Wherein the Babylonian solution to nocturnal teeth-grinding is a week of skull-snogging.
I grind my teeth: stuck in traffic, difficulty on a project, my favorite team playing poorly…all day long, grind grind grind. My tendency to grind my teeth in my sleep necessitates wearing a night guard, which of course has rough pits over the molars from crunching into the plastic.
The ancient Babylonians also struggled with nocturnal teeth grinding, but they knew it was more than simply a maladaptive reaction to stress: it was probably a dead ancestor trying to contact you. The molar-gnashing Babylonian therefore needed more than a night guard to overcome bruxilism—she needed the Babylonian Skull Cure.
Expressway to Yr. Skull
The Babylonians generally attributed physical ailments to spiritual causes. The 11th–century BCE collection Sakikku (“Symptoms”) contains 3,000 entries enabling an exorcist to visit a patient and, based upon the symptoms displayed and other phenomena encountered in the course of the visit (such as the color of a pig the exorcist might see along the way to the home), diagnose the divine source of the message being conveyed to the sufferer.
Grinding your teeth in the night was an obvious sign of interpersonal contact from the dead. We don’t have specific examples of such messages, but we do know the tooth grinder wanted the contact to stop: the only thing worse than a dream about showing up naked for your final exam is waking up to Grandpa possessing your body and sliding your mandible around. A text in the Die babylonisch-assyrische Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen therefore prescribes:
If a man grinds (or, ‘grates’) his teeth in his sleep, you will take a human skull, wash and anoint it with oil, and for seven days it shall be kept in place at the head of his bed. Before he lies down he shall kiss it seven times and lick it seven times—so he will recover.
A modern reader might wonder how French-kissing a skull is supposed to help you overcome grinding your teeth. J.V. Kinnier Wilson speculates, “From the Babylonian point of view the procedure would arguably have involved the principle of sympathetic magic, contact with the ‘dead’ hostility(?) of the skull inducing the ‘death’ of hostility in the person.” Of course, if we think the problem stems from the hostility of Grandpa trying to get in touch, and we address Grandpa’s hostility by snogging a skull for seven days, all the issues this raises might leave me inclined to put up with the dental problems. It is therefore no surprise that Kinnier Wilson adds, “From a modern point of view, as a colleague has suggested the nightly skull-licking will have become a source of such loathing and revulsion in the patient’s mind as to create a desire for its cessation stronger than the desire to indulge in the original habit.”
Lick It Up
In trying to find an appropriate image to include with this article I searched for “kiss and skull,” which revealed a treasure trove of art displaying the makeup patterns for the rock band KISS painted onto skulls. I really have nothing to add: KISS…skulls…they kind of go together like peanut butter ’n chocolate, don’t they?
Image: Sleeping Child with Four Skulls by Lucas Kilian (1614) (Source).