The Greek Myths
William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College
Chapter 5: Medicine and Pharmacopoeia
A surprising number of Greek myths show some connection with medicine. Some refer to common pathological conditions, others describe psychological disabilities, and still others are concerned with genetics and the problems which can arise from inbreeding. This is not surprising, considering the later Greeks' special interest in the medical arts from the fifth century on well into the Christian period. The Greek pharmacopeia as listed by Dioscorides must have had millennia of experimental antecedents, and some of these seem couched in the ancient stories. The older cults of Apollo the Healer, and his son-apprentice Asclepios, are from a far earlier level than Hippocratic medicine and present a different roster of medical preoccupations, but even these seem to have been concerned with outlining the range of what medicine could, and possibly could not do.
Asclepios, the Father of Medicine, has a strange background. Apollo begot him by a woman named Coronis, whom he killed when he found she had been unfaithful to him. (The Greek noun 'korone' refers to a seabird, possibly the puffin, but also to the crow'; how this enters the storyline is not clear. One thinks of Penelope being derived from 'penelops' "duck"; wild waterfowl are monogamous.) Sorry for what he had done, Apollo decided to save the child Asclepios, and entrusted him to the care of the wise centaur, Chiron, from whom he learned the art of medicine. At the wish of Artemis. Asclepios restored Hippolytos to life, angering Zeus who slew him (a sad setback for medical art!), upon which Apollo killed the Cyclops who were the volcano-smiths of Zeus' weaponry. For this crime he was forced to do ritual penance as servant to a local king Admetos, who was slated to die unless he could find someone else to take his place. (From this point on the extant play of Euripides provides us with the basic facts.) Alcestis, the wife of the king elects to die for him, and does so, but Heracles, an unexpected and rather riotous guest in in the house,dives down to hell and brings her back, thus usurping the role of Asclepius to some degree.
From this exaggerated melange of inconsistent story -telling, we can abstract these facts: Apollo is the original medical healer, but when his role shifts to new areas (forgiveness for sin at Delphi, archery, justice, music, literature and so forth), Asclepius is invented to take over his purely medical functions. The connection with the centaur, who is a stock nursemaid and instructor to various young heroes, is interesting and probably has further meaning. But Asclepios can not save himself, and dies by violence, which is a symbolic way of stating the truth that no medicine is proof against death. Yet his name persists in Greece as the curator of medicine, his great temple at Epidauros was for centuries a center for healing, and he lives on through the ages in Greco-Roman society as the ultimate medical authority.
Asclepius' two most striking symbols are the snake and the dog. The snake may have purely symbolic value, but it has been suggested that snakes tied to a stick (the famous caduceus of medical art) may have been a way of inoculating patients with non-lethal doses of snake venom, actually a primitive hypodermic injection device. Snake venom is chemically similar to bee venom, which has been studied for fifty years now (Charles Mraz of Middlebury has been a leader in this research), and seems to be an important material in treating of various kinds of arthritis. If bee venom proves effective as medicine in arthritic cases, and if snake venom is similar enough to bee venom to come into the picture, then the snakes of Asclepius may turn out to have had a non-symbolic, medical value. Of the dog, who appears often in graphic representation of the master, less seems to be known.
The story of Admetus is told in detail in Euripides' play, which is the main source for this myth. Since Apollo is "father" to Asclepios, the god of healing, and Asclepios had just been killed, the role of Apollo in "healing Admetus from death" is apparent. We are dealing with a well developed medical cult which has at least two generations, first Apollo and then and his successor, who died. The core of the original story must have been how Apollo alone could save a man from death, even resuscitate the wife who died in his place. But when his apprentice Asclepios takes over, and then as doctor cannot even save himself, the story verges back toward the basic truth that we all know: People do die.
Recall that the religious-medical motif was still effective in public eyes in the first century A.D. when Jesus in some respects takes the place of Apollo, even finally healing himself from death, although in a complicated and unorthodox manner. Death cults are pervasive, persistent and very ancient, since they have to do with answering the one mystery which cannot be answered at all from a human point of view.
In the ancient tradition Heracles became insane, the play of Euripedes treats this matter in an odd and disconnected manner, which easily puzzles the modern reader. The fit of insanity is sent upon him by his ancient enemy Hera, he kills his own children under the illusion that they are the children of Eurystheus, and also his wife. Recognizing his act, he is only saved from suicide by the intervention of Theseus (whom he had previously saved from Hades), whereupon he goes to Athens to be purified and freed from guilt. The parallels with the madness of Ajax are obvious: Ajax killed sheep thinking that they were Greeks, Heracles killed his children thinking they were the "children" of Eurystheus, who controlled the wild horses of Diomedes which Heracles had previously tamed! The confusion of a present person with a past agent who is totally unrelated, define this kind of illusion as a true schizophrenia.
