1902 Encyclopedia > Medicine > Medicine as Portrayed in the Homeric Poems

(Part 10)

Medicine as Portrayed in the Homeric Poems

In the state of society pictures by Homer it is clear that medicine has already had a history. We find a distinct and organized profession; we find a system of treatment, especially in regard to injuries, which it must have been the work of long experience to frame; we meet with a nomenclature of parts of the body substantially the same (according to Daremberg) as that employed long afterwards in the writings of Hippocrates: in short, we find a science and an organization which, however imperfect as compared with those of later times, are yet very far from being in their beginning. The Homeric heroes themselves are represented as having considerable skill in surgery, and as able to attend to ordinary wounds and injuries , but there is also a professional class, represented by Machaon and Podalirius, the two sons of Asclepius, who are treated with great respect. It would appear, too, from the Aethiopis of Architnus (quoted by Welcker and Haeser) that the duties of these two were not precisely the same. Machaon’s task was more especially to heal injuries, while Podalirius had received from his father the gift of "recognizing what was not visible to the eye, and tending what could be healed." In other words, a rough indication is seen of the separation of medicine and surgery. Asclepius appears in Homer as a Thessalian king, not as a god, though in later times divine honours were paid to him. There is no sign in the Homeric poems of the subordination of medicine to religion which is seen in ancient Egypt and India, nor are priests charged, as they were in those countries, with medical functions, -- all circumstances which throw grave doubts on the commonly received opinion that medicine derived its origin in all countries from religious observances.

Although the actual organization of medicine among the Homeric Greeks was thus quite distinct from religion, the worship of Asclepius (or Aesculapius) as the god of healing demands some notice. This cult spread very widely among the Greeks; it had great civil importance, and lasted even into Christian times; but there is no reason to attribute to it any special connexion with the development of the science or profession of medicine. Sick persons repaired, or were conveyed, to the temples of Asclepius in order to be healed, just as in modern times relief is sought by a devotional pilgrimage or from the waters of some sacred spring, and then as now the healing influence was sometimes sought by deputy. The sick person, or his representative, after ablution, prayer, and sacrifice, was made to sleep on the hide of the sacrificed animal, or at the feet of the statue of the god, while sacred rites were performed. In his sleep (incubatio [Lat.], egkoiaesis [Gk.]) the appropriate remedy was indicated by a dream. Moral or dietetic remedies were more often prescribed than drugs. The record of the cure was inscribed on the column or walls of the temple; and it has been thought that in this way was introduced the custom of "recording cases," and that the physicians of the Hippocratic school thus learnt to accumulate clinical experience. But the priest of Asclepius were not physicians. Although the latter were often called Asclepiads, this was in the first place to indicate their real or supposed descent from Asclepius, and in the second place as a complimentary title. No medical writing of antiquity speaks of the worship of Asclepius in such a way as to imply any connexion with the ordinary art of healing. The two systems appear to have existed by side, but to have been distinct, and if they were ever united it must been before the times of which we have any record. The theory of a development of Greek medicine from the rites of Asclepius, though defended by eminent names, must accordingly be rejected.

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