Asclepius; Medicine, Pharmaceutics and Surgery in very ancient times

In this article we present and analyze an excerpt from Pindar, the lyrical poet.

Asklepios_-_Epidauros

Pythionikos ΙΙΙ, Verses 47-62

In ancient Greek: «τους μέν ών, όσσοι μόλον αυτοφύτων ελκέων ξυνάονες, ή πολιώ χαλκώ μέλη τετρωμένοι ή χερμάδι τηλεβόλω, ή θερινώ πυρί περθόμενοι δέμας ή χειμώνι, λύσαις άλλον αλλοίων αχέων έξαγεν, τους μέν μαλακαίς επαοιδαίς αμφέπων, τους δε προσανέα πίνοντας, ή γυίοις περάπτων πάντοθεν φάρμακα, τους δε τομαίς έστασεν ορθούς. Αλλά κέρδει και σοφία δέδεται. Έτραπεν και κείνον αγάνορι μισθώ χρυσός εν χερσίν φανείς άνδρ’ εκ θανάτου κομίσαι ήδη αλώκοτα. Χερσί δ’ άρα Κρονίων ρίψαις δι’ αμφοίν αμπνοάν στέρνων κάθελεν ωκέως, αίθων δε κεραυνός ενέσκιμψεν μόρον. Χρή τά Fεοικότα πάρ δαιμόνων μαστευέμεν θναταίς φρασίν γνόντα το πάρ ποδός, οίας ειμέν αίσας. Μη, φίλα ψυχά, βίον αθάνατον σπεύδε, τάν δ’ έμπρακτον άντλει μαχανάν»

In English: «And all those who went to him, either with ‘έλκη αυτοφυή’ (*1), either wounded by shiny copper or stone thrown from afar, either with damaged body from summer fire or from the winter, each one he healed from various different diseases; others he nursed with ‘μαλακές επωδούς’ (*2), to others he gave ‘πραϋντικά ποτά’ (*3) to drink, or ‘περιδένοντας’ (*4)/applying medicines ‘πάντοθεν’ (*5) on their body members, while he erected others upright ‘με τομές’ (*6). But even wisdom can become bound to profit. And thus, he was also deflected by the majestic wages, gold in his hand, to raise a dead man that death had already grabbed. Promptly, Zeus (the son of Cronos) thrown his arms on both of them removing breath from their chests, while the burning thunder gave them death. We must ask/seek from the daemons all things that are fit to our mortal brains, knowning what lays in front of our feet and which fate defines us. Oh! (my) dear soul; don’t hurry for immortal life (don’t focus your efforts on achieving immortality using practical/scientific/human means), but hurry to draw the practical machine (focus your efforts on the practical matters of life, things that you can and must do)»

(*1) ‘έλκη αυτοφυή’: ‘έλκος’ means ‘wound’ or ‘trauma with inflammation’. ‘αυτοφυής’ means ‘grown on its own’, in contrast with ‘artificial’ or ‘externally imposed’.

(*2) ‘μαλακές επωδούς’: ‘μαλακός’ means ‘soft’. ‘επωδός’ means ‘refrain’.  The word ‘ωδή’ -meaning ‘ode’- suggests that ‘soft refrains’ has to do with soft music and some analogous special lyrics.

(*3) ‘πραϋντικά ποτά’: literally means ‘sedative drinks’

(*4) ‘περιδένοντας’: ‘περιδένω’ derives from ‘περί’ (around/all around) and ‘δένω’ (tie/bind/dress/bandage). Its usage in the text becomes rather obvious now.

(*5) ‘πάντοθεν’: literally it means ‘from everywhere/from every side’

(*6) ‘με τομές’ : literally it means ‘with incisions’.

Asclepiads

NovoScriptorium: Before analyzing this excerpt, we must first explain that here we have a reference to Asclepius, the son of Apollo, who, as Pindar informs us in the directly previous verses of ‘Pythionikos’, was taught by Centaur in Magnesia how to cure the ‘many-pain diseases of men’

«και ρά νιν Μάγνητι φέρων πόρε Κενταύρω διδάξαι πολυπήμονας ανθρώποισιν ιάσθαι νόσους»

«he took it (the baby Asclepius) and brought it to Magnesia, to Centaur, so that he (Centaur) teaches him (Asclepius) to cure the many-pain diseases of men»

Before anything else, our first finding is that the art of Medicine had been taught in the Greek peninsula many years before our times, in ‘mythical‘ eras.