Under the unimportant name of Phineus, king of Salmydessus on the Black Sea, comes the opportunity to bring together for review the various occurrences of blindness mentioned in Greek myths, so we may see if there is any sort of a common basis. Phineus' two children by a first marriage were blinded by a second wife's instigation, but the remainder of the story seems insignificant.
Homer was blind according to tradition, this is easy to understand in modern terms, since the blind often exhibit remarkable memory and sensitivity, two things which a poet of the stature of a Homer would certainly require. But recall that the name Homer (Gr.' homeros') is a common noun meaning "hostage", and the possibility of hostages being blinded as a precaution against escape, as well as spying, seems plausible. The Cyclops Polyphemus is blinded by Odysseus, we take this as a clever trick on the part of Odysseus to escape, or perhaps as the blind eye of a red-rimmed volcano about to erupt, but there may be other explanations. It is curious that the monster-volcano is named Polyphemus (Gr. 'poly + phem-', "much speaking"), from such an appellation one might rather think of a poet or raconteur, than a gigantic monster. Of course the most notable example of blindness is the self-inflicted punishment of Oedipous at the moment when he discovers that he is guilty of incest. Recalling that Oedipous was exposed as a child, and that the story about his having pins driven through his feet may actually be a periphrasis for his being genetically club-footed, one might wonder if he had defective vision also (whether blind, legally blind, or highly amaurotic), in which case he could easily kill a man on the road without knowing who he was, go on to marry a woman twice his age without a protest, and when criminally arraigned, point to his blindness. If, from a medical point of view, genetic foot deformity is in any way related to sight impairment, we might well be dealing with the case of a man, himself inbred to the point of turning up unfavorable characteristics, who continues with the process of inbreeding. In that case the Oedipous myth would begin to make sense on various levels: genetic, error of judgment, error of perception, and "blind" fate. Tiresias, known later as a seer and prophet in the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, was temporarily turned into a woman as punishment for killing a female snake. Whether this represents a sexual, phallic symbol, or is to be connected with the Indic nagas which are beneficial snake dieties, or to both, is unclear, but in his female state he was asked by Zeus and Hera which sex enjoyed lovemaking more. Answering that it was the male, he was instantly blinded by Hera in fury, but Zeus compensated as best he could by giving him another gift of "seeing", which is prophecy. Clearly his blindness has something to do with sexual matters, and the views of modern clinicians on this are important.
Thamyris seems to be another appearance, beside Homer, of a blind, or blinded poet. He contested in poetry with the Muses, who harmed (blinded?) him and blocked his musical gifts, out of a spirit of rivalry. He seems to another Homer type who had not made it into immortality via literary history.
Since the concept of micro-biological life was only introduced by the microscope of Van Leuwenhoeck in the l7 th. century, and established in the world of Pasteur and Lister two centuries later, we have no reason to expect the ancient Greeks to have a clear idea of microorganisms which can cause disease. But there are clues in one myth which imply an intuitive sense of where disease comes from and how it is transmitted:
Prometheus first men humans out of clay, when Zeus was wroth and denied them fire, Prometheus stole it for them. He later taught the gods which were the "best " parts of animal sacrifices offered up to them, tricking them into taking the bad parts and leaving the best for men to eat. The story has been ingeniously reversed from its more probable first script: A clever priest teaches men to eat the "worst" parts, leaving the best for the gods, the "worst" actually being the best. Zeus is naturally enraged.
As punishment Zeus ordered Hephaistos to fabricate out of clay, which was actually Prometheus' original medium rather than his own, a woman into whom the gods would breathe every necessary charm and skill, including Hermes' gift of lying and flattery. She was sardonically destined not to be a wife for Prometheus but for his brother Epimetheus. Her name was Pandora (Gr. 'pan + dora' "all gifts") and she brought to her mate the infamous box which contained all mankind's' ills, flying like insects from the box as soon as it was opened. Hope alone remained in the container as the sole, sad solace for mankind. What is interesting is the very early anticipation of something like bacteria in the image of flying insects, an opinion which was not be be bettered until the invention of the microscope and the biology laboratory. People in general still speak of contagious cold infection as carried by "bugs", no wiser in their speech than the men of antiquity.
