Cuneiform Tablet Shows Demon That Assyrians Believed Caused Epilepsy

A stone tablet inscribed with Cuneiform script. Frisheid/Shutterstock

Epilepsy is a condition known from antiquity that's characterized by seizures and often met with stigma in society. It turns out that stigma is nothing new. Ancient Assyria, one of the world’s first empires, blamed the condition on the work of a demon.

As reported in Les Journal Des Médecines Cunéiformes, Danish researcher Troels Pank Arbøll discovered a drawing of a demon on the back of a known cuneiform tablet of medicine from the first millennium BCE. Only a handful of such demonic depictions are known from a similar epoch.

“The sources give a unique insight into how an Assyrian doctor was trained in the art of diagnosing and treating illnesses, and their causes,” Dr Arbøll, from the University of Copenhagen, told ScienceNordic. “It’s an insight into some of the earliest examples of what we can describe as science.”

Epilepsy (in a non-modern term) is not the only condition discussed in the tablet. Other psychological ailments are also present, but the others are not linked to demonic possession. For this reason, Arbøll believes that the depiction is about bennu, the epilepsy demon.

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“The figure is roughly 6.4 centimetres high and 2.6 centimetres wide, and it is clearly anthropomorphic. The head has ears and curvy horns, a serpent's tongue, and possibly a reptile-like eye. The neck is long, and in general the being appears to be covered with badly preserved scales or hair. Unfortunately, the majority of the torso is fragmentary,” Arbøll wrote in the paper. “The left hand appears claw-or paw-like, and the right hand is lumpy with a pointy thumb. The creature has a long tail placed alongside the left leg, and this leg appears to have discernible muscles.”

The tablet is believed to have been written by an ancient doctor called Kisir-Ashur at the end of the 7th century BCE. Despite the demon on this tablet, there is also a lot about herbal remedies, poisons, and venoms.

Epilepsy is an umbrella term for several neurological conditions that are characterized by recurring seizures. Often the cause for it is unknown. In 2015, 39 million people were estimated to suffer from the condition.

[H/T: ScienceNordic]

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