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Phlegm and breath—Babylonian contributions to hippocratic medicine

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Chapter Summary

In Greek humoural theory, the colour white was associated with phlegm, which is synonymous with mucous and was thought to be a primary element like gall, in explaining disease; 'phlegmatic' was a meaningful diagnostic term in Greek medicine. In Greek medicine 'wind' (pneuma) or breath (physa) was vital in circulating throughout the body, and if any part of the body was cut off from this breath, paralysis resulted. One treatise in the Hippocratic Corpus, On Breaths, argues that all diseases are caused by winds in the body. The Akkadian disease name zikurrudû is borrowed from the Sumerian term, which has been interpreted in various ways and is understood as the disease brought on by black magic and witchcraft. A literal translation for zikurrudû is 'breath cut off', and may well correspond to the cutting-off of pneuma in Greek medicine.

Keywords: Babylonian medicine; breath; Hippocratic medicine; phlegm; zikurrudû



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