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Saturday, February 14, 2015

628-330 B.C.: Medicine among the early Persians

So we know now what life was like for asthmatics in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, now I'd like explain, if only briefly, what life was like for asthmatics in Ancient Iran.  The simple truth of the matter is it really wasn't much better than anywhere else in the world.  If you had asthma, as with any other disease, your best bet was to have someone pat you on the back, provide you with moral support, and to simply allow nature (or spirits or gods) to heal you.

The first people to live in this area, which was not far from Assyria in Upper Mesopotamia, were the Elamites, the Medes and the Persians.  I think these folks were essential to our asthma history because, when western civilization went into a dark ages of medicine after the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., medicine would rise in the east, and mainly in Persia.  This would happen around the 10th or 11th centuries A.D.  So it is essential that we not ignore these folks.

John Hermann Baas, in his 1898 book, "Outlines in the history of medicine,"  explained, that along with the Mesopotamians, the Chaldeans also had a major impact on Persian culture.  The Chaldeans worshiped a series of sacred texts called the Zen Avesta, also referred to as the "Living Word."  This Avesta was put into writing by the Zoroaster (Zaruthustra, Zerdutscht), who was supposedly a Persian prophet.  According to Encyclopedia Britannica, he lived from 628-551 B.C. (3, page 25)

This book, according to Baas, "was subsequently lost, but afterword collected from memory into a book of its present form."  So what is available today is from later copies, of which knowledge of religion, prayers, hymns, origin of the world, and also one section that includes knowledge of physicians and their medicine.
Plinio Prioreschi, in his 1991 "A history of medicine," says this this section was probably copied sometime around 250-200 B.C.  (1, page 488).

The Zen Avesta is among the few sources of knowledge of Persian religion, myths and medicine.  So knowledge of their religion, and their medicine, is scanty. According to Prioreshi:
The religion of the early Iranians, until the sixth century B.C., was similar to that of other Aryan (people who lived in ancient Iran and northern India) populations as, for example, the Vedic Indians.  Their priests were the Magi (wise men); they sacrificed to many gods, among whom Mithra (see below) held a prominent place; and they did not bury their dead but let them exposed to be devoured by wild animals." (1, page 487)
I find this interesting, because Prioreschi also notes that these people have left behind very few monuments, and very few documents, for modern day historians to learn from.  As the bodies of their dead were devoured by animals, their history was devoured by time.  Historians, therefore, have only a few texts to learn about their religion and mythology, and even fewer to learn about their medicine (which, in all essence, was blended into mythology).  So, unless more documents lie unearthed, it is apparent that the ancient Iranians "did not contribute much to world medicine." (that  is, until about the 10th or 11th centuries)  (Prioreschi, pages 487,495)

Yet we can use our imaginations to figure what life was probably like for them, considering, as Henry Sigerist notes in his 1961 "A History of Medicine," most societies pretty much believed sickness and injuries were basically all caused by magic, and healed by magic.  You did not just happen to become dyspneic, or just happen to get bit by an alligator, these things happened because of magical intervention either by enemies, by evil spirts, angry demons, or upset gods or goddesses.  (2)

These people, therefore, paid tribute to the various deities in order to maintain health and order among the civilization.  Some of their most essential deities to our history are:

Ormuzd (Ahuramazda):  Belongs to light, which emanates the good spirits, the supreme Amschaspands.  (3, page 25)

Amschaspand (Ahmeschaepenta):  Decrees diligently executed by their subordinate Izeds (Angels, archangels).  There are 32 angels of Amschaspand, some of these angels are listed here: (3, pages 25-26)
  • Korschid:  The sun
  • Mithra:  In the middle between the sun and the moon
  • The Supreme Diws (Dews, Dewas):  They are the causes of all disease.  The cure will come from Amschaspands through mediation by a priest or priests.  The following emanate from him (Ahriman also belongs to them):  
    • Aschmosch: 
    • Eghetasch:
    • Bochasp:
    • Astujad: 
    • Tarik:
    • Tosius  
    • Ahriman (Angramandscha): The evil principle darkness
Ardibehescht:  He is another god who might provide a cure through mediation of the priests, or a priest, on your behalf or on the behalf of the society.  (3, page 26)

Ainyama:  God of healing (3, page 26)

Thrita:  Physicians were his disciples.  To them he was highly esteemed.  He was the god of physician. (3, page 26)

There is much more detail in their mythology than I mention here, and probably enough to entail an entire book.  Still, if you had asthma in ancient Iran, these are the basic deities most relevant to you.

So if you lived in ancient Iran, did you have other options besides simply worshiping deities?  Perhaps, although, due to the scanty writings from this era, it's difficult to know for sure.  Although, there may be evidence that there were physicians available to assist you with their enemas, salves and potions.

