Weapons and tactics change, but PTSD goes back millennia
The weapons, tactics and strategies of warfare have changed enormously through the centuries, but the hellish aspects of war and the deep psychological scars it leaves on warriors were apparently seen at least as far back as 1,300 B.C.
A new study of ancient Assyrian medical texts from Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq, shows that Assyrian doctors were diagnosing and treating psychological conditions related to war. One assumption ancient Assyrians made was that the gods allowed dead people’s spirits to punish living people. So warriors who experienced mental trauma were thought to be under attack by the ghosts of people they killed in battle. Today we call this mental trauma from war and other difficult experiences post-traumatic stress disorder, often shortened to PTSD.
A figure in an ancient Assyrian relief summons a protective spirit. Perhaps soldiers thought to be afflicted by ghosts of people they killed in battle summoned such spirits. (Wmpearl photo, Wikimedia Commons)
“Trauma was also commonplace in Iraq’s ancient civilisations. This involved not only traumata associated with daily life, industry and farming, but also traumata associated with warfare,” says the researchers’ study, which is fascinating. The authors of the study are Walid Khalid Abdul-Hamid of Queen Mary University in London and Jamie Hacker Hughes of Anglia Ruskin University.
The study said scholars have found about 500,000 cuneiform tablets from the time they were first written, about 3200 B.C. in Uruk until the 1st century AD. So perhaps it’s not surprising that an advanced civilization with medical care would have some documents concerning the harsh psychological effects of war.
“The Assyrians left detailed accounts of their military campaigns,” they wrote. “Some of these texts were medical texts, which document the traumata and injuries that Assyrian solders suffered during these campaigns despite the fact that they were protected by various forms of shields, helmets and armour made from iron scales, a technology that reached its highest level of effectiveness in the Assyrian period. Unfortunately, offensive weapons had also reached their highest level of effectiveness in that period.”
Cuneiform tablet, from the British Museum, Assyrian collections (Matt Neale photo, Wikimedia Commons)
Assyrian soldiers were drafted to serve every third year during their term of military service and because war was so frequent in the Assyrian times the men suffered significant trauma. One year was spent on public works and another at home raising children and providing for the family, Walid and Hughes wrote.
Here is a translation of ancient Assyrian texts describing how the traumatized soldiers behaved:
“If his words are unintelligible for three days [...] his mouth [F...] and he experiences wandering about for three days in a row F...1.”
“He experiences wandering about (for three) consecutive (days)”; this means: “he experiences alteration of mentation (for three) consecutive (days).”
“If his words are unintelligible and depression keeps falling on him at regular intervals (and he has been sick) for three days F...]”
From another Assyrian text describing traumatized warriors:
“If in the evening, he sees either a living person or a dead person or someone known to him or someone not known to him or anybody or anything and becomes afraid; he turns around but, like one who has [been hexed with?] rancid oil, his mouth is seized so that he is unable to cry out to one who sleeps next to him, ‘hand’ of ghost (var. hand of [...]).”
“[If ] his mentation is altered so that he is not in full possession of his faculties, ‘hand’ of a roving ghost; he will die.”
“If his mentation is altered, [...] (and) forgetfulness(?) (and) his words hinder each other in his mouth, a roaming ghost afflicts him. (If ) [...], he will get well.”
Ancient Mesopotamians thought ghosts killed by the suffering veterans during battle caused this behavior later.
The authors said the symptoms described in these 3,200-year-old stone tablets mirror symptoms soldiers experience today, many of whom fought in the same part of the world as the Assyrians. They wrote that symptoms then fit with what people experience now: fearsome flashbacks of images of dead people, particularly during nightmares; and changes of mental state, including fear, forgetfulness and depression.
The paper says war can be more devastating physically now, but ancient people also suffered dire injuries, threat of injuries and could not help but see people being wounded and dying by swords, arrows and rocks all around them.
Scholars had previously thought the ancient Greek historian Herodotus’ account of the 490 B.C. battle of Marathon had the first written references to PTSD. Herodotus wrote:
Epizelus, the son of Cuphagorus, an Athenian soldier, was fighting bravely when he suddenly lost sight of both eyes, though nothing had touched him anywhere – neither sword, spear, nor missile. From that moment he continued blinded as long as he lived. I am told that in speaking about what happened to him he used to say that he fancied he was opposed by a man of great stature in heavy armour, whose beard overshadowed his shield but the phantom passed him by and killed the man at his side.
Relief depicting the Battle of Marathon. (Military-history.org)
Featured image: Relief, circa 728 B.C., depicting an Assyrian warrior holding a large shield to protect two archers taking aim, from the Central Palace in Nimrud and now in the British Museum, London. (Wikimedia Commons image)
By Mark Miller