Putting A Face To The 2,700-Year-Old Affliction Called Bennu

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Troels Pank Arbøll, an Assyriologist, from the University of Copenhagen, sits back to rub his tired eyes. He’s been poring over these tablers for hours. The cuneiform characters trying his eyes. That’s when he sees it. He rubs his eyes and squints down at the tablet again, just to make sure. There, never seen before by any of the other researchers, appears the image of a demon.

Family Business

Smithsonian Magazine

The tablets that Troels Pank Arbøll was busy examining came from the library of an ancient family of exorcists who lived around 650 B.C. This particular tablet is a 2,700-year-old inscription relating to an affliction called Bennu the Assyrians. It describes the cures for things like convulsions, twitches and other involuntary muscle movements. It is widely believed that Bennu was the Assyrian’s name for what we today call epilepsy. Arbøll believes that this is a depiction of the demon that caused epilepsy on behalf of the Assyrian moon god Sîn.

Assyrian Healthcare

The Sun

As with many other cultures, it was believed that illnesses and diseases were brought on by evil spirits and demons. In the ancient Assyrian culture magic and medicine were completely intertwined and inseparable. Treatments for ailments included everything from creating effigies, performing rituals, ingesting potions, and applying salves. According to Arbøll, the Bennu-epilepsy would probably be treated by placing a leather amulet around the patient’s neck, and directing the smoke of various ingredients heated on a rock toward the patient,

Putting A Face To The Illness


“I was the first one to notice the drawing, despite the text having been known to researchers for decades,” Arbøll said in an email, “so it is not easily seen today unless one knows it is there due to the damage on the manuscript.” The description of the creature includes “curvy horns, a serpent’s tongue and possibly a reptile-like eye. … The creature has a long tail placed alongside the left leg….” Finding a drawing on cuneiform tablets is incredibly rare “This specific drawing is a depiction of the actual demon, instead of other comparable drawings, which generally depict a figurine made during a ritual to remove the illness,” Arbøll said.