In the nineteenth century, archaeologists unearthed a treasure trove of Sumerian medical manuals dating back over 4000 years. They contain instructions for the treatment of patients believed to be suffering from viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, Lassa Fever, Marburg Virus Disease and Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever. Although they were discovered quite some years back, many have only recently been translated because of relative difficulties with the translation of cuneiform script. However, the scientists feel confident that Ebola and related hemorrhagic fevers have been infecting humans for thousands of years.
The ancient diagnostic manuals consist of approximately 1000 cuneiform tablets, 660 of which are medical tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal, now preserved in the British Museum. They list disorders organized in sections ranging from gynecology to pediatrics.
|Sumerian medical tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal, listing 15 prescriptions used by a pharmacist.|
Before this discovery, Mesopotamian medicine was understood primarily through the texts of classical authors such as Herodotus and Thucydides. Thucydides provided what has been called the first description of Ebola, writing that during the Peloponnesian War the disease showed a sudden onset, saying “persons in good health were seized first with strong fevers, redness and burning of the eyes, and the inside of the mouth, both the throat and tongue, immediately was bloody-looking and expelled an unusually foul breath. Following these came sneezing, hoarseness...a powerful cough...and every kind of bilious vomiting...and in most cases an empty heaving ensued that produced a strong spasm." This, according to a recent article in Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal (CDC), authored by epidemiologists Patrick Olson and Charles Hames of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, and Abram Bennenson and Nicholas Genovese of San Diego State University.
The Sumerian tablets, however, show a much older genesis of hemmoragic fevers and describe viral hemorrhagic fevers in great detail, most notably, the Ebola virus and even include differential diagnostics at the end of each section. Paleopathologists from the Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C. believe Sumerians may have called Ebola ‘Hand of Sibitti.’ As published in the journal Tropical Medicine and International Health, the tablet reads:
“If during his illness he does not raise his eyes (and) blood comes out of his eyes, his nose, his mouth, his ears and his penis all at the same time (it is) ‘Hand of the Sibitti.’ (If he has been sick for) 31 days (when this happens) (it is) ‘Hand of the Twin
Who are the Sibitti?
According to Sumerian mythology, the Sibitti, or the Seven, were evil entities which were half-human-half divine. They were messengers of the Lord Anu and were said to walk on the right side of Adad (the storm god). Sibitti could be seen only at night as they whirled about in the base of Heaven, circling furiously in front of the crescent moon.2.
These hybrid beings were created by the union between Erra (Negral in Sumer) and the Earth with the intent that he could use them as weapons against humanity. This was particularly useful to the god Enlil, who after the deluge, established a series of measures to limit the growth of the human population, particularly those of the “black-haired” people, whom Anu wished to “annihilate.”
Inscribed on the tablets is a story of Erra, a warrior god of famine, who wishes to destroy all of the humans on earth and have complete dominion over the cosmos. The ruling god Marduk allows Erra to govern with the help of the Sibitti who do Erra’s bidding. Marduk says:
“I (Marduk) rose from my seat and the government (ši-piṭ) of heaven and earth dissolved
Interestingly, the word šipṭu means ‘governance’ and ‘destruction.’ It is one of the earliest examples of the order out of chaos idea. In the myth, Erra assures that if Marduk leaves his position of power, he will maintain šipṭu, (governing order) of both heaven and earth. What Erra doesn't specify to Marduk is what type of šipṭu he plans to enforce, so rather than maintaining governance, he chooses the šipṭu of destruction. The tablets go on to warn, “He who has not died in the struggle will die in the destruction (šip-ṭi). He who has not died in the destruction (šip-ṭi), the enemy will plunder.”4.
Following the birth of the weaponized demons, the Sibitti, the gods command them to “blaze like a flame” (kīma dGirri ku-bu-um-ma ḫu-muṭ kīma nab-li). Modern scholars believe this command sealed the relationship between the Sibitti and Erra, primarily because the etymology of Erra’s name is to scorch or char. Another interesting etymological aspect of Erra’s name is the word e-ra-a means copper and the word erû means grindstone. The poem rhetorically asks, “Who chews hard copper (e-ra-a) like leather, who forges tools?” implying great strength on the part of Erra. Further on in the tablets, Erra and the Sibitti go to the top of what they call Mount Ḫeḫe and in a flash of fiery light, raze it off of the ground.
Ultimately, Erra’s motive was to take Marduk’s place in rulership and some scholars have interpreted this to mean that just as Erra and Nergal’s identities fused, Erra is also a reiteration of Marduk.5. This is a common pattern in the ancient world, so it is logical to surmise that these deities were one in the same, at least in spirit.
Going back to the ancient viruses; when paleopathologists study disease, they are often looking to identify the genetic mutation and evolution of a virus. Understanding how these ancient deities “evolved” or “mutated” may be able to help us better understand the evolution of certain diseases. Another example of an Ebola-related viral strain was known as ‘Hand of Marduk’and is described in the texts as follows:
“If (his) limbs . . . , his epigastrium (has) a piercing pain, blood flows incessantly (from his mouth), his arms are continually weak, depression continually falls upon him (and) his eyes are suffused with blood (it is) ‘Hand of Marduk’; he will be worried and die. If his limbs . . . , his temples are overwhelmed, his throat (looks) skinned, his insides are continually cramped (and) he is sick all day and all night (it is) ‘Hand of Marduk’; he will be worried and die.”6.
Both ‘Hand of Sibitti’ and ‘Hand of Marduk’ were fatal and the tablets go on to describe bouts of uncontrollable bleeding from the mouth, abdominal pain, cramps, and bloody diarrhea, usually commencing between the fifth and 10th day of symptoms. Another notable parallel is the tablet’s description of the patient’s throat looking ‘skinned’ which is strikingly similar to the modern description of the throats of victims of modern Ebola.
How interesting it is, that as the ages of rulership changed, so did the diseases of the day. They did not change drastically, rather, they sort of co-evolved. This is yet another reason why we should never immediately discount the knowledge of the ancients, no matter how fanciful their stories may seem. I will be discussing the Ebola-Sumerian connection in greater detail this evening on Hyperspace at 7:00 p.m. EST on the Dark Matter Radio Network.
1. Coleman, M., and J. Scurlock. "Lost Medicine: Recovered from the Clay Tablets of Ancient Mesopotamia."
2. Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn. Strings and Threads a Celebration of the Work of Anne Draffkorn Kilmer.
5. Cagni, Luigi. L'epopea Di Erra. Studi Semitici 34.
6. Coleman, M., and J. Scurlock. "Lost Medicine: Recovered from the Clay Tablets of Ancient Mesopotamia."
Cagni, Luigi. L'epopea Di Erra. Studi Semitici 34. Roma: Instituto di Studi del Vicino Oriente;, 1969.
Coleman, M., and J. Scurlock. "Lost Medicine: Recovered from the Clay Tablets of Ancient Mesopotamia." Tropical Medicine and International Health 2, no. 6 (1997): 603-06.
Daniels, Peter T. The World's Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Geller, Markham J. Forerunners to Udug-Hul: Sumerian Exorcistic Incantations. Stuttgart: F. Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1985.
Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn. Strings and Threads a Celebration of the Work of Anne Draffkorn Kilmer. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011.
Labat, Rene. Traité Akkadien De Diagnostics Et Pronostics Médicaux. Paris: Academie Internationale D'histoire Des Sciences ;, 1951.
McCormick, Joseph B., and Susan Hoch. Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC. Atlanta: Turner Pub. ;, 1996.