparison between Eastern and Greco-Roman medicine in connexion with magic and rationality (David, Van der Eijk, Cilliers).

The book ends with a paper by K.-H. Leven about the recent practice of retrospective diagnosis in historiography, either through the development of paleopathology or by clinical study of the descriptions of diseases found in texts. This scholar recommends extreme caution concerning this retrospective diagnosis given that neither the diseases themselves nor their perception by patients or physicians have remained unchanged in the course of history. He therefore views with a critical eye some of the theses of Mirko D. Grmek. However, he remains in the tradition of this great pioneer of the history of diseases, who would have accepted much of his criticism (cf. p. 384: K.-H. Leven notes the difference between the French edition of 1983 of the book of M.D. Grmek Les maladies à l’aube de la civilisation occidentale and the English translation of 1989).

All of the papers are followed by a useful bibliography which gives a panorama of recent research on these questions. At the end of the book there is an index locorum and an index nominum et rerum which allow the reader to focus on a particular author or theme in the various papers. We note the careful preparation of this book in which there are very few errors — a rare thing nowadays! On p. 374, we might suggest that Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118) be situated not “at the beginning of the eleventh century”, but “at the end of the eleventh” or “beginning of the twelfth century”.

This book is of great interest and use for scholars. The papers survey recent research and provide new elements. Furthermore, the book gives scholars of the respective fields (Eastern and Greco-Roman medicine), who often master only the languages and sources of their field, access to information concerning sources and research of the other field. It is not always easy for a Hellenist familiar with the subtleties of Greek philology and codicology to use tablets written in cuneiform characters, or for an archeologist of Eastern civilisations to find his bearings in the twists and turns of the Corpus Hippocraticum or Greek papyri. Such is the advantage of collective enterprises of comparative history which, as here, gather the best scholars in their fields and make available the results of research on a common subject in different cultures. This method allows us to see unexpected similarities and thereby better to distinguish real differences and reciprocal influences.

The only thing I might criticise in this enterprise is that it did not include later sources in which the role of magic and rationality in medicine is especially important. One thinks of the Hermetic Corpus, of Egyptian origin but written in Greek, and, particularly, of the Cyranides, whose success helped prolong the existence of magical medicine into the Middle Ages and modern times. Let us hope that more scholarly meetings and publications of this type will follow.

M. J. Geller, West meets East: Early Greek and Babylonian Diagnosis.

M. Stol, An Assyriologist Reads Hippocrates.

S. M. Maul, Die “Lösung vom Bann”: Überlegungen zu altorientalischen Konzeptionen von Krankheit und Heilkunst.

N. P. Heessel, Divination and Disease: Towards an Understanding of the rationale behind the Babylonian Diagnostic Handbook.

W. Farber, How to Marry a Disease: Epidemics, Contagion, and a Magic Ritual against the ‘Hand of the Ghost’.

R. David, Rationality versus Irrationality in Egyptian Medicine in the Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman Periods.

R. Arnott, Minoan and Mycenaean Medicine and its Near Eastern Contacts.

R. Thomas, Greek Medicine and Babylonian Wisdom: Circulation of Knowledge and Channels of Transmission in the Archaic and Classical Periods.

P. J. van der Eijk, Divination, Prognosis and Prophylaxis: The Hippocratic Work “On Dreams” ( De victu 4) and its Near Eastern Background.

V. Langholf, Structure and Genesis of Some Hippocratic Treatises.

A. E. Hanson, Aphorismi 5.28-63 and the Gynaecological Texts of the Corpus Hippocraticum.

M. J. Geller, Bloodletting in Babylonia.

H. F. J. Horstmanshoff, “Did the god learn medicine?” Asclepius and the Temple Medicine in Aelius Aristides’ Sacred Tales.

L. Cilliers, Vindicianus’ Gynaecia and Theories on Generation and Embryology from the Babylonians up to Graeco-Roman Times.

K-H. Leven, “At times these ancient facts seem to lie before me like a patient on a hospital bed” — Retrospective Diagnosis and Ancient Medical History.