Medical myths and notions in Ancient Greece
Boulogne J.
Med Nowozytna. 2001;8(2):33-52


The article deals with the views on health and disease prevalent in Ancient Greece, the cradle of modern European medicine, focusing on the ever-present myths functioning in that realm despite attempts to rationally explain medical phenomena. On the basis of the works of Hippocrates and Galen, the author has distinguished five different epistemological attitudes towards those phenomena: the holistic, macrocosmological, monistic, anti-hypothetical and eclectic. The first was based on the idea of mechanical and logical causes. In medicine it is marked by determinism connected with climatic conditions. Hippocrates believed that health depended on the weather, in particular on the effects of winds, types of water and properties of soil. Myth emerged in this conception in the way matter - earth, water, air and fire - was conceived, particular in the properties ascribed to them: cold, humidity, aridity and warmth. The author charges that this conception was permeated with ethnocentrism and cites examples invoked by Hippocrates on the basis of his observations on the Scythians. The macrocosmological attitude involves subordinating medicine to cosmology. Man's body is a microcosm. The author cites the treatise 'On Diets', in which the greatest importance both in the universe and in processes taking place in the human body as ascribed to two factors - fire and water. Their combination was said to have played a crucial role in the typology of corporal and mental constitutions. Those features, together with the seasons of the year, mode of behaviour and food, constitute the four forces guiding vital processes. The author then presents the embryogenic conception contained in the cosmological treatise. It was based on such things as numerological speculations, hence - despite its rationalistic assumptions, consigns it to the mythic. The third attitude, the monistic approach, presents a treatise ascribed to Hippocrates 'On the Sacred Disease' and dealing with epilepsy. The author of the article cites evidence desacralising epilepsy and, by the same token, other diseases. But the treatise stops short of separating medicine from meteorology, as the treatise attempts to present overall phenomena as dependent on one factor - air. The anti-hypothetical attitude marks a turning-away from cosmology towards the observation of man as such. Medicine is the art of applying the proper diet according to a given individual's digestive capacity. Nevertheless, this anti-methaphysical medicine creates a fictitious scheme explaining health-related phenomena through the antagonism of two forces: the force of food and the inborn force of the body consumming it. The last attitude- the eclectic approach, is associated with its most distinguished representative, Galen, whose cognitive pursuits combined observation with logic. The author cites Galen's opinions about then current philosophical schools and portrays his method of reasoning and behaviour. But Galen also relied on his imagination with regards to the physiological processes taking place in the human body. That can be illustrated by numerous examples, especially the introduction of the concept of a demiurge, in the author's words - a transcendental craftsman setting the universe in order. The conception made medicine metaphysical once again. In summing up, the author states that Greek authors, despite their attempts at objectivity, became slaves of mythical thinking whenever they tried to explain the invisible. Nevertheless, the significance of imagination, both in the realm of heuristics and in the creation of structures, cannot be denied. Modern medicine also makes use of imagination when faced with the limits of what is available to observation, even though those limits are constantly being extended.
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