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The Healing Goddess Gula: Towards an Understanding of Ancient Babylonian Medicine (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East)

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As the medical historian Vivian Nutton writes in his study on Greek and Roman health systems ‘History is an art of forgetting as well as of remembrance’.1 Indeed, what is basic to the study of ancient civilizations is the reconstruction of the written word and, consequently, some consideration of whether the available information has been deliberately handed down or is due to random circumstances. When looking back at the Ancient Babylonians we are faced with an arbitrary as well as an erratic transmission of cuneiform documents: not every issue or aspect is equally covered over the centuries. As a result, serious gaps in the transmission can lead to a biased interpretation of the available evidence. In addition, we should bear in mind that the Mesopotamian civilization was basically an oral culture in which literacy was for considerable periods of Ancient Mesopotamian history restricted to a small elite, with the result that the corpus of the written documentation is only a small fraction of the framework of Babylonian ideas and beliefs.

Many aspects of medicine, in particular, the technical skills such as setting bones or recognizing healing plants, were not subject to written tradition but passed on from mouth to mouth over many generations. Still, the corpus of Ancient Babylonian medicine that has survived until today is impressive: more than one thousand texts written in cuneiform and impressed on durable clay tablets are kept in the museum collections worldwide. As we shall see, substantial parts of the written texts are only fragmentarily preserved, which more often than not hampers a complete understanding.
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