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Sunday, October 19, 2014

4000-539 B.C.: First civilizations advance medicine, part 3

Inanna on the Ishtar Vase
(French museum Louvre)
She was the goddess of love,
war, fertility and lust,
and was associated
with the City of Urek.
(From  Wikepedia)
Everything in ancient Sumeria, Akkadia and Babylonia was created by the gods, even the people.  They were created from the mud of the land, mud that was brought in by the flow of the river, and spread over the land during the floods or inundations.

While the floods were feared, they were needed, because the mud contained the fertilizers necessary to fertilize the land so crops could be grown.  The mud was also fertilizer to mankind, and from this mud grew civilization.  The people were created by the gods with the implicit purpose to perform labor for the gods, and serve the gods. 

Even the king was a servant of the gods. Part of the king's responsibilities was to maintain order among the people, yet his job also was to perform celebrations to the gods.  One such celebration involved the king climbing to a room at the top of the Ziggurat "in which the fertility goddess Inanna lived. The king was married symbolically to a priestess representing the goddess.  Inanna would then see that the king's city prospered." (Foster, page 46)

The king's other job was to make sure each person did his part.  All food and all profits were taken to the temples and belonged to the gods, and in return each person was given whatever food he needed to feed his family.  The people worked hard from sun up to sun down, and in return for all the hard work the people were offered a promise by the god they worshiped of protection.  They made sure the sun rose to begin the day, and the moon came up at night.  They made sure the crops came up, and that the floods or disease did not take them away before they were harvested.  They made sure ideas were created to allow for better methods of taming the land and animals and people. They made sure the year began as expected, and that the floods came to fertilize the land before crops were planted.  He or she kept the people healthy, and gave them new life in the form of healthy children.  
Early chariots on the Standard of Ur, ca. 2600 BC. (from Wikepedia)

So long as the god was fed, clothed, housed, worshiped, and celebrated appropriately, they offered such protection.  When bad things happened, it was because the person, or the society, did something to offend one or another of the gods.  So belief in these gods provided an incentive for the people to be good, and to do what they were told by the ruling classes. This system allowed for the best use of resources.  

With better use of resources, and because crops were so well controlled, some people had time to specialize in things other than producing and preparing food. For this reason, people started to specialize.  Some people became basket weavers, others became potters, some became priests, some became scribes, some became physicians, some became merchants, some became traders.  (Foster, page 43) 

And chances are that whatever family you were born into, you performed the same job as your father or mother; there was very little chance for advancement in society, or change.  The people must have, at times, become overwhelmed by feelings of burnout, apathy and inanition from performing very hard work, and working long hours, usually from sun up to sun down.  

This must have made life very gloomy for the Sumerians.  Their open borders must have made them fear invasion from the north, south, east and west.  They also feared invasion from spirits and demons from the air around them, spirits and demons that were ubiquitous, peering among the trees, the clouds, and even from under the beds in homes, and in the back of dark closets (kind of like what appears in kids' rooms to this day).  They also had to fear the floods, and locusts and other bugs that could destroy crops and kill animals needed to feed themselves and their families.  They also had to fear plagues that killed many of their friends and family, and the fact that eight out of ten infants either died in birth or in the first year of life didn't help matters either.

So they had a very gloomy view of life, and they also had a gloomy view of death. Many of their legends suggest they believed in hell after death, and so they learned to worship their gods for the day, year and life in general to continue.  Perhaps the only solace among these people was worshiping the god, and "hope" that life would continue.  Yet at some point this view of gloom or nothingness after death failed to motivate the people, who took little pride in their lives as a result.  So at some point one member of the ruling classes created a legend of glory and riches after death. This type of mythology must have provided a better incentive to get the people to behave in this life to prosper in the next.

