The Medical Sciences in the Avesta

by A. Noori

Abstract: The Avesta divided medical sciences into the following five disciplines, as mentioned in some chapters of the Ordibehesht Yasht:

  1. 'Ashoo Pezeshk' (health sciences);
  2. 'Daad Pezeshk' (medical examination);
  3. 'Kard Pezeshk' (surgery);
  4. 'Gyaah Pezeshk' (herbal medicine);
  5. 'Mantreh Pezeshk' (psychiatry, cure by prayers and divine words).

According to ancient texts, Jamshid (the fourth Pishdadi king) was the person to establish the custom of bathing with hot and cold water. It was said that during his reign, which lasted for a long time, no plant withered and no living creature died. This could mean that during the period of Jamshid's rule, the medical sciences developed to such an extent that plants and animals could comfortably live for many years protected from sickness, with only a few dying from ailments and maladies!

Yasna 9, Verse 3 of the Avesta made reference to the first Aryan physician, stating that: "Zoroaster said, 'Praise unto you, hoom [mahuang or ephedra, a divine plant used in religious and medical ceremonies]! Whoever brought you to the people of the world? What great reward did he reap? What great fortune awaited him?"

The answer came in Yasna 9, Verse 4: "The virtuous hoom, the one that repels death replied, 'Vivangahan brought me among the people of the earth and his reward was a son, Jamshid, the possessor of good flocks, the one who made animals and people immortal during his reign."

To find out who followed after Vivangahan, the father of the Pishdadian Jamshid, who was himself another Aryan physician, Zoroaster continued his questions and hoom answered him, naming four physicians who, respectively, came after Vivangahan: Abtin (the father of the Pishdadian king, Fereydoon), Atrat (the father of Urvakhshieh and Garshasb) and Poorshasp (the father of the Iranian prophet, Ashoo Zoroaster).

The Avesta mentioned other physicians, such as Jamasp and Se'na, who was later called Simorgh. Moving on from the Avesta, in the periods following Zoroaster, the medical sciences continued to develop among Iranians, the main practitioners being Iranian Mobads (Zoroastrian priests) and the Magi. The best teachers of medicine and astrology were Iranian Magi and their knowledge of these sciences was passed on to their pupils and coursed down from one generation to another. Unfortunately, the cruel invasion of the Macedonians (Alexander), Arabs, Tatars and Afghans destroyed many of the writings and valuable works of Iranian scientists, medical books being no exception. Noted Iranian physicians from later periods include Mani, Roozbeh and Bozorgmehr.

In the Achaemenid era, there were numerous physicians whose knowledge was used by Greek scientists, as well as those from many other nations. The main bulk of medical knowledge in that age and even in the Median period before it and the periods after, was based on the Avestan sciences. During the Sassanian era, scientists from various countries, one of whom was Diogenes, studied different fields, including medicine, at the university in Gondi Shapur.

The medical sciences stagnated in Iran following the Arab invasion. After some time, great men and scientists were able to bring about a revival, and these sciences flourished and even exceeded past accomplishments. Many scientists in the Islamic period made significant contributions to the world's medical knowledge, with only a few other people matching their achievements in this respect. Some of these great minds were Ibn-e Sina (Avicena), Mohammad Zakaria Razi, Farabi and Khayyam. These names shine in the history of medicine and will always be the among the pride of the people of Iran.

The medical disciplines as expounded in the Avesta, were divided into five branches (Ordibehesht Yasht - Vandidad), as follows: 1) 'Ashoo Pezeshk' (health sciences); 2) 'Daad Pezeshk' (medical examination); 3) 'Kard Pezeshk' (surgery); 4) 'Gyaah Pezeshk' (herbal medicine) 5) 'Mantreh Pezeshk' (psychiatry, cure by prayers and divine words).