According to this excerpt men can suffer from:

a) ‘έλκη αυτοφυή’

b) injuries from various objects; this refers mainly to war and the weapons used in it

c) ‘Body damages’ due to either high or low temperature

Relief-of-Asklepios-healing-a-dreamer-1-590x321

According to this perception, men get sick or suffer, respectively, because of:

a) their own nature, their own body. In other words, due to genetic reasons, heredity, etc. Moreover, because of misuse of their body or its excessive strain. Finally, for reasons directly related to one’s diet

b) external factors, like accidents, wars and bodily conflicts of any kind

c) climate conditions and generally because of the surrounding natural environment

greekmed2

So there is a wide variety of diseases, various ‘έλκη’ (i.e. ‘wounds‘ or ‘traumas with inflammation‘), various injuries. How Asclepius healed all these Pindar explains:

a) with the use of ‘μαλακών επωδών’ (soft refrains)

b) by giving them to drink ‘sedative drinks

c) ‘περιδένοντας‘/applying medicines on their body members

d) ‘with incisions

37a2fbbc-eafd-4eab-8235-73279c1fca2c-fig.13_medical-instruments-2000

But what all these mean, let’s examine it right forthwith:

a) “soft refrains” seem to be some rhythmic words, almost certain dressed with music, that somehow ‘placated’ the patient. There exists a widespread opinion that the ‘επωδοί’ was something like ‘spells’, allegedly magical, a view with which we do not agree at all in NovoScriptorium. Οur study in the ancient Greek literature has resulted that the rhythmical use of words, often accompanied by – specific, depending on the disease– music, was in use from mythical times to the time of natural philosophers (at least until then) and its purpose was , in particular, mental and spiritual healing of patients. It is speculated, with quite robust argumentation by modern scientists, that in the Asclepieia of the Classical era, there were widespread novel methods of psychotherapy that included, among other things, the use of sounds, music. Also, experiments for the improvement and/or cure of mental illnesses have been successfully carried out throughout the world by the use of reading/listening original ancient Greek texts, often Homeric lyrics. We therefore believe that ‘μαλακές επωδοί’ most likely intended to bring mental and spiritual balance to each patient. It has been proven by modern science that the mental and spiritual state of a patient in relation to his/her physical health is of great importance. Rather, it should not be taken as ‘accidental’ that this way of ‘healing’ is primarily mentioned. By healing, or better balancing, the mental and spiritual state of a patient, even more, if this takes a religious tone (even acting as ‘autosuggestion/self-hypnosis‘), then we have automatically increased the chances/probabilities of physical healing from the outset. The reader can find several relative scientific publications in our ‘Scientific Research’/’Health & Psychology‘ sections.

b) ‘πραϋντικά ποτά‘, as we can all perceive, is what we collectively call ‘medicines‘ in our days. That is, various formulations in edible and drinkable form, which are used depending on the disease/problem (tranquillizers and painkillers). Our study in ancient literature indicates a sophisticated use of numerous herbs, in various blends and dosages, the use of roots, fruits, vegetables, and even materials of animal origin for the preparation of various therapeutic formulations. This Tradition began in the mythical years (how old really?) and continued unbroken until the era of the Eastern Roman Empire (Romania-Byzantium). It then passed to the West and transformed to modern Pharmaceutics just a century ago. As we now have ‘pills’ and ‘syrups’, the ancient Greeks had, too, in exactly the same way. In the section ‘Archeology-Paleontology-Ancient Greece‘, the reader will find articles about this (formal archaeological announcements/presentations).

c) Except the edible/drinkable formulations there were also various ‘ointments‘. These external formulations ‘περιδένονταν’/were applied directly on the various body members. As in our times. The word ‘περιδένονταν’ most probably implies ‘tieing/binding‘ of body members. That is, as we read in the the text, he ‘erected patients upright‘ by applying

i) ‘tieing/binding’ of body members and

ii) anointing of the same members with some special formulations.

Same procedure is followed in our times.

d) The aforementioned ‘incisions‘ are nothing else than what we today call Surgery. Indeed, there are various ilnesses or injuries that can not be treated without operative treatment. It is clear, from what we have already said, that -at least- since the time of Centaur and Asclepius