Prioreschi said that there were essentially three types of physicians in ancient Iran: internal priests who used herbal remedies, surgeon priests who used the knife, and incantation priests who used magical words.  (1, page 490).

Baas said these priests were not paid very well, and this may be a sign of disrespect for physicians, because all other professionals were paid very well.  Likewise, he suspected physicians may have occupied a low position, as only Egyptian and Greek physicains were known to be used as court physicians.  (3, page 27)

Baas notes how Cyrus II, who conquered the Babylonians and created the Persian Empire around 530 B.C., surrounded himself with military physicians, although there are many descriptions of Egyptian and Greek physicians coming to the Persian courts.  (3 page 26)

Prioreschi lists a few quotations where Egyptian or Greek physicians were called upon to treat members of the monarchy.  Prioreschi quotes the great Greek historian Herodutus as explaining how Darius hurt his foot while hunting, and even after seven days of Egyptian physician therapy "the king could get no sleep for the pain."  On the eighth day Democedes of Croton was summoned, and he "applied Greek remedies and used gentleness instead of the Egyptian's violence; whereby he made the king able to sleep and in a little while recovered him of his hurt..." (1, pages 496-7)

Of this, Prioreschi explained:
"This could mean that Persian physicians did not enjoy a great degree of professional respect.  On the other hand, it is difficult to assess the accuracy of Herodutus in this matter as it may simply reflect an opinion held among Greeks in his time (that is, in the fifth century B.C.)  (1, pages 496-7)
Persian physicians may have been disrespected mainly because few people survived the surgeries that were performed.  This may have been true despite the fact the the patient may have died anyway.  Yet because the physician acted, he (or she) would probably get blamed.  The same was true of their medicine, which, when the patient died, must have been blamed.  Herbal remedies, by an ignorant populace, must have been viewed as nothing more than poisons.

So Persian physicians were known for their "poisons," and for this reason, you may have been scared to seek out one.  However, if you did, they might have had a potion or two that might have allayed your nerves enough to take the edge off your suffering.  Or, maybe not.

The following chart should explain how ancient Iranians commingled with other nations in the area, and it is by this means that ideas and culture (including medicine) were shared.
Ancient Iran
Elam:  2850-640 B.C.
Sumerian control: 2850-2180 B.C.
Elamites regain control: 2180-1830 B.C.
Aryan invasions: 1800
Elams invade Babylon: 1176 B.C.
Elams plunder temple of Akkad: 1150 B.C.
Assyrians defeat Elams: 721-640
Elam civilization ends: 640 B.C.
While under control of the Sumerians they picked up much of their culture. The Aryans invade around 1800 and bring with them knowledge of medicine.  Before this time, ancient Iranian medicine probably mostly involved magic and religion.  (1, page 496)
Medes:  835-550 B.C.
Attacked by Assyria: 835-705 B.C. 
Assyrian Rule: 705-625 B.C.
Median Empire founded: 625-585
Together with the Babylonians, the Medes destroy Nineveh, the capital of Assyria in 612 B.C. Medes declined, and in 550 B.C. was absorbed by Persian Empire.
Persia:  600-330 B.C.
Persian Empire formed: 550-530 B.C.
Egypt Conquered: 530-521 B.C.
Unsuccessful war with Greeks
Battle of Marathon: 490 B.C.
Xerxes I defeated by Greeks: 480&489 B.C
Decline of Empire:  465-338 B.C.
Conquered by Greece: 336-330 B.C.

Cyrus II conquers BabylonLydia and Medes to form the Persian Empire.  His son, Cambyses, conquers Egypt.  Darius extends borders of Empire beyond Indus Valley between 521-486 B.C. but cannot conquer GreecePersia abandons plans to conquer Greece.  They were ultimately conquered themselves by Alexander the Great of Greece between 336-330 B.C.
Please note that these are approximate dates according to Plinio Prioreschi. (1, pages 485-487)

If you have any further questions about what life might have been like in ancient Iran, you might have to step into our time machine and take a ride. Or, you can wait and hope some more ancient Iranian documents are unearthed by archaeological expositions.

  1. Prioreschi, Plinio, A History of Medicine: Primitive and Ancient Medicine," Volume I, 1991, UK, The Edwin Mellen Press
  2. Sigerist, Henry, "A History of Medicine," volume 2, 1961, Oxford University Press, page 202; also see Plinio Prioreschi, "A History of Medicine: Primitive and Ancient Medicine," Volume I, 1991, UK, The Edwin Mellen Press, page 490
  3. Bass, John Hermann, translated by H.E Handerson, "Outlines in the history of medicine and the Medical Profession," 1889, New York, J.H. Vail and Company
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