4 Health and Wellness in Antiquity through the Middle Ages Mesopotamian tradition was mostly directed toward combating those external causes of sickness through appropriate rituals, incantations, and sacrifices. The demonic or magical explanation for the cause of disease could imply that the sick person was in some way at fault for the illness, receiving the curse as a punishment for some offense they had committed. Belief in the religious and magical causes of disease also necessitated that those responsible for treating disease should be the priests and magicians who could perform the necessary rituals to exorcise the offending spirit from the body. Likewise, the preservation of health required that the individual seek to maintain an appropri- ate state of spiritual purity by following the appropriate practices to pacify the demons or supernatural beings, who might cause disease. We shall look more closely at the role of religious and magical healing in Mesopotamian society in a later chapter. For now, it suffices to note that the Mesopotamian belief system did not require a detailed under- standing of the body or the causes of disease within the body. In the Egyptian tradition, we find a blend of religious/magical explanations with naturalistic explanations for disease. The naturalis- tic understanding of disease causation explained how disease worked within the body as a natural (not magical) process. Egyptian physicians believed that the body was filled with a network of vessels or chan- nels, called metu , which included blood vessels, ducts, tendons, and muscles. The metu were believed to originate in the heart from which they extended to different parts of the body, so that the heart could “speak” through them. The various metu were believed ultimately to unite again at the anus, thus making them ideal channels by which a variety of substances—including blood, air, mucus, urine, semen, feces, various disease-bearing entities, and good or evil spirits—could be transported through the body. The large number of remedies aimed at strengthening or softening the metu , which could become mute or even die, indicate just how important these vessels were to the Egyp- tian understanding of the body and disease. In addition to carrying useful materials through the body, the metu were believed to be the channels through which wekhedu traveled. Although scholars continue to debate the meaning of the term wekhedu (suggestions include “pain” or “purulency”), the best translation is likely “morbid (disease-causing) principle.” In theory, wekhedu orig- inated in the anus (although it was distinct from feces) and spread through the metu to the rest of the body, where it caused abscesses, pain, and a variety of different kinds of diseases. Based on the rec- ognition of the fact that the bowels were the first part of the body to putrefy after death, Egyptian theorists believed that the bowels were the source of putrefaction and hence wekhedu in the body. Thus, many
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