Nebuchadnezzar II was King of Babylon and its’ empire from 605 BC – 562 BC. He is most famous for creating the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which he built for his homesick wife to give her a permanent reminder of home. Nebuchadnezzar wielded a vast amount of power, but also appeared to suffer from Boanthropy – a mental illness where the sufferer believes himself to be an ox, cow or other animal.
Most of the written evidence about Nebuchadnezzar’s period of insanity comes from The Book of Daniel in the Bible. Details are sketchy and open to interpretation, but it does appear that the King had all the symptoms of Boanthropy. Early scholars attributed his behaviour to any number of supernatural causes, even that he had metamorphosis of his soul, so disregarding those what can Daniel’s written account tell us? Nebuchadnezzar suffered a number of deeply disturbing dreams. After failing to find anybody to help interpret them he turned to Daniel, who claimed that they were a message from God and that he would live amongst the animals for 7 years as punishment for his sins. Sure enough, roughly a year after the dreams, the King suddenly started to live like an ox for 7 years before regaining reason and returning to a normal state of mind, at which time he began to praise God. If we assume that in fact it was not actually an act of God, then we can be pretty certain that Nebuchadnezzar was suffering from a mental illness.
The King displayed all the relevant symptoms for Boanthropy. He appears to have believed himself to be an OX to the extent that he adopted the behaviour of one – going about naked on all fours and eating grass. The theologian Gaspard Peucer claimed that the King had turned himself into a wolf, and although Peucer meant this literally, it is possible that he was not far from the truth. Boanthropy is the closest illness to the symptoms that the King demonstrated, although it has also been thought he suffered from Schizophrenia, with hallucinations causing him to act as he did, or paralytic dementia caused by syphilis.
Boanthropy is such an unusual and uncommon disorder that there is not much research into it, let alone case studies. Even the exact causes have not been nailed down. A manifestation of anxiety is believed to be a key component, which fits well with Nebuchadnezzar’s case as he reportedly had dreams of being destroyed by God and his kingdom crumbling around him, which must have put him on edge a little bit. Regression and depression are also associated with the disorder, but again, there is no straight line and linkage between cause and effect. Given that the brain is such an extremely complicated machine that we still don’t know every nook and cranny of it, it is not surprising that the odd short fuse might manifest the most bizarre behaviours. Even therapy for the disorder is still vague, with counselling and speech therapy deemed the most useful. But if it is the tiniest amount of people that suffer from it then who is really going to put in the time and effort to search for a cure? I can’t see many pyschologists being able to proudly say ‘I cured boanthropy’ and not receive a befuddled look from their peers in reply before having to explain what boanthropy is and receiving a smirk for their troubles.
Boanthropy is a very rare mental illness, and Nebuchadnezzar is the best example of it. One of the most fascinating things about his story is that it indicates that other mental illnesses may well have been recorded in the Bible too, and that even thousands of years ago mental illness was part of society – whether they knew it at the time or not. Could mental disorders explain other mysterious and miraculous accounts from the Bible?