Verse 6 of the Ordibehesht Yasht stated: "One of the physicians cures by 'Ashaa' (cleansing), another by 'Ghanoon' (law), another with 'Kard' (knife), another with 'Gyaah' (plants), another with divine words (mantreh) ... "

1 - 'Ashoo Pezeshk' (Health Physician)

"Ashoo" meant cleanliness and health. It referred to both cleanliness of the body and the environment, as well as intrinsic health (that of the mind and soul). An 'ashoo pezeshk' must himself have a healthy body and soul to be able to cure others. He was the physician who oversaw the well-being of the living environment and the city, in addition to ensuring the soundness of the body.

Similar to present-day health centers found in cities and villages that disseminate information on issues relating to the health of people and their environment, and perform tasks such as vaccination, nursing, first aid, etc., the 'ashoo pezeshk' was also responsible for putting in quarantine those with dangerous maladies, for keeping the four divine elements (water, wind, earth and fire) free from pollution, for maintaining the sanitation of houses and surrounding areas and many other duties of this nature.

As a matter of fact, all Iranian families were supposed to carry out these duties. Another 'ashoo'-related ceremony observed all over Iran was the cleaning of the whole house for Nowruz (onset of the new Iranian year/spring equinox))and getting rid of all the uncleanness gathered during the whole year. This tradition persists until the present time, and in welcoming the new year with a clean body, a clean soul and a clean neighborhood, people start a fresh spring in their lives too.

Iranians also refrained from contaminating the four elements. They would not bathe nor wash dirty objects in flowing water, and urinating or spitting into water was considered a great sin. Materials that were foul smelling or that generated smoke were never thrown into the fire, and the fire-holder was always kept clean. The earth and the soil were kept free from pollution and for this reason, the dead were placed on high ground and became food for birds and carnivores. Wild rue and frankincense were always burned inside houses and around the neighborhood so the air would smell good, and insects and bacteria would die. These customs are still practiced by Iranians and other nations, with some people also burning wild rue to repel envy and to cure the sick.

2 - 'Daad Pezeshk' (Medical Examiner)

These physicians were involved more with the science of medicine. Their job was similar to that of pathologists of today and their duties included performing autopsies to find the root of diseases and finding a cure for the future. These doctors examined the dead and after ascertaining the cause of death, they would issue the license for burial. If post-mortem examination was called for, they would do an autopsy. Mummification was also among their responsibilities, although this custom was more prevalent in ancient Egypt.

3- 'Kard Pezeshk' (Surgeon)

The name given to these physicians showed that they performed surgery to treat patients. In general, surgical procedures are very difficult and dangerous, even when done in the present time, but much more so in the past when it was not possible to anaesthetize patients and medical instruments were rudimentary and only a few were available. Thus, many patients lost their lives.

In Vandidad, Chapter 7, Verse 39, the conduct of surgery was described: "The person wanting to be a surgeon must perform the operation on a 'devaparast' (literally a devil worshiper denoting a non-Zoroastrian) and if the patient was cured, he must do surgery for the second time on another 'devaparast', which should also end in a cure. The aspiring surgeon should then operate on a third 'devaparast' and if this person became well, then the doctor passed the test and could always perform surgery."

As narrated above, the physician must perform surgery several times and only after passing the test could he be active in this discipline. In the Iranian epic, Shahnameh, one birth by a "Rostamineh" operation (Caesarian section) was mentioned. The physician who did the surgery on Rostam's mother, Roodabeh, was Simorgh (Se'na in the Avesta), one of the famous physicians in ancient Iran. Simorgh was a Magi and he lived in the mountains (apparently Damavand), where his students went (to Damavand) to receive scientific instruction from him. Because of his elevated residence on the top of the mountain, he was called him Se'na-morgh.

Zal, the son of Sam and who was given by his father to Se'na in childhood so he would learn the sciences, was one of the favorite students of Se'na. Zal asked help from Se'na whenever the former had difficulty and it was Se'na who operated on Zal's wife, Roodabeh, to deliver Rostam.

It is worth mentioning that archaeological excavations in the city of Sookhteh in Sistan yielded some skulls that showed signs of surgery.

