Greco-Roman Medicine

12 May

In  contrast  to  the  gradual  evolution  found  in Egyptian,  Indian,  and Chinese  history,  Greek  civilization  seems to  have  emerged  suddenly, much like Athena  from the head of Zeus. Although  this impression  is certainly false, it is difficult to correct because of the paucity of material from  the  earliest  stages of Greek  history.  Whatever  their  origins,  the intellectual  traditions established  in ancient  Greece provided  the foun- dations of Western philosophy,  science, and medicine. The early history of Greece can be divided into two periods: the Mycenaean,  from about 1500 B.C.E.  to the catastrophic fall of Mycenaean  civilization about  1100 B.C.E., and the so-called Dark  Ages from about  1100 to 800 B.C.E.. Very little information from the latter period has survived, nor is it clear what forces led to the collapse of the early phase of Greek civilization. As in India, distant  memories of warfare, chaos, misfortune,  and victory were transmitted in the form of myths and legends. Much of this material was gathered  into the great epic poems known as the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are traditionally attributed to the ninth-century poet  known  as Homer.  Deep  within  these  stories  of life and  death,  god  and  heroes, exotic  lands,  home  and  family,  are  encoded  ancient  concepts  of epi- demic disease, the vital functions  of the body, the treatment of wounds, and the roles played by physicians,  surgeons,  priests, and gods.

Greek  medicine, as portrayed by Homer,  was already  an ancient and  noble  art.   Apollo   appears   as  the  most  powerful  of  the  god- physicians, as well as the god of prophecy.  Apollo could cause epidemic disease as a form  of punishment  or restore  and  heal the wounded.  In search  of  the  god’s advice  and  guidance,  the  ancients  flocked  to  his famous  oracle  at the Temple  of Apollo  at Delphi.  Originally  a shrine to Gaea, the earth goddess, the site was said to be the center of the world. Before transmitting the words of the god, the oracle, who was always a woman  known  as the Pythia,  would enter a small chamber,  inhale the sweet-smelling vapors coming from a fissure in the earth, and succumb to a trace-like  state.  Sometimes,  after  inhaling  the intoxicating  fumes, the oracle would go from trance to delirium to death. When nineteenth-century archaeologists  excavating the temple failed to find the legendary cham- ber, they rejected Plutarch’s  theory  of intoxicating  fumes coming from deep within  the  earth.  But  in 2001, scientists  discovered  a previously unknown  conjunction  of geological faults beneath  the temple grounds. They  suggested  that  the  ground  waters  below  the  Pythia’s  chamber could  have  carried  various  chemicals,  including  ethylene,  a  gas  that has  been used as an  anesthetic.  Inhaling  ethylene  produces  euphoria, but an overdose can be fatal.

In the Homeric  epics, priests, seers, and dream  readers  dealt with the  mysterious  plagues  and  pestilences  attributed to  the  gods.  When angered,  the gods could cause physical and mental  disorders,  but they might also provide sedatives and antidotes  to save those they favored. In the Iliad, the skillful physician is praised as a man more valuable than many others.

Given  the  large  number  of war  injuries  so poignantly  described by Homer,  skillful doctors  were desperately  needed. In some instances, however,  warriors  treated  their  comrades  or bravely  extracted  arrows from  their  own  limbs.  Wound  infection,  traumatic fever, and  deaths due to secondary  hemorrhages were probably  uncommon, because the wounded  rarely  lingered  long  enough  to  develop  such  complications. The mortality  rate among  the wounded  was close to 80 percent.

Medical treatment in the Iliad was generally free of magical prac- tices, but when medicine failed, healers might resort to incantations and prayers.  Sometimes, the surgeon  would suck the site of a wound,  per- haps  as an  attempt  to  draw  out  poisons  or  some  ‘‘evil influence’’ in the  blood.   After  washing  the  wound   with  warm  water,  physicians applied soothing drugs and consoled or distracted  the patient with wine, pleasant  stories,  or  songs.  Unlike  the  complex  Egyptian  and  Indian wound  poultices,  Greek  wound  remedies were ‘‘simples’’ derived from plants.  Unfortunately for the Greek  warriors,  their physicians did not know  the  secret of Helen’s famous  Egyptian  potion,  nepenthe, which could dispel pain and strife and erase the memory of disease and sorrow. Indeed, the specific identities of most of the drugs referred to by Homer are obscure, although  various sources suggest that  the soothing  agents, secret potions,  and  fumigants  used by healers and  priests of this time period probably  included warm water, wine, oil, honey, sulfur, saffron, and opium.

Modern  Western medicine traces its origins to the rational,  scien- tific tradition associated  with Hippocrates, but  even the secular physi- cians of classical Greece traced  their art  back to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Asclepius, who was said to be the son of Apollo,  appears  in the  Iliad  as  heroic  warrior  and  ‘‘blameless physician.’’  According  to Homer, Chiron, the wise and noble centaur, taught Asclepius the secrets of the drugs that  relieve pain and stop bleeding. The sons of Asclepius were also warriors  and  healers; their special talents  presage the future division of the healing art into medicine and surgery. The cunning hands of Machaon could heal all kinds of wounds,  but it was Podalirius  who understood hidden diseases and their cure. When Machaon was injured, his wound was simply washed and sprinkled with grated goat cheese and barley  meal.  The  methods  Machaon used to  cure the  hero  Menelaus were only  slightly more  complicated.  After  extracting  the  arrow  that had   pierced  the  hero’s  belt,  Machaon  sucked  out   the  blood   and sprinkled  the wound  with soothing  remedies that  Chiron  had given to Asclepius.

The  magical  and  shamanistic   practices  that  once  flourished  in Greece left their traces in myths, poems, and rituals, such as the annual festival held in honor  of Melampus,  founder of a long line of seers, who had acquired knowledge of divination  from Egypt. Combining  elements of purification and ‘‘psychotherapy’’ with strong purgative drugs, Melampus   was  able  to  cure  disorders   ranging   from  impotence   to insanity.  Melampus  is also  said  to  have  taught  Orpheus  how  to  use healing drugs.

The story of Orpheus incorporates the shamanistic  elements of the healer  who  enters  the  underworld in pursuit  of a departed  soul,  and the  dismemberment and  reconstitution of the  shaman.  As the  son  of the muse Calliope, Orpheus  possessed skill in healing and supernatural musical gifts. When his beloved wife Eurydice died, Orpheus descended into Hades where he charmed the gods of the underworld into allowing him to bring back her soul. His failure to comply with all the conditions surrounding her release led to the failure of his mission. Contrary to the explicit instructions  he had received from the gods, Orpheus  turned  to look  at  Eurydice  before  she had  completed  the  journey  from  Hades back to the world of the living. A distraught Orpheus  realized he had lost  Eurydice  once  again.  Finally,  the  unfortunate Orpheus  was torn to pieces by wine-crazed followers of Dionysus,  the god of wine. Preter- naturally  musical to the end, the spirit of Orpheus  continued  to sing as his head floated  to Lesbos.

Random Posts

Comments are closed.