The Mysterious Case of the Demon Epilepsy Tablet

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The earliest image of the ancient demon believed to cause epilepsy has been discovered in the archives of a museum in Berlin. The 2,670-year-old tablet, which was originally part of the library of a family of exorcists, shows the demon with curvy horns, a long tail, a serpent’s tongue, and what might be a reptilian eye. Not that different, in other words, than some Christian depictions of the Devil.

Dr. Troels Pank Arbøll, an Assyriologist at the University of Copenhagen, discovered the demon when he was examining an ancient tablet at the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin. The tablet had been examined many times before, Arbøll told LiveScience, but he “was the first one to notice the drawing.” The clay tablet, which is written in ancient cuneiform, describes a cure for convulsions, twitching and muscle movement. The Assyrians call this disease “bennu,” a condition that many modern scholars believe refers to epilepsy. It was only when Arbøll examined the tablet more closely that he noticed the faint outline of a figure on the lower half of the tablet. He published the results of his research in Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes.

For ancient Assyrians, seizures were a symptom not of epilepsy, but of demonic possession. In her recently published book Ancient Medicine, Dr. Laura Zucconi writes that the “falling diseases” classified as bennu in ancient literature were either connected to a malicious demon or to the moon god Sin. It’s likely that a number of other conditions, including forms of mental illness, were also lumped into this category. The connection between the moon and insanity was very common in the ancient world; the English word “lunatic” comes from the Latin for “moon.” Ancient Assyrian cures for driving out the epilepsy demon include hanging “a mouse and a shoot of a thornbush” on the patient’s door; an exorcist dressed in a red garment and cloak; a raven, and a falcon.

The Assyrians weren’t the only ancient people to comment on the origins of epilepsy. In his fifth century B.C. book on the subject, Hippocrates calls it “the sacred disease” but writes that the idea that epilepsy comes from gods is nothing other than ignorance. For Hippocrates “it comes from the same causes as the other diseases” which is to say “what enters and exits the body, from the cold, from the sun and ever-changing winds” (On the Sacred Disease 18). For Greek and Roman doctors, like Hippocrates and Galen, the falling sickness was caused by a variety of things including blockages in the brain, sleeping on one’s back, drunkenness, and spoiled milk. Hippocrates argued that the condition is hereditary.

These elite doctors, however, were fighting a losing battle. Most ancient Greeks and Romans still believed that epilepsy was the result of divine interference, particularly that related to the moon. As late as the seventh century A.D. philosophers continued to speculate that epilepsy was related to lunar cycles. Unlike Jews and early Christians, however, Greeks and Romans didn’t regularly discuss demonic possession. That, as Oswei Temkin has shown, was a particularly Jewish explanation for the condition and something that Jews may have picked up on from other ancient near eastern civilizations like the Assyrians. The first century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus, for example, discusses King Solomon’s medical talents by saying that “God granted him knowledge of the art used against demons for the benefit and healing of men. He also composed incantations by which illnesses are relieved, and left behind forms of exorcisms with which those possessed by demons drive them out, never to return” (Jewish War 8.45).

The association between demons and illness among ancient Jews explains why it is that when Jesus encounters individuals who fall down, foam at the mouth, and lose the ability to speak, he performs an exorcism rather than a healing. In the New Testament, Jesus encounters a boy (widely considered by scholars to be an epileptic) whose father asks Jesus to heal him. The Gospel of Matthew describes the boy using the Greek word for “moonstruck” or “lunatic.” The cause of the boy’s condition is attributed by his father to demonic possession and in all of the Gospel versions of the stories Jesus performs an exorcism.

<div class="inline-image__title">VAT 13739 / VAT 14130 Tontafel</div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Olaf M. Teßmer</div>
VAT 13739 / VAT 14130 Tontafel
Olaf M. Teßmer

Early Christians who read this story saw it as a kind of cautionary tale for their audiences. Dr. Nicole Kelley argues that later interpreters talk about "spiritual epilepsy" in which epilepsy is a symptom of sin and vice. Some linked epilepsy to adultery and adulterous impulses, while others connect it to drinking too much wine. In the case of the epileptic boy in the Gospel story, early Christian interpreters accused his parents, and his father in particular, of sinfulness. The fifth century bishop Peter Chrysologus states in a homily on this story that “the punishment of the devil was apparent in the torment of the human body.” In other words, it was the boy, or at least his parents’ fault. Kelley writes that “Christian interpretations of this [story] work to forge associations between epilepsy and unacceptable practices, behaviors, and conditions. Epilepsy, on this view, is not merely a physiological condition. It becomes an embodied revelation of its sufferer’s spiritual and moral condition.”

Despite the medical advances that have recategorized epilepsy as a neurological condition, some Christians, even today, continue to associate epilepsy with the work of the devil. In 2016, Linda Chaniotis, wrote a powerful account of her parents’ repeated attempts to exorcise her as a child. It was only at the age of 30 that she was diagnosed with epilepsy.

In her piece Chaniotis describes the sense of déjà vu that accompanied her condition and allowed her to predict the onset of conditions. She is not alone. Some ancient sources interpret the sense of déjà vu experienced by those with temporal lobe epilepsy positively as a kind of prescience or precognitive ability that allowed people with the “falling sickness” to predict the future. There are even modern studies of the phenomenon. Not only has epilepsy historically been positively associated with precognitive abilities, there are a number of important historical figures rumored to have lived with the condition. For example, the Roman historian Suetonius writes that towards the end of his life and career as dictator Julius Caesar experienced “fainting fits.” The biographer Plutarch mentions that on one occasion when Caesar collapsed he was carried off to safety. These details are interpreted by some as a sign that Caesar was an epileptic, although others have suggested maybe these episodes were mini-strokes. Both St. Paul the Apostle and Joan of Arc have been retrospectively diagnosed with epilepsy. And perhaps even Mary Magdalene, whom the Bible notes was once possessed by seven demons, shared this condition. This is a pretty illustrious history-shaping group of individuals.

Of course, we will never know what—if any—medical conditions these ancient figures contended with because they aren’t available for interviews or medical testing. But if they did have “the falling sickness” we now have a very precise image of the demon that the Assyrians blamed for the condition.

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