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The mysterious case of the epilepsy demon tablet

The mysterious case of the epilepsy demon tablet 31

The first image of the ancient demon who allegedly caused epilepsy was discovered in the archives of a museum in Berlin. The 2670-year-old tablet, originally part of the library of a family of exorcists, shows the demon with sinuous horns, a long tail, a snake’s tongue and what could be a reptilian eye. Not so different, in other words, as some Christian representations of the devil.

Dr Troels Pank Arbøll, Assyriologist at the University of Copenhagen, discovered the demon as he examined an old tablet at Vorderasiatisches museum from Berlin. The tablet had been examined several times before, Arbøll told LiveScience , but he “was the first to notice the drawing”. The clay tablet, written in ancient cuneiform, describes a remedy for convulsions, contractions and muscle movements.

Some years ago, a clay tablet written in an extinct Semetic language, Akkadian, was discovered in northern Iraq at the ruins of the city of Assur where modern day Qalʿat Sharqāṭ is located.

This particular Assyrian tablet shows the demon that inhabited the body and caused epileptic seizures. It is unusual to find a drawing of a demon in a medical text, according to Smithsonian Magazine; generally images depicted figurines used in healing rituals.

The Assyrians call this disease “bennu”, a condition which many modern researchers refer to as epilepsy. It wasn’t until Arbøll took a closer look at the tablet that he noticed the slight outline of a figure on the bottom half of the tablet. He published the results of his research in The Journal of Cuneiform Medicine .

The mysterious case of the epilepsy demon tablet 32

For the ancient Assyrians, the seizures were not a symptom of epilepsy, but of demonic possession. In his book Ancient medicine, Dr. Laura Zucconi writes that the “falling diseases” classified as bennu in ancient literature were related to a malicious demon or to the lunar god Sin. It is likely that a number of other conditions, including forms of mental illness, have also been grouped in this category. The link between the moon and madness was very common in the ancient world; the English word “lunatic” comes from Latin for “moon”. The elder Assyrian remedies for chasing the epileptic demon include hanging “a mouse and a thorn shoot” at the patient’s door; an exorcist dressed in a red robe and a cape; a crow and a hawk.

The Assyrians were not the only ancient people to comment on the origins of epilepsy. In his book on the subject in the fifth century BC, Hippocrates calls it “the sacred disease” but writes that the idea that epilepsy comes from the gods is nothing more than ignorance. For Hippocrates “it comes from the same causes as other diseases”, that is to say “what comes in and out of the body, from the cold, from the sun and from the constantly changing winds” (On sacred disease 18). For Greek and Roman doctors, like Hippocrates and Galen, the drooping disease was caused by a variety of things, including blockages in the brain, sleeping on the back, drunkenness and spoiled milk. Hippocrates argued that the condition is hereditary.

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These elite doctors, however, were fighting a lost battle. Most ancient Greeks and Romans still believed that epilepsy was the result of divine interference, especially that related to the moon. Until the seventh century AD, philosophers continued to speculate that epilepsy was related to the lunar cycles. Unlike the Jews and early Christians, however, the Greeks and Romans did not regularly discuss demonic possession. This, as Oswei Temkin has shown, was a particularly Jewish explanation of the condition and something that the Jews may have recovered from other ancient civilizations close to the East such as the Assyrians. The Jewish historian of the first century AD, Josephus, for example, discusses the medical talents of King Solomon saying that “God granted him knowledge of the art used against demons for the good and healing of men.” He also composed incantations by which illnesses are relieved, and left forms of exorcisms with which those possessed by demons drive them away, never to return ”(Jewish War 8.45).

The association between demons and sickness in the ancient Jews explains why, when Jesus encounters falling individuals, foaming in the mouth and losing the ability to speak, he performs an exorcism rather than a cure. In the New Testament, Jesus meets a boy (widely regarded by scholars as an epileptic) whose father asks Jesus to heal him. The Gospel of Matthew describes the boy using the Greek word for “moonstruck” or “lunatic”. The cause of the boy’s condition is attributed by his father to demonic possession and in all the Gospel versions of the stories that Jesus is doing an exorcism.

The mysterious case of the epilepsy demon tablet 33

The first Christians who read this story saw it as a kind of edifying tale for their audience. Doctor Nicole Kelley supports that later interpreters speak of “spiritual epilepsy” in which epilepsy is a symptom of sin and vice. Some have linked epilepsy to adultery, while others have linked it to excessive wine consumption. In the case of the epileptic boy in Gospel history, early Christian interpreters accused his parents, and his father in particular, of sin. Fifth-century bishop Peter Chrysologus states in a homily on this story that “the devil’s punishment was evident in the torments of the human body.” In other words, it was the boy, or at least the fault of his parents. Kelley writes that “Christian interpretations of this [history], work to forge associations between epilepsy and unacceptable practices, behaviors and conditions. Epilepsy, from this point of view, is not just a physiological condition.

Despite medical advances that have reclassified epilepsy as a neurological condition, some Christians, even today, continue to associate epilepsy with the work of the devil. In 2016, Linda Chaniotis has written a powerful account of her parents’ repeated attempts to exorcise her when she was a child. It was not until she was 30 years old that she was diagnosed with epilepsy.

In his article, Chaniotis describes the feeling of deja vu that accompanied his condition and allowed him to predict the onset of conditions. She is not alone. Some ancient sources positively interpret the feeling of deja-vu felt by people with temporal lobe epilepsy as a kind of prescience or precognitive ability that enabled people with “drooping disease” to predict the future. There are even studies of the modern phenomenon. Not only has epilepsy historically been positively associated with precognitive abilities, but there are a number of important historical figures believed to have lived with the disease. For example, the Roman historian Suetonius writes that towards the end of his life and his career as a dictator, Julius Caesar experienced “fainting spells”. The biographer Plutarch says that on one occasion, when Caesar collapsed, he was taken to a safe place. These details are interpreted by some as a sign that Caesar was an epileptic, although others have suggested that these episodes may have been mini-strokes. Saint Paul Apostle and Joan of Arc were diagnosed in retrospect with epilepsy. And maybe even Mary Magdalene, which the Bible notes was once owned by seven demons, shared this condition. It’s a group of people who make history.

Of course, we will never know what medical conditions, if any, these former figures faced, as they are not available for medical interviews or tests. But if they had “the falling disease”, we now have a very accurate picture of the demon that the Assyrians blamed for the condition.

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