October lecture series to review connections between medicine and magic in ancient communities

When illness or injury inflicted people in the ancient world, they often turned to a trustworthy physician who also was familiar with the practice of magic.

That connection between the world of the physical and what today people would consider the psychological aspect of healing will get a review this fall in an October series of lectures at Breasted Hall in the Oriental Institute.

Titled “Medicine and Magic in the Ancient World, A Search for the Cure,” the series will look at the way people dealt with health problems in Mesopotamia, Greece and Egypt.


"This series will give us all a rare and fascinating opportunity to understand how the ancient people of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece thought about their bodies, their health, the nature of knowledge and the world around them,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute.

“In our own culture, we take for granted that medicine, religion, and magic are all separate things. But in fact, those categories of knowledge are cultural inventions, unique to each civilization,” said Stein. “The ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks and Egyptians thought about themselves and the laws of nature quite differently from the way we do. And those differences can give us deep insights into these civilizations."

Robert Ritner, Professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute, will open the series with a talk titled “The Theory and Practice of Medicine and Magic in Ancient Egypt,” from 5 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 10. The series will continue on Wednesdays Oct. 17 and 24 and Saturday Oct. 27 with talks about medicine and its connection with magic in Greece and Mesopotamia.

Egyptian doctors also were magicians, but it was not the kind of magic people see today that we consider a form of entertainment, explained Ritner, an expert on magic and medicine in ancient Egypt.

Instead of being used for clever tricks, magic to the Egyptians was part of a comprehensive approach to life and provided a way to connect spiritually with the powers of their deities. The spells and amulets the doctors gave their patients at the end of their visit reassured them.

Egyptian medicine was based in careful observations of the natural world and was in many ways similar to the practice of medicine today, Ritner said.

The Egyptian tradition of medicine lives on today in the American symbol commonly used to denote medicine. The two serpents on a staff is a symbol of Thoth, the Egyptian deity associated with magic and science.

Magical and medical healing in ancient Greece will be discussed at a session beginning at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 17, with talks by Elizabeth Asmis, professor in classics and Christopher Faraone, the Frank Curtis Springer and Gertrude Melcher Springer Professor in the Humanities and the College. Faraone will look at the use of amulets and purifications in the ancient Greek world, which were used to cure or keep away various diseases, including headaches, colic, fever and gynecological problems. Asmis will look at the beginnings of scientific medicine in ancient Greece and Rome, and talk about the Hippocratic Oath and its relevance today.

In his talk “Diseases and Epidemics in Ancient Mesopotamia: Medical Conceptualization and Responses” beginning at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24, Walter Farber, professor of Assyriology at the Oriental Institute, will give an overview of the sources for ancient Mesopotamian medicine, look at different healing approaches, and then examine how people at the time conceptualized and battled what we today know to be transmittable contagious diseases and epidemics.

Also on Oct. 24, Robert Biggs, professor emeritus in Assyriology, will discuss Mesopotamian religious practitioners and their approach to illness and misfortune, and how they diagnosed the source of illness, such as divine anger, the breaking of taboos, results of bad omens, machinations of witches, or demonic attacks, and how they sought to counteract them.

The series will conclude with “Mesopotamian Texts and the Knowledge Assumptions of Medical Diagnosis,” a talk by John Wee, postdoctoral scholar in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27. 

Registration may be completed at the series website: http://medmagic.eventbrite.com/