“Hippocrates” Takes on the Quacks

By Danièle Cybulskie

In the 5th century BCE, a group of Ancient Greek doctors wrote a series of treatises on medicine that are collectively known as the canon of Hippocrates, although the identities of the various authors remain unknown. One of these tracts is dedicated to epilepsy, the “sacred disease”, and the author of the work confronts its sacred nature head on, with skepticism, sarcasm, and a flat-out dismissal of popular remedies.

12th century Italian mural showing Hippocrates.

He declares that people’s beliefs about epilepsy are fundamentally based in ignorance because everything has a cause and a cure, even if no one knows what it is:

As for the disease called ‘sacred’, I find it no more sacred or divine than other diseases. Quite the contrary: it has a nature from which it comes like other ailments. But since it bears no resemblance to other diseases, people hold that its nature and supposed cause is something divine because they are ignorant and astonished. This problem of not understanding the disease makes them stick with the divine, while the problem itself is eliminated because the way of curing – just purifications and chants – makes the treatment simple.

Because epilepsy is mysterious, and no one has found a viable cure, the author says it has made those people suffering from it susceptible to those who are unscrupulous and eager to take advantage of them. He points the finger at “magi, purifiers, gypsies and con-men, the same ones who pretend to be exceedingly pious and to know a lot”. He condemns these people and their methods in no uncertain terms:

Using the divine to cloak and screen their own failure to find a procedure that helps, they have treated the affliction as sacred so that their total inability to understand it will not be obvious. They have chosen the right words to establish a treatment without risk to them, prescribing purifications and chants while ordering their patients not to bathe or eat the many foods that are bad for sick people.

The author does not believe the people prescribing such treatments are in any way sincere, saying,

Talking and doing tricks, they pretend to know more than they really know, and they deceive people by prescribing a pure life and purifications while going on about divinities and spirits.

This is not to say that the author doesn’t believe in the gods, however. Sufferers – if they are truly convinced of the divine nature of the disease – should take sacrifices to the gods’ temples, instead of trying to purify themselves at home on the advice of charlatans.

The author summarizes his position on epilepsy by citing his core beliefs about disease, and what he thinks is the direct cause of this one, specifically, saying, “like the other ailments it has its nature and its source … Like other diseases it starts in a family … and the brain is the cause.” It can be cured, he says, with the right combination of humoural treatments. And, he adds, “without purifying or doing magic or any other quackery.”

Although (thankfully) modern treatments for epilepsy and other diseases have come a long way since Ancient Greece, it’s hard to read The Sacred Disease and not be reminded of current controversies between medical doctors and proponents of alternative medicine. No doubt, this particular Hippocratic writer would be wading right into the middle of the fray if he was alive today.

You can find this excerpt and more ancient controversy on disease in The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, and you can learn all about Ancient Greek medicine in our next issue of Ancient History, themed The Arts of Asclepius.

Danièle Cybulskie is a guest editor for Issue 12 of Ancient History Magazine.

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