How Depression was Treated in Ancient Mesopotamia?


While the concept of "depression" as understood today may not have existed in the same way in ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, there are historical records and texts that provide insights into emotional and psychological distress that could be related to depressive symptoms. It's important to note that interpreting historical accounts through a modern psychological lens can be challenging, as the understanding and language of mental health have evolved significantly over time. That being said, there are indications that people in ancient Mesopotamia experienced emotional suffering that could be linked to what we now understand as depression.

Here is a surprisingly relatable description of depression and heartbreak from 3,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that hosted the peoples of Babylon and Assyria: 

“If Depression continually falls upon him, he continually sighs, he eats bread and drinks beer but it does not go well for him, then says, ‘Oh, my heart!’ and is dejected, he is sick with Lovesickness; it is the same for a man and a woman.”

Descriptive Texts

Some cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia mention individuals experiencing emotional turmoil, sadness, and grief. These emotions could be seen as indicative of what we would recognize as depressive symptoms today.

Here are a few examples of descriptive texts that offer insights into emotional experiences in ancient Mesopotamia:

1.       Lamentation Texts: Lamentation texts are poetic compositions that express sorrow and grief over various losses, such as death, destruction, or misfortune. These texts often convey deep emotional distress and despair. An example is the "Lament for Ur," which mourns the downfall of the city of Ur and expresses the emotional turmoil experienced by its inhabitants.

2.       Prayers and Incantations: Many cuneiform texts contain prayers and incantations that invoke deities for protection, healing, or relief from distress. Some of these texts reflect a sense of helplessness and a desire for divine intervention to alleviate emotional suffering.

3.       Omens and Divination Texts: Mesopotamian society placed great importance on omens and divination to predict future events. Some texts describe omens that were interpreted as signs of impending misfortune or calamity. Individuals might have experienced anxiety and fear in response to these omens.

4.       Personal Correspondence: Some letters and personal correspondences provide glimpses into the emotional lives of individuals. These texts may express concerns, worries, or emotional struggles that individuals faced in their daily lives.

5.       Literary Works: Mesopotamian literature often portrayed characters who experienced emotional challenges. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, explores themes of grief, mortality, and existential questioning, which can be linked to emotional distress.

6.       Legal and Administrative Texts: Some legal and administrative texts mention disputes and conflicts that arose due to interpersonal issues. These texts indirectly reflect the emotional and social dynamics of the society.

Medical Texts

Ancient Mesopotamian texts often linked physical health and mental well-being. Some texts describe ailments that include symptoms such as fatigue, loss of appetite, and feelings of hopelessness – characteristics that align with depressive symptoms. These texts sometimes suggest treatments or rituals for conditions that may have included emotional suffering.

Here are some aspects of medical texts that relate to emotional experiences:

1.       Physical and Emotional Connection: Many ancient medical texts from Mesopotamia believed in a close connection between physical health and emotional well-being. Some texts suggested that physical ailments could result from emotional distress or divine displeasure.

2.       Descriptions of Symptoms: Some medical texts describe symptoms that could be associated with emotional or psychological distress. For example, feelings of sadness, anxiety, fatigue, and loss of appetite might be mentioned in relation to certain conditions.

3.       Treatment Approaches: Mesopotamian medical texts prescribed various treatments for different ailments, including rituals, medicinal herbs, and incantations. Some treatments might have had psychological or emotional components, such as calming rituals aimed at alleviating distress.

4.       Use of Incantations: Incantations were commonly used in Mesopotamian medicine as part of treatments. These incantations often invoked deities or supernatural powers and might have been employed to provide relief from emotional or psychological distress.

5.       Interactions with Healers: The role of healers, which included both medical practitioners and priests, likely involved addressing not only physical symptoms but also emotional and psychological concerns of patients. The soothing presence and words of a healer could have had a positive impact on emotional well-being.

6.       Cultural and Religious Context: The understanding of mental and emotional well-being was heavily influenced by the religious and cultural beliefs of ancient Mesopotamia. Emotional distress might have been attributed to divine forces or cosmic influences.

7.       Relationship with the Gods: Some medical texts acknowledge the role of gods in both causing and curing illnesses, which could have included emotional suffering. Rituals and offerings were often employed to seek divine intervention for healing.

8.       Magical Healing Practices: Alongside medical treatments, magical practices and rituals were used to address various conditions. These practices might have included gestures and words meant to ease emotional discomfort.

Supernatural and Spiritual Explanations

In many ancient cultures, including Mesopotamia, emotional and psychological distress were often attributed to supernatural or spiritual causes. Ancient Mesopotamians believed that various deities could influence human emotions, and negative emotions might be seen as a result of divine displeasure or intervention.

Here's how supernatural and spiritual explanations were used to understand emotional distress and well-being in ancient Mesopotamia:

1.       Divine Influence: Ancient Mesopotamians believed that gods and goddesses had a direct influence on human affairs, including emotions and mental states. Emotional distress, such as feelings of sadness, fear, or despair, could be attributed to the displeasure or intervention of deities.

