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.