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🎓 Practical Religion: Ancient Rituals as 'Vaccination'
Many religious rituals make practical sense. And the ancients had some pretty practical ways of handling plagues.
There's a joke in the archaeology and anthropology communities, that if you don't know what something is, it winds up termed “ritual.” Find a weird bone pipe? It must have a ritual use! Find a box that doesn't literally have “this was used exclusively for shipping merchandise” stamped on it? It probably had a ritual purpose! Anthropologists 600 years from now will almost definitely think my turkey roasting pan I use once a year had “a ritual purpose,” and to be honest, they'll be right.
History books are written in a way that makes it really easy to imagine the people inside them as being really different from us — but honestly, people are still people. We live, we love, we ask for help, we complain about having an overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips. The fundamental nature of the average human hasn't changed that much in the last couple thousand years.
Consider a “ritually sacrificed animal.” Imagine you're a powerful magistrate, and you've just finished examining a chicken liver to make sure there isn't anything wrong with it. This seems weird until you consider that a diseased liver in a local farm animal might be a pretty decent indicator of a coming plague.
Anyway, let's say the liver looks perfect. Now you've got all this animal meat, potentially already cooked in the “sacred fire.” There are all these people gathered around to see what the outcome of the ritual is, right?
Anthropologists usually call that kind of event a "religious festival" or "ritual feast."
Where I come from, we call it a bull roast.
So when I read about the rituals the ancient Mesopotamians performed to remove mold from their house, I try not to think of them as “weird superstitions.” Sure, maybe some stodgy old priest was just waving incense around and being useless — but maybe it looked more like an expert showing up at someone's house, using chemicals the homeowner didn't understand but had reason to trust, and getting paid. As someone who has more than once paid a plumber to solve a problem with piping I only barely understand, I try not to judge the ancients for letting an expert class attend to their health & safety needs.
Honestly, they probably didn’t do a particularly bad job of it, all things considered.
Troels Arboll is an expert on “medicine, magic, and the transmission of knowledge in the Middle East.” I once attended one of his lectures, on the topic of Ancient Mesopotamian epidemics. This was around the time of the big debates about vaccine passports. I've held off on sharing these notes until now because my interest in the ancient Middle East has nothing in particular to do with policy debates and I didn’t want to get sucked in that direction.
Mesopotamia — Babylonia in the south, Assyria in the north — has a bunch of tablets with references to epidemics and diseases, mostly dating from 1900 BCE onwards. For example, simmum is a skin eruption disease, di'u is a disease that causes headaches, and mutanu is the term for “lots of death in a time of crisis” — famine, epidemic, whatever.
Ancient Mesopotamians treated diseases with a combination of medicinal treatments with prayer and rituals to attempt to appease the job. In the first millennium BCE, they didn't really differentiate between magic and medicine. Physicians did have knowledge we'd consider real medicine, they were specialists and the most highly regarded socially. They performed surgery and used pharmaceutical knowledge. Exorcists were connected to temples, serving as healing staff. There was not widely available healthcare. It's not clear that they treated regular people or the lower classes, but folk healers aren't attested to by the written sources (which doesn't mean they didn't exist).
Large-scale crises like city-wide epidemics were considered to be chaotic and impersonal and to be the responsibility of "large cosmic events."Frank M. Snowden once said "Epidemics facilitate historical development and change, they're useful for understanding social and religious changes as well as the outcome of wars." They're the currents beneath the surface of history, because they drive so much of people moving and so much economic crises.
There were political reasons for the kings to care about epidemics. We have reports from advisors to kings about different regions and cities in the county that were stricken with disease. There were definitely letters and chronicles that mention epidemics, but unfortunately they tend to be isolated and one-sided; we don't have responses to the letters.
We do however have records of letters from the king of Lebanon from the king of Egypt, asking for details about a plague:
Inasmuch as you say 'I will not permit the men of the town of Sumer to enter my city; there is a plague in the town of Sumer.' Is it a plague against men or against asses?
We know that palace epidemics resulted in social distancing and isolation being ordered. If a woman got sick in a particular way, they knew not to have anyone sleep in her bed, drink from her cup, or sit in a chair she used. They knew about contagiousness, literally: “The wound that makes itself be accepted by others.”
Epidemics were viewed as cyclical events, like typhoons or monsoon winds or moon phases (or flu season). In the first millennium BCE, though, there were rituals anticipating them. These rituals were “good for” a year (much like modern flu vaccines) and were represented by figurines in houses that might literally say something like “disease, di'u-illness, distress, and epidemic will not come near the man or his house for one year.”
Rituals designed to expel demons may have marked homes as infected, the magic meant to enclose a quarantined patient but also served as a warning to other people that there was sickness and that they should avoid it. Folks thousands of years ago knew to avoid sharing driving vessels, chairs, and beds with infected people during an epidemic, they burned or fumigated personal objects, and avoided infected cities. This may have only been possible for the elite; we don't know. As with the modern day, it's hard to keep isolated when you're poor and need to go to work… and people being people I imagine that there were people who just didn’t want to be bothered.
But it’s still pretty interesting to think how people 3,000 years from now might think about Western Civilization’s handling of epidemics.
Body Ritual Among the Nacirema by Horace Miner is an incredible resource for putting the way we learn about other cultures into perspective and I highly recommend it. The Mysterious Fall of the Nacirema is a companion piece by Neil B. Thompson and equally worth reading.