2.       Divine Punishment: Emotional suffering might be interpreted as a form of divine punishment for perceived transgressions or offenses. Individuals experiencing distress might believe that their emotional state was a consequence of actions that angered the gods.

3.       Omens and Signs: Events in nature, unusual occurrences, or dreams were often interpreted as omens or signs from the gods. Emotional states could be influenced by the interpretation of these omens, leading to feelings of anxiety, fear, or hopelessness.

4.       Rituals and Offerings: To alleviate emotional distress or seek favor from deities, individuals engaged in rituals and offered sacrifices. These acts were believed to appease the gods and potentially lead to relief from emotional suffering.

5.       Spiritual Healing: Priests and religious practitioners held the role of intermediaries between humans and the divine. They might perform rituals, incantations, or ceremonies aimed at addressing emotional turmoil and seeking divine intervention for healing.

6.       Personal Connection to Deities: Ancient Mesopotamians believed in a personal relationship with their deities. Individuals might pray to specific gods or goddesses associated with emotional well-being, seeking comfort and guidance.

7.       Cultural Practices: The cultural practices of prayer, offerings, and rituals were integral to addressing emotional distress. Engaging in these practices could provide a sense of control and empowerment in the face of emotional challenges.

8.       Cosmic Forces: Beliefs about cosmic influences and the alignment of planets and celestial bodies could also impact emotional experiences. Certain cosmic events might be interpreted as influencing human emotions and well-being.

9.       Narratives and Myths: Myths and narratives in Mesopotamian culture often featured gods and goddesses experiencing emotions and challenges. These stories provided a framework for understanding human emotional experiences as reflections of divine dynamics.

Example of Clinical Description and Treatment

The present text is unusual in some respects. The tablet is a copy and the original date is unknown, although very probably of the 2nd millennium BC when there was a major activity in the collection and editing of medical texts. It includes an unusually long clinical description followed by its treatment, in this case a ritual.

It is uncertain whether the clinical description in the text below referred originally to a single case involving one ‘head of the household’ or, in the usual Babylonian medical tradition, presents the complete clinical picture derived from observing many examples. The appeal is to a higher deity, Shamash, the sun god and God of justice.


If an awīlum (or specifically the head of a household) has had a (long) spell of misfortune – and he does not know how it came upon him – so that he has continually suffered losses and deprivation (including) losses of barley and silver and losses of slaves and slave-girls, and there have been cases of oxen, horses, sheep, dogs and pigs, and even (other) awīlū (in his household) dying off altogether; if he has frequent nervous breakdowns, and from constantly giving orders with no (one) complying, calling with no (one) answering, and striving to achieve his desires while having (at the same time) to look after his household, he shakes with fear in his bedroom and his limbs have become “weak”; if because of his condition he is filled with anger against god and king; if his limbs often hang limp, and he is sometimes so frightened that he cannot sleep by day or night and constantly sees disturbing dreams; if he has a “weakness” in his limbs (from) not having enough food and drink; and if (in speech) he forgets (cannot find)the word which he is trying to say; then, as for that awīlum, the anger of (his) god and goddess is upon him.

To release him, and so that he shall not be overcome by his “fears”:

(Procedure): You shall make two anti-māmītu images, male and female, of clay and potter’s clay, and you shall write their names on their left-hand sides. (The female figurine) you shall dress with a coat, wrap and headcloth of blue, black and white wool. A white stone you shall put round her neck. (The male figurine) you will (likewise) clothe with coat, wrap and headcloth and a girdle of white unspun wool you will [bind] on his loins.

Then before Shamash you will prepare the (customary) ritual. You will set up a libation vessel and provide (side) dishes of dates and emmer-meal. You will prepare a sacrificial sheep-offering which is pure and without blemish, and the right shoulder, (both) fat and roast, you will present to him.

You will then introduce the anti-māmītu images to Shamash, declaring their names (and saying):


O Shamash, king of heaven and earth, lord of law and just reform,

To preserve (the lives of) my statues I have purified the potter’s clay,

I have given them their silver beads.

(As) in presenting them to you I honour (you) by them, I glorify (you) by them,

(So) let this his statue become a man,

Let this her statue become a woman.

O Shamash, lord most high and knower of everything,

I, So-and so, son of So-and-so, thy respectful servant,

From this day on do walk before you.

(So) as your great divinity shines forth upon me,

With regard to the māmītu-influences which have seized me, which pursue me night and day,

Which are wasting my flesh, and stand (ready) to cut off my life,

By the command of your great godhead

Allow it to these (images) to be a substitute for my flesh and person,

My substitute figurines let them be.

(Now) unto Ereshkigal, the great Queen of the Underworld,

The(se) substitutes of myself do I bury in the earth, (saying):

Long life and good health

Do you decree for me, do you open up for me!


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