Myths, legends and the origins of medicine

From a lecture by the Helen King, Reader in Classical Medicine, University of Reading, to the British Association for Science


How did the world come into being? Why are things as they are?

How did the world come into being? Why are things as they are?

One of the most striking features of ancient Greek myth is the number of different accounts of creation, some mutually incompatible. First came Chaos ("gaping void"). Intercourse between Earth (Gaia) and Heaven (Ouranos) produced the "old gods", the Titans. The Titan Kronos castrated his father Ouranos, creating from his blood the Furies and Giants, and from the foam surrounding the severed genitals the goddess Aphrodite. Kronos and his wife went on to produce the Olympian gods who defeated the Titans in battle and rule in the ancient Greek "now".

Many features of human life were created when the female Night produced her own offspring: abstract concepts including Death, his brother Sleep, the Fates and Strife.

Greek creation is violent, but our current images of science may not be so different: "splitting" the atom, "breaking" the code of DNA. Science, certainly since the 17th century, has thrived on the imagery of violence. But is creation through conflict and strife good or bad?

The mid-eighth century BC poet Hesiod argued that there are two strifes: bad strife leads to war, while good strife leads to competition. This sort of strife, not between humanity and nature, but between equals, where "potter hates potter, carpenters compete, and beggar strives with beggar, bard with bard", can be good, driving up overall standards.

For Heraclitus, although everything is in flux, strife holds things in tension, giving the impression of stability. So philosophers were not entirely opposed here in their ways of explaining origins; strife is part of creation, a natural, even a positive, force.

In Greek myth, the creation of humanity is plural. The gods made five successive "races": gold, silver, bronze, heroes and iron. In another myth, Zeus destroyed the race of bronze except for Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, who repopulated the world by throwing stones over their shoulders.

A further creation myth describes the origin of the first woman, Pandora. In myth, medicine is necessary because the evils Pandora released from her jar included disease. Prometheus, who provided many inventions and discoveries to alleviate human suffering, stole fire from the gods, inaugurating cooking and sacrifice. In fifth-century Athens, tragedy also named him as the founder of medicine. In Aeschylus' Prometheus, Prometheus describes medicine as the greatest of all the technai; he himself showed "how to drive away diseases".

But did medicine reject the gods? The late-fifth century treatise On the Sacred Disease argues that the condition it describes - probably epilepsy - is wrongly named, being "no more divine than other diseases".

All are divine, because they are caused by the elements, but it is wrong to assign each condition to a specific deity. For example, if a patient makes a sound like a horse, it does not mean that Poseidon is causing the disease. The treatise does not reject the gods, but rejects the idea that disease can be divided into packages neatly labelled with the names of Olympian deities.

Similarly, On the Disease of Virgins condemns those advising girls suffering at puberty to make dedications to Artemis. She is not responsible for the symptoms; their cause is natural, a blockage preventing free movement of bodily fluids. But, while re- jecting a goddess as causal agent, the author also draws on a theme found in philosophy and myth: creation as differentiation, out of primordial chaos.

For the ancient Greeks, creation was multiple and unending; humans are made over and over again; by the gods, from ashes, from stones, from the sea. Early Greek science and philosophy share this view of creation as violent, fluid, and never-ending.

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