Medicine and Magic
When religion did not work, magic and/or medicine might. From Nippur in Mesopotamia texts have been discovered which contain incantations and magic treatments to help a women having difficulty in childbirth. From Babylonia a short text on the making of amulets says; “Silver, gold, iron, copper, in total 21 stones, in order that a woman who is not pregnant becomes pregnant: you string it on a linen yarn and, you put it on her neck”.
In some Babylonian sources plants were thought to promote pregnancy. In a reference list of plants used for medicinal purposes (a vademecum), there is a section that lists a “plant for a woman who does not bear”. The description of this plant’s uses indicates it was intended to help not only infertility but the whole process from conception to birth.  In Egypt, one method for determining whether or not a woman could become pregnant was to have her urinate on wheat or barley. Some forms of this method even claimed to identify the child’s gender.In addition to plants, there were other recipes used to help women conceive. Stol provides a translation for an unpublished recipe which reads: “To make a not child-bearing woman pregnant: You flay an edible mouse, open it up, and fill it with myrrh; you dry it in the shade, crush and grind it up, and mix it with fat; you place it in her vagina, and she will become pregnant”.
The Hebrew Bible does not reveal a particular interest in medical and magical remedies for infertility. But the story of Leah’s mandrakes in Genesis 30:14-17 provides a glimpse at a one such possible remedy. The mandrake plant is a perennial wild herb that grows with a set of forked roots causing it to resemble the human torso. The plant’s leaves form a rosette and between autumn and spring it produces flowers in the center of the rosette. It is debated whether the plant was used to enhance fertility or simply to act as an aphrodisiac as described in Song of Songs 7:14.  While there is strong evidence for the plant’s perceived aphrodisiacal powers, the context of the Genesis story does suggest a connection to fertility. In the story Reuben, Leah’s son, finds mandrakes in the field and brings them to his mother. Rachel asks Leah for some of the mandrakes but is rebuffed by Leah who asks the accusing question: “you have already stolen my husband what more do you want from me?” Rachel resorts to bargaining with her sister, a night with Jacob for a portion of the mandrakes. While the situation could surely be interpreted as focusing on the aphrodisiacal qualities of the plant, both sisters are wanting to attract Jacob to their tent, it is the broader context that suggests a desire for fertility. The chapter begins with Rachel’s inability to conceive reaching a breaking point when she demands that Jacob give her children or she will die (30:1). In tandem with the narrative of Rachel’s infertility is the description of Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah each bearing children. Compounding this is the irony that even though Rachel bargained for the Mandrkaes, it is her sister Leah, who seemed to have ceased conceiving (30:9), who gets pregnant another three times (30:16 ). Thus whatever the real or imagined properties of the plant, in the narrative at least, “it seems clear that Rachel and Leah valued it as a fertility drug, Rachel because she had never conceived, Leah because she had become infertile”.
Next week we look at the role of adoption and its almost complete absence in the Bible.
I notice a lot of visits to this particular post lately. Can anyone tell me why you are here and how you got here? I am curious that this post has been so popular. (5/30/2011)
 M Civil, “Medical Commentaries from
 Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 35.
 Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 53.
 This method is also described in a magical papyrus written in Demotic which says: “The way to know it of a woman whether she will be pregnant: You should make the woman urinate on the plant at night. When morning comes, if you find the plant scorched, she will not conceive. If you find it green she will conceive” (H. Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992), 242.
 G. Robins, “Women and Children in peril, 27.
 Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 53.
 Irene Jacob and Walter Jacob, “Flora,” ABD 2:812; F. Nigel Hepper, “Mandrake,” NIDB 3:787.
 Othmar Keel, The Song of Songs (CC; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 257-60.
 Stol, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible, 56-57.
 Gordon Wenahm, Genesis 16-50 (WBC 2; Dallas: Word, 1994), 247.