The Neo-Assyrian physician Nabû-tabni-uṣurseems once upon a time for reasons we may never know to have fallen out of favour with the court. Unlike his colleagues, he no longer received compensation for his work. Payments promised by the court never materialised. Concern for his financial well-being and his position in the court snowballed into fear. Gripped by anxiety, he penned – or, rather, impressed – this letter to the king.
“To the king, my lord, your servant Nabû-tabni-uṣur. Good health to the king, my lord!
If the king, my lord, knows a fault made by me, let the king not keep my alive!
All my associates are happy, (and) I am dying of a broken heart. I have been treated as if I did not keep the watch of the king, my lord; my heart has become exceedingly troubled, heartbreak has seized me, I have become exceedingly afraid: may the king revive my heart before my colleagues!” (ABL 525)
Found at Nineveh in the royal library and now housed in the British Museum (K. 590), the cuneiform tablet that carries these words provides a window onto a language for anxiety that overlaps with modern ways of framing worry, fear, and sorrow, a language that centres the heart, or Akkadian libbu,as an organ of thought and emotion. More specifically, a broken heart.
Our physician’s description organises his experience of heartbreak along the same lines as those found in contemporary therapeutic medical texts, a rich corpus of texts that describe illnesses and prescribe treatments, like this one from nearby Aššur:
“[If] he continually has heartbreak… in his bed he is continually afraid, he suffers paralysis up his form; toward god and king, his heart is filled (with anger), his limbs are poured out repeatedly, on repeated occasions he is afraid; day and night he does not sleep, he continually sees frightening dreams, he continually suffers paralysis; he has no desire for bread or beer; he forgets the words that he speaks.” (BAM 234)
Fear, paralysis, nightmares, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and forgetfulness are recorded as presenting with the condition labelled as heartbreak.
For anyone who has experienced anxiety, some of these symptoms might sound familiar. In modern biomedical models, anxiety is also described both in mental and physical terms. Adjectives that describe emotional states, like worried, afraid, and nervous, appear alongside descriptions like physical weakness, gastrointestinal problems, and a pounding heart to describe experiences associated with anxiety.
Symptoms of any illness are labelled according to socially available categories, and it seems that for a Neo-Assyrian physician, the vocabulary for this particular experience of mental distress has echoes in today’s world. And it seems that in the first millennium BCE, it was acceptable to admit, even to a king, that one was suffering emotional anguish.
Some of the earliest known expressions of mental distress come from ancient Mesopotamia, where ancient scribes impressed into clay words that capture individual, collective, and historical experiences not just of anxiety, but of a whole spectrum of mental health issues, from depressed states to disorganised thoughts.
So, if you ever you find yourself feeling anxious, remember Nabû-tabni-uṣur and his letter to a Neo-Assyrian king, and remember that you are not alone. These are ancient and human problems. They connect us to the past, and they connect us to each other.
Technical Details: ABL 525
Provenance: Nineveh (near modern Mosul, northern Iraq)
Date: Neo-Assyrian (911–612 BCE)
Collection: British Museum, London (K.590)
Designation: ABL 525; Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative P.334358
Bibliography: Simo Parpola (1993)Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars. State Archives of Assyria 10 (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press): Text 334
Technical Details: BAM 234
Provenance: Aššur (modern Iraq)
Date: Middle-Assyrian (ca. 1400–1000 BCE)
Collection: Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin
Designation: BAM 234; Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative P.285320
Bibliography: Franz Köcher (1963) Die babylonisch-assyrische Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen. Volume 3 (Berlin: De Gruyter): Text 234