Diabetes in Antiquity


I don’t want to start a war of the nerds or anything, but since Catherine Price brought up her love of Latin, it seems like a fine time to confess that I too am a language mega-dork.  In college and grad school I studied Sumerian, Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, and Ancient Greek.  But…no Latin.  Never!  Also, unlike Catherine, I haven’t retained much of what I learned.  So I won’t be breaking down words into their roots for you here (and anyway…English does not have a whole lot of Sumerian roots).


What I can do, however, to give you your daily dose of antiquity, is point you to this article by Lee J. Sanders, which highlights the major milestones in the history of diabetes.  Sanders writes about the discovery of the Ebers Papyrus in Egypt in 1872, by German Egyptologist Georg Ebers.  The Ebers Papyrus was written about 1550 BCE, and evidence suggests that it was copied from a series of books many centuries older.  Sanders writes, “The first reference to diabetes mellitus is attributed to the Ebers Papyrus, which mentions remedies for the treatment of excessive urination (polyuria). The Ebers Papyrus contains remedies “to eliminate urine which is too plentiful.” The following mixture was prescribed for the treatment of polyuria:

A measuring glass filled with Water from the Bird pond, Elderberry, Fibres of the asit plant, Fresh Milk, Beer-Swill, Flower of the Cucumber, and Green Dates.”

Anyone ever tried that?  If so, let me know how it works.  I do recall reading about diseases in Mesopotamia, but mostly what I remember are incantations against diseases.  I don’t know if an incantation against urine exists, however, I do remember one against flatulence (I remember it because it’s funny).  I’ve gone to the trouble of looking it up so I can share it with you:  Here it is, from Benjamin R. Foster’s Before The Muses, An Anthology of Akkadian Literature:

Against Flatulence

Wind, O wind!

Wind, you are the fire of the gods.

You are the wind between turd and urine.

You have come out and taken your place

Among the gods, your brethren.

Foster notes, “This may be one of the few apotheoses of flatulence in world literature.”

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12 years ago

very interesting, gets you thinking thats for sure. Keep up the good work.

13 years ago

Um, can we discuss that you actually tagged this post “cuneiform”? I love that. I am also very impressed — both with your ancient language skillz and with the flatulence incantation. “You are the wind between turd and urine” . . . do you think that might have been an original lyric in Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings”?

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