Medicine And Religion In Ancient Mesopotamia

This paper discusses ancient Mesopotamia’s magical and divinatory practices, as well as how they interacted with religion and medicine at the time. This paper discusses the magical explanations of these ancient civilizations for various life events and natural disasters. For these people, rituals, practices, and beliefs that are now called magic were developed to help them overcome their challenges. However, witchcraft was not always involved. The amount of artifacts or tablets that address these topics demonstrates how popular and influential these beliefs have been in people’s lives, including their daily routines, their cultures, their jobs and different roles, as well as their decision making.

Because the ancient Mesopotamians did not understand the reasons for these phenomena, they attributed them to different gods/goddesses or mythical beings. They would predict the future to avoid the bad circumstances or try to satisfy the gods and repel evil. This led to the use of different kinds magic for solving their problems. In medicine, certain objects like figurines and gemstones were used. A cuneiform table (currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), dated mid-to late 1st Millennium BCE, shows hundreds of stones being used as a treatment or prevention for different medical problems due to their supposed magical properties. According to cuneiform documents, medical healers were present in Mesopotamia by the middle of 3rd century BCE. At that time, diseases were attributed to supernatural forces, such as demons, ghosts or gods. In order to repel evil spirits or please the gods, they sought out treatments. They were performed by healers of three different types: baru who used divination to practice medicine, ashipu who exorcised ghosts and asu who looked after the patients.

Maqlu is an example of how magic has been used in medicine. It translates as “Burning”. The anti-witchcraft ritual was performed to restore the health of a patient. The ceremony involved several sections, such as burning the statues of an unnamed witch, fumigating, washing the patient over the statues, etc. The ritual could also be seen as religious, with the participants hoping that the gods would show mercy by allowing them to burn the figurines.

Mesopotamian medicine shows that people thought ghosts caused a wide range of mental and physical problems. These health and disease issues could range from headaches and ringing of the ears to strokes and digestive problems. Mental issues like depression were also attributed to ghosts. Many of the symptoms that were attributed to ghosts were directly linked to the way the ghost had died. For example, if a patient was having trouble breathing, the assumption was that the ghost had drowned or died from suffocation. Each problem was given a prescription consisting of a recitation to the gods of power or actions that were to be taken to expel the ghost. Many gods, goddesses and deities were thought to possess healing powers. “Ninib”, “Gula”, and other gods in particular were seen as gods who could heal. Reteif (2007) states that those who played a healing role in society were highly respected, and they had varying ranks according to their importance. It was so important that Assyrian royal healers had to swear an oath. In light of all these facts, it’s clear that medicine was heavily influenced the theocratic regime, priestly associations, and religious beliefs.

Divination falls under magic, which is the term used in Mesopotamia. The diviners and temples in Mesopotamia would use divination and other astrological methods to avoid harm and try to predict future events. The fact that the prophecies of the kings, the upper classes, and not the lower classes, were used on a regular basis is noteworthy. Mesopotamian King’s Consulted their Priests and Diviners Before Making Important Decisions. If a king wanted to know if his gods approved of an invasion, he’d ask his diviners. This would ensure that his actions wouldn’t anger the gods. Then, the king would base his decision off the diviners’ response. This is because if the Gods weren’t happy with the plan of invasion, they might turn the tide against the king and cause him to lose. It is clear that divination relied heavily on religious beliefs and gods.

Assyrian divination can be divided into “omina imperative” and “omina inblativa”, which are, according to Cryer (1994), “those that simply come before the observer’s attention” and those “that the observer himself causes” respectively.

The diviners observed lunar eclipses as well as any other natural phenomenon. These types of events were used in Assyrian cultures to convey gods’ feelings or actions. In Assyrian culture, these types of events could convey prophecies, or the actions and feelings of gods.

Another way to receive prophecies involved extispicy. An animal is purified and slaughtered with specific methods. A diviner would examine and mark the liver after the autopsy. This would allow them to make predictions about the weather, upcoming or current health issues and politics. They would sometimes repeat rituals or extispicies if they did not like the results. This was mostly done to gain the favor of the king. This could mean that there was no clear logic behind the magic they used, other than hoping that after many sacrifices the gods might change their mind. This type of divination and magic was mainly used by the upper classes, as animals like sheep were very expensive and could not be sacrificed. In the ancient Babylonian period, diviners for the kings would regularly write reports that included omens. They also stated whether they were positive or not.

Celestial or astrological prognostications have been used in divination since ancient Mesopotamia. Assyrian rulers were regularly informed of these things, as evidenced by many reports dating back to the 8th century BCE. They included observations and interpretations about planets and stars as well quotes from “Enuma Anu Enlil”, which is a series on omens. Nabu Ahhe Eriba wrote a piece called “If Goat star produces mishu : the gods would forgive the Land, they would have mercy on the Land.” as an example.

Although extispicy was more accessible, it may still have been difficult for commoners to get astrological readings, because they did not know how to interpret the observations.

The kings were informed of reports about abnormal animal behavior, births and other strange events. The kings received these reports. These reports state that certain events are signs, with interpretations. These reports often cite “Summa izbu”, a list of omens, as a reference to help predict the future.

The practice of necromancy, which was also a magical method in Mesopotamia but less prevalent than other methods (was also a magic technique). Two versions of this list mention necromancers by different names. The necromancers used a variety of methods to summon or communicate with ghosts. A person could summon a spirit by reading an incantation, anointing their eyes, or anointing them. In another form of necromancy the necromancer used a skull to conjure up the ghost. The skull allowed ghosts to speak to the necromancer. The belief that ghosts exist and are afterlife is the basis for this method.

In order to get prophecies, and even blessings, from ghosts was the main purpose of practicing necromancy. The author of a letter to the king from the Assyrian late period wrote that they intended to give him a tablet containing a prophetic prophecy. Although the tablet has been translated in different ways, it mentions two Assyrians gods: Assur and Samas. The ghost of the queen who died also wishes that her descendants will “rule Assyria”. The fact that the Assyrians believed in gods in all matters and each one of them had different roles in various scenarios shows how they viewed gods as being involved in everything.

It is clear that magic and divination were important in the ancient Mesopotamian society. Different magical jobs, such as medical healers or diviners or necromancers are defined. Despite the fact that these solutions and techniques may appear superstitious today, they helped ancient Mesopotamia shape its culture and address many of the problems it faced. These ancient communities created religions as a way to explain the unknowable and developed magic solutions based upon their religious beliefs. Religious beliefs were also the basis for medical practices during that period. The divination practices were based on their belief that the gods controlled different aspects of the life and future events. Their beliefs about the afterlife also led them to practice necromancy, and believe that ghosts caused their illness.

I do not believe that religion, medicine, magic or divination were separate topics because they all share the same beliefs and practices.

This is all evidence of how advanced Mesopotamian society was. They were willing to develop knowledge and seek answers despite the limitations of the early civilization.


  • daisymay

    Daisy May is a 34-year-old blogger and student who is passionate about education. She has been blogging about her educational experiences and tips for other students since 2010. Daisy May is currently studying for her Master's degree in Adult Education.



Daisy May is a 34-year-old blogger and student who is passionate about education. She has been blogging about her educational experiences and tips for other students since 2010. Daisy May is currently studying for her Master's degree in Adult Education.