The Cretan leader Idomeneus was returning from Troy when he was caught in a storm. Vowing to kill sacrificially the first thing he met upon reaching home safely, the first person he saw was his own son. As he prepared to fulfill this vow, a plague broke out, which the people attributed to this evil action, and drove him from the island into exile. (The killing of the son as a result of a vow seems to be a part of an entirely different story, it is like the biblical son-sacrifice in its bare fact, and not an essential part of this myth.) We are obviously dealing with the transmission of a viral pathogen of some unidentifiable sort, carried by a man who had been away for ten years in a foreign country. Bringing this back with him, he finds that his son falls sick first, and then it spreads to the community, which acts in partial hindsight trying to quarantine the disease by removing the carrier.
Considering the disease to actually be a curse, the story falls into the error which Hippocrates inveighs against in the preface to his treatise On the Sacred Disease (epilepsy), when he states that there are no sacred diseases, that diseases are of an entirely different origin and nature, and they are treatable by the medical art. It is strange that in this story of Idomeneus we have all the elements which would be necessary to posit the appearance of a contagious disease, all the necessary information is there, lying just beneath the surface, but the Greeks of the pre-Hippocratic period do not have the required mental preparation to make connections which would lead to seeing disease as disease. Just so early astronomers in the l7th century made drawings of Saturn which were directly based on their observations of the planet as seen in their telescopes. The drawings lack some bit of critical mental assessment, and come out terrible distorted, looking like a disc with a dot or a circular bracket on each side. Lacking an "object-hypothesis" of the ring of Saturn, they fail to draw what they actually saw, although today a grade-schooler can easily deduce the true form from a telescopic photograph. (The example is taken from R.L. Gregory: The Intelligent Eye, l970 p l22-4) Lacking an "object-hypothesis" for disease, the Cretans distortedly assume a curse.
Hippocrates much later remarks that Asians (i.e. Near Easterners) use goats extensively for food and their skins to sleep on, whereas Greeks do not use goats, and so lack certain diseases characteristic of the Asian populace. Informed medical opinion suggests that Hippocrates may have been speaking of goat-carried anthrax, which we know to have been prevalent in the ancient world, and since Idomeneus was returning from Asia Minor, is it possible that he was carrying anthrax with him on his person and clothing. Anthrax can be dormant for a period up to fifty years and is carried on skins and clothing in the dormant state. Medical history depends on the searching out of just such details, although documentation is always difficult.
One of the most remarkable medical myths concerns a problem associated with antisepsis, and demonstrates ancient knowledge of an area which we have never suspected. Heracles' son Telephos, ruler of the kingdom of Mysia, was wounded by the spear of Achilles when the Greeks invaded his country. The wound did not heal, but an oracle told him he must seek the one that wounded him to be healed. It turned out, as the myth tell it, that it was not Achilles that the oracle meant, but the actual spear which inflicted the wound.
In this story we have an early study in the effects of chemical reagents on wounds. If we assume that the spearpoint was of iron, then the active ingredient must be iron oxide or iron rust, which would have no special curative properties. But the spearpoint were made of bronze, we would be dealing with a copper based oxide. It is well known that copper sulphate (CuSo4) occurs naturally in cupriferous mine waters, and since Cyprus was mined extensively for copper all through the historical period, we may assume that the strikingly blue solution of copper sulfate would have been well known in Homer's world. In applying solution to iron, the copper is readily replaced by iron, so that if one dipped an iron knife blade or spearpoint into a saturated solution, the iron would immediately be coated by a deposit of bright reddish copper. (Early in this century this process was well known to mechanics, who used a saturated solution of copper sulphate to mark and identify tools and machine parts, the letters and numbers being masked off before immersion.)
If we can hypothetically assume for the moment that Achilles used this decorative treatment on his spearpoint, coloring his iron point with a bright copper plate, would it have any another use beyond the decorative color, which would incidentally prevent surface iron rust? We find that copper sulfate was used in pharmacy in the l9th century (Enc. Brit. ll ed. Vol VII, 110 b, unsigned) as a not very good emetic, but as a fairly effective superficial caustic and antiseptic. If Telephos were to follow his oracular response carefully, he would wend his way back to Achilles, find out what superficial chemical treatment his spearpoint had undergone, and then treat his wound with that same material. Copper mine-water (or CuSo4) will actually disinfect his suppurating wound. This argument makes good chemical and medical sense, and answers fairly the problem of how to cure Telephos' festering wound. More important, since we know very little about the ancients' use of antiseptics in the complicated surgical processes of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, we might well search for later use of this compound in medical texts, and for its general availability in the Greco-Roman world.