4 - 'Gyaah Pezeshk' ('Orwah Pezeshk')

The origin of herbal medicine goes back to the development of agriculture and cultivation in Iran. Iranians were the first people to learn about the properties of herbs and to use plants to cure diseases. After the passage of millennia, herbal medicine is still practiced in Iran and in other parts of the world, especially India and Pakistan, as herbs are considered among the most effective remedies. This branch of medical practice originated in Iran in ancient times and knowledge spread to other countries, such as India, China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and many other places.

Herbal medicine was mentioned in Vandidad, Chapter 20, Verse 6: "We worship all herbs, we seek them, and we hold them in awe in order to fight headache, to fight death, to fight burns, to fight fever, to fight "ezhaneh" sickness, to fight "vazhhoveh" sickness, to fight the foul sickness of leprosy, to fight snake bite, to fight "darookeh" sickness, to fight epidemic, to fight the evil eye and decay and foulness that 'Ahriman' (the Devil) brings to the bodies of people."

From the above text, it was evident that herbal cures were applied to most pains and ailments. In Yasna 9, Verses 3 and 4, as well as from other parts of the Avesta, the plant 'hoom' (mahuang) was mentioned (see beginning of this article) and from what were written in the Vandidad, Yasna, and the Yashts, it was apparent that the Iranian medical sciences were already familiar with many illnesses and maladies and the medications necessary to fight them had been identified.

Besides mahuang, other herbs were used in ancient Iran for instigating cures, such as wild rue, 'barsam' and frankincense. Also, extracts from mint and Egyptian willow, as well as a distillation from forty-herbs, etc., were used as remedies. Some of these plants also figured in religious rituals, including mahuang, 'barsam' and wild rue.

5 - 'Mantreh Pezeshk' (The Psychiatrist)

"Mantreh" meant inducer of behavior. It also referred to divine and pure discourse that had the effect of calming and curing the patient. Mental disorder is a sickness involving the soul and the mind, and this condition is not curable by herbs and medications. Therefore, in those times, patients suffering from such difficulties were treated by indoctrination and with verbal communication. 'Mantreh' also included prayers that were recited to console the patient. When the human soul was greatly disturbed, the best cure was to recite the holy book (the Gathas of the Avesta), read poetry or listen to music. Today, psychiatry is a pillar of the medical sciences and it is taught separately from other medical disciplines.

The Avesta accorded a high degree of importance to 'mantreh' (cure through discourse). Vandidad, Chapter 7, Verse 44, said: "O Zoroaster, if from among physicians who cure, one cures with knife, the other cures with medication, and the other with the holy word, that who cures with the holy word (mantreh) is the most effective of all." Verse 5 of the Ordibehesht Yasht noted: "Prayer that repels all evil reason, all demons and all sorcery, is the greatest holy word (mantreh), the most beautiful holy word, the strongest holy word, the most victorious holy word, the most healing holy word." Thus, according to Iranian custom and culture, 'mantreh' destroyed all evil, filthiness, bad thoughts and all ugliness. God's names (one hundred and one names) were 'mantreh', the divine Gathas were 'mantreh', and so were Yasna, prayer, all the teachings of Zoroaster, as well as good thought, good discourse and good deed.

Our forefathers believed and we too believe that when the soul and the mind are healthy and happy, so is the body. The reverse is also true, that whenever the soul and mind are weary and depressed, the body, no matter how physically strong, will become weak and wither away. Another healing agent is the learning of culture and the sciences in order to achieve human perfection. Psychiatry in ancient times involved reciting religious prayers and the Avesta, and reading the holy books of other religions and other nations.

Thus, through the centuries, the knowledge of medicine has been passed from Iran to other centers of the ancient world, such as Babel, Egypt, China, India, Greece, the Roman Empire, and now, to Europe and America. Let us hope that the torch of science and culture will always be alight among Iranians and we can be worthy guardians of it.

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