Since all the work was done by the peasants, which were most of the people, some people had time to sit around and think.  One of the first problems they had to think about was how to keep track of crops.  They needed to measure land, and they needed to keep track of who brought in food and who didn't.  They needed to keep track of all sorts of such official records, and they had no means to do it.  This problem was resolved when they invented the cuneiform (wedge-shaped)  system of writing sometime around 3200 B.C., and many believe this was the final requirement for the creation of the world's first civilization.

The first form of writing was picturesque, where the picture represented an idea. Yet eventually the writing was created where small wedge shaped pictures, pictograms, were drawn into onto clay with stylus, perhaps a small reed.  The characters were adapted by the Sumerians, Akkadian (Babylonians), and the Persian, according to

The words were read from right to left.  Yet sometime around 2000 B.C. a group of people called the Phoenicians developed a society at the eastern end of the Mediterranean (what is now Syria, Lebanon and Israel).  They were famous for their ports, such as in Tyre, where other nations sent ships to trade goods and services.  They were also seafarers, and built great ships for traveling the seas looking for people to trade with.

Phoenicians originally lived in the land of Canaan and were called Canaanites, although the ancient Greeks referred to them by a red (phoinos) die they exported, and this is how they obtained the name Phoenicians.  (Kingfisher, page 90-91)

The Phoenicians are believed by many to be the first to create a written language, even before the Sumerians, and even before the Egyptians. (need reference). Although some speculate they adapted their alphabet from Semitic speaking people in Egypt.  Either way, their language used symbols to represent sounds, was read left to right, and consisted of 30 letters (all consonants). (Kingfisher, page 90-91)

Because they were traders, and came into contact with many other nations, they were able to share their culture, including their language.  Perhaps it's for this reason they are often referred to as the inventors of the alphabet and phonics (use of sounds to create speech and words). During the ancient Babylonian civilization the Phoenician language was adapted into Mesopotamian culture.

The invention of writing is key to our history of asthma and respiratory therapy, because without it there is no way that medical recipes could have been written down and shared from one generation to the next. It made it so that each generation didn't have to start from scratch, and knowledge could be learned and expanded upon.  The accumulation of such knowledge is what has allowed modern asthma experts -- the scientists, researchers, and physicians -- to advance asthma wisdom to where it is today (and it's pretty impressive as far as I'm concerned). Yet it would take a while for this form of writing to be adapted by the main civiliations.

In the meantime, cuneiform was the main form of writing among most of the people of Mesopotamia.  Cuneiform was learned by scribes, who used a stylus, and carved these pictures onto clay tablets that were then heated and sun dried or dried in ovens, and were portable.  This made it possible to record events, such as when the floods occurred, when the sun rose and set. This made it possible to create the first books and the first calendars. This made it possible to monitor the level of the waters.  This made it possible to track the planets and stars, and write down recipes of food and medicine, and myths and legends and  religion.  It made it possible for ideas to grow and mature, and, thus, it made it possible for civilization to begin.

This made it possible to write books, with each stone tablet representing one page.  Each page was marked by the symbol of the god, and this was probably done so the god would protect it and bless the person who used the information inside.  This was essential, because priest/physicians needed the help of the gods in curing their patients.  And each tablet had the last word of the last tablet so the reader knew what sequence to read them, and which tablets went together. (Sigerist, page 383)

So the various tribes of Mesopotamia blended their cultures together in forming the civilization of Sumeria and allowing it to grow and prosper.  For example, the Phoenicians are often credited as being the first to make glass, and they introduced glass making to the Sumerians.  (Hooper, The Chaldeans are often credited as being the first sky gazers, and they introduced divination and medicine to the Sumerians.  As Sumerian civilization died out, Sumerian culture was adapted by the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians.  

It's also believed that Thales, the first Greek philosopher who lived around 50 B.C., was a Phoenician.  As he traveled Mesopotamia, and later introduced his philosophy to Greece, he must have spread both Phoenician, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian culture to Greece. Among the wisdom he would have taught the Greeks was of Mesopotamian medicine.  (Hooper,

References:  See post "2000 B.C.:  Assyrian physicians will treat your dyspnea"

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