Various chapters of Greek medical history are concerned with the use of hallucinogens. Ergotism and the cults at Eleusis have been discussed under the grain deity Ceres or Demeter. The lotus-eaters of the Odyssey are clearly being drugged, possibly with opium or a form of cannabis, which have both been associated with central Asia Minor and India since early historical times. The views of Gordon Wasson about the Greeks' use of mushrooms as hallucinogens are interesting, especially in light of the prevalence of mushrooms in Greece, extending perhaps even to the name of the city Myc-enae (Gr. 'mycos' "mushroom"). The priestesses of the old temple of Athene on the north edge of the acropolis wended their way down to the lower town each day to bring up a carefully wrapped secret object, which is usually thought to be a cult-statue; it seems possible that they went down each day to get a fresh supply of some addicting vegetable material, which would incidentally reinforce their habit-forming ritual.
Hallucinogens may well have been in the fruit eaten by the Lotus Eaters, whom Odysseus meets in the ninth book of the Odyssey. Upon eating the fruit of the "lotus" (which is not the root which you get in oriental food stores), they lose memory and forget any wish to return home, content to stay in that country forever. It is possible that they are seduced by the natural climate, as Gauguin and Stevenson were charmed by the simpler, more natural ways of living in the South Sea islands, but on the other hand the effects of drugs may be involved. Our Western society has so recently become aware of the mass use of drugs, that it forgets that drugs of one kind or another (medical, anesthetic, hallucinogenic, and poisonous) have been with mankind longer than human memory can recall. Four thousands years ago Vedic priests were extolling the spiritual qualities of "soma", which was apparently some form of non-alcoholic hallucinogen, and primitive warrior peoples deep in the wildernesses of Brazil drug themselves with a locally gathered hallucinogen for extended warlike religious rites. Note that the Greek word 'pharmakon' means "drug, medicine, (and) poison", much as English 'drug' can alternately mean "medicine" and "hallucinogen". (Soma is, in fact, the psychoactive chemical found in the Amanita muscaria "fly agaric" mushroom, which has been used by many groups, most notably South American, Viking, and Vedic, throughout history - and is commonly believed to be poisonous. Its image is perhaps one of the best known of a mushroom; the short, stout stalk with a large red cap covered by white spots, and it can be foundİgrowing in areas all over the United States.)
Antaeos, was a giant killed by Heracles, who, perceiving that whenever Antaeus touched the earth he became stronger, lifted him in the air, depriving him of his strength, so defeating him. This story is generally taken as indicating the magic of Antaeos' earth-contact, but it might be asked whether there are any pathological conditions which cause dizziness by affecting the semicircular canals in the inner-ear. If any such identification can be made, this story would document the existence such a condition at a very early date, since the myths involving Heracles go back in some parts to pre-Mycenean times.
When the later Greeks, if not Jason and his crew, investigated Colchis, a country known for its extensive magic and pharmacology, they probably brought back samples of Colcicum autumnale, in English called Meadow Saffron or sometimes Autumn Crocus. It was known to come from Colchis in Greek times, although it is found growing wild over much of central Europe and England, and is still used in gardens as an autumn flowering decorative plant. The Greeks named it in their standard pharmacopoeia, and it was listed by Discorides as a poison, which it is in improper dosages. The Arabs discovered its uses in the treatment of gout, in the treatment of which it persisted into the twentieth century. The chief constituents of colchicum are colchicine and veratrine, which last alkaloid is useless in the treatment of gout. British Pharmacopoeia of the turn of the century listed Vinum Colchici and in an alcoholic base Tinctura Seminum Colchici, as having beneficial effects on the severity, pain and frequency of recurrence of gout.
Greek medicine is one of the most remarkable achievements of the Greek mind, it reaches from a time somewhat before Hippocrates down to the time of Galen and Celsus, it ranges from prophylactic medicine and dietary medicine to surgery, it includes a great deal of valid anatomical research as well as a fully developed herbal pharmacopoeia. Since the beginning of the l9 century, Greek medicine has ceased to be the reigning medical art of our world, we have gone further than our fathers and grandfathers would have thought possible, and we are on the edge of still greater forward strides. In view of our accelerating medical acceleration, it is important to trace the discipline back to its origins, not only in order to document the early history of medical science, but in order to isolate the germs of imaginative thought which guided the Greeks on the road to the medical art. Some of these elements of medical thought are to be found centuries before Hippocrates, buried in the myths of the early Greeks, and some evidence of millennia of experimentation with herbal materials can be found in the early mythological tradition as well as in the later manual of Dioscorides. What medical matters we find in the myths may be primitive, but they are the first stumbling steps of thinking men trying to find the road to medical understanding, and as such they are to be observed carefully, and they are to be respected.
Return to Greek Myth index