BMCR 2020.02.13

Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination. Die babylonisch- assyrische Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen, Band 9

Ulrike Steinert, Assyrian and Babylonian Scholarly Text Catalogues: Medicine, Magic and Divination. Die babylonisch- assyrische Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen, Band 9. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. 384. ISBN 9781501513633 $183.99.

The present volume is the result of the collaborative and individual efforts of the BabMed Project in Berlin.1 It comprises two parts: the first “Studies on Mesopotamian Text Catalogues” (pp. 8–200) contains seven contributions (discussed below) providing a valuable analysis of Mesopotamian text catalogues and tablet inventories of first millennium BCE focusing on medicine ( asūtu), exorcism ( āšipūtu), and divination; whereas the second “Text Sources” (pp. 203–333) presents critical philological editions of three distinctive corresponding text catalogues being the so-called Assur Medical Catalogue (AMC), the Exorcist’s Manual, and the joint catalogue of the diagnostic and physiognomic omen series Sakikkû and Alamdimmû.

The AMC in particular forms the backbone of this study, presented here for the very first time in a complete edition.2 It is an ancient catalogue from the 8 th or 7 th century BCE containing incipits of various medical treatises and as such, it forms a key witness to the serialization of medical texts from first millennium BCE Assyria. The AMC is important for our general understanding of the history of medicine, since it lists medical treatises several centuries before the so-called Hippocratic Corpus.

The contribution by Strahil V. Panayotov, “Notes on the Assur Medical Catalogue with Comparison to the Nineveh Medical Encyclopedia” (pp. 89-120), is here of particular interest. Panayotov analyses the structure of the first part of the AMC and compares its incipit and tablet sequence with the serialized and standardized therapeutic treatises known from Nineveh, the Nineveh Medical Compendium.3 As demonstrated by Panayotov, the material from Nineveh exhibits close parallels with the AMC, but with deviations. Even more interesting is the fact that medical texts other than the AMC from first millennium BCE Assur display little overlap with the AMC and the Nineveh Medical Compendium, which implies that these texts in turn must belong to a different medical compendium. This could be explained if the first part of the AMC and the Nineveh Medical Compendium originated from an older independent tradition from Babylonia.

As for the Nineveh Medical Compendium, Panayotov reaches the conclusion that it seems to have consisted of 12 treatises, each denoting a specific part of the body, comprising a total of 50 tablets. These numbers are certainly not coincidental. Panayotov explains these numbers from a Mesopotamian numerological perspective. The number 12 is thought to symbolize the 12 months. The same idea is expressed, he states, in the Late Babylonian tablet BM 56605, where body parts are linked to the 12 zodiac signs. Note, however, that the body parts in the Babylonian tradition differ greatly from the order in the Nineveh Medical Compendium, but, as Panayotov argues correctly, the principle of organization is strikingly similar. The number 50 is to be linked to the healing/exorcizing god Marduk, similar to the 40 tablets of the Diagnostic Handbook representing the god Ea. The total of 12×50=600 is a logical number in the Mesopotamian sexagesimal numeral system and may represent the totality of the Mesopotamian pantheon.

Ulrike Steinert, “Catalogues, Texts and Specialists” (pp. 158-200), complements Panayotov’s discussion. She presents a survey of different types of Mesopotamian text catalogues, comparing the AMC with the Exorcist’s Manual, and the catalogue of Sakikkû and Alamdimmû. She investigates the three catalogues according to their ideal categories of series and corpus catalogue, and she concludes that the hybrid use of genres between the AMC and the Exorcist Manual is to be explained from the cross-disciplinary character of the asûtu and āšipūtu.

J. Cale Johnson “Towards a New Perspective on Babylonian Medicine” (pp. 55-88) approaches the discussion from the opposite direction. He investigates the disciplinary distinctions between the asûtu and āšipūtu by focusing on the specific area of gastrointestinal diseases. Johnson revisits here partly the ongoing debate of exorcizing vs. medical incantations. In his view, the etiologies within spells belonging to the āšipūtu rely exclusively on demonic agents, whereas the etiologies within spells belonging to the asûtu are “secular” and describe (metaphorically in this specific case) the processes related to the gastrointestinal tract. He continues by taking a closer look at the so-called Marduk-Ea formulations and argues that such formulations found in spells belonging to the asûtu are in fact parodies of their exorcist counterparts. It is true that in these formulations the exorcist deity is omitted or supplanted by a traditional healing deity, such as Gula or Damu,4 but the humorous and ridiculing undertone as suggested by Johnson is purely speculative at best. The image of both professions presumably rivalling and mocking each other in incantations for the amusement of the non-professional public appears to be counterproductive for the poor patient in question.5

Returning to the matter of a possible “etiological secularism” in asûtu spells, Johnson turns to medical treatises such as those listed in the AMC and Nineveh Medical Compendium, where he tries to explain conflicting designations, such as “Hand of a ghost”, and conjures up a “continuum of allegoresis”, surmising that such diagnostic labels are reinterpreted in asûtu texts becoming specific technical labels losing their metaphysical meaning.

Another view regarding the corpora of the asûtu and āšipūtu is presented by Markham J. Geller in “A Babylonian Hippocrates” (pp. 42-54). By dividing the Mesopotamian “healing arts” into three distinctive literary genres labelled “medicine”, “magic” and “diagnosis”, he investigates the possibility as to whether the AMC may be another editorial work by the scholar Esagil-kīn-apli, who is known to be the editor of the Exorcist’s Manual and the catalogue of Sakikkû and Alamdimmû. The apparent omission of Esagil-kīn-apli in the Catalogue of Texts and Authors in attributing the entire authorship of Sakikkû, Alamdimmû and āšipūtu to the god Ea is innovatively explained by Geller as a possible cryptic orthography, where Ea becomes a nickname or rather pseudonym for Esagil-kīn-apli.

Geller examines the particular vocabulary used by Esagil-kīn-apli to denote his editorial work, “weaving” (SUR.GIBIL) and compares it with the Akkadian equivalent zarû, which is attested only twice in colophons from Nineveh. He convincingly argues that both manuscripts (Hunger 1968: 99 = BAK No. 321 = Uruanna; SAA 3, 2: rev. 24. = Hymn to Marduk) can be attributed to the scholar respectively. Noteworthy is that the latter manuscript uses the term sadīru, which also occurs in the catalogue of Sakikkû and Alamdimmû by Esagil-kīn-apli. Geller establishes the following neologisms used in the technical vocabulary by the Babylonian scholar, zarâ ṣabātu “to (formally) establish an edition”, iḫzu “recension”, kânu “to establish (a recension)”, riksu “corpus”.

Finally, important observations are made by Geller regarding the format of the AMC and the other two catalogues. All three catalogues are single-column tablets, whereas AMC and the catalogue of Sakikkû and Alamdimmû are portrait-oriented. The Exorcist’s Manual is landscape-oriented, corresponding well with the proposed dichotomy between Late Babylonian medical and magical manuscripts. Furthermore, all three catalogues are divided into two main sections indicating a division of different sources for both sections. Although not explicitly stated in the AMC, its format, the use of the typical idiom zarâ ṣabātu, and, if correct, the hidden reference in the Catalogue of Texts and Authors, support Geller’s case for the possibility that the AMC can in fact be attributed to the person of Esagil-kīn-apli.

Another contribution in this volume is “On Three Tablet Inventories” by Irving L. Finkel (pp 25-41), which presents editions of two previously unedited Middle Babylonian inventories containing incipits of various genres, i.e., omens (astrological, terrestrial, physiognomic, extispicy), medicine, lexical lists, and Sumerian literary texts with no particular order according to genre, and one tablet from Seleucid Uruk (TCL 6, 12), where a list of incipits is found as a separate section after an astrological text with illustrations. “The Catalogues of Enūma Anu Enlil” by Francesca Rochberg (pp. 121-136) is concerned, as its name implies, with the astrological omen series EAE. An edition and discussion of two catalogues containing incipit lists of EAE are offered. One catalogue comes from 7 th century BCE Assur and the other from 3 rd century Babylonian Uruk, displaying a great variety of differences between them, which in turn are discussed and lead to a new concept of canon in Mesopotamian scholarly corpora. “Esagil-kīn-apli’s Catalogue of Sakikkû and Alamdimmû” by Eric Schmidtchen (pp. 137-157) presents evidence that the Sakikkû and Alamdimmû catalogue by Esagil-kīn-apli displays an earlier stage of the series Sakikkû and Alamdimmû.

In conclusion, this volume is “from head to toe” a must for all scholars with an interest in ancient Mesopotamian medicine, canonicity, and authorship.


1. Other results such as a vast collection of transliterations of medical texts can be found here BabMed – Babylonische Medizin.

2. Specific sections of the AMC have been published and discussed by a variety of scholars. A detailed overview can be found in Panayotov’s contribution is this volume (pp. 92f.).

3. Although explicitly stated in the Introduction (p. 15) by the editor, the use of both Nineveh Medical Encyclopedia and Nineveh Medical Compendium for the same manuscript in this volume may lead to confusion for the reader and could have been easily avoided by consistent editing.

4. In addition to the rare example presented by the author (= BAM 574: ii 52-56 + BAM 577: 6’-10’), note the dialogue in the incantation ÉN ur-saĝ d asal-lú-ḫi igi-bé ḫé-pà saĝ-ḫul-ḫa-za ḫé-pà which addresses the demon saĝ-ḫul-ḫa-za (= mukīl rēš lemutti) and is found in therapeutic passages concerned with headaches, see E. Zomer, ‘The Physician is the Judge!’— A Remarkable Divine Dialogue in the Incantation: ÉN ur-saĝ d asal-lú-ḫi igi-bé ḫé-pà saĝ-ḫul-ḫa-za ḫé-pà, Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes 31 (2018), 38-42.

5. Note that the other example mentioned here in note 4 explicitly states “My Son, don’t impose yourself upon him! You will not (even) look at the patient. The physician is the judge! You will not decide this case!” which actually suggests the opposite of Johnson’s idea. A healing god instructing an exorcizing god to stay clear of the patient burdened with a severe headache leaving the healing in this case clearly to the field of the asûtu, implies cooperation rather than mockery. It is easy to imagine that someone with a migraine is better off in the hands of a physician than having an exorcist shouting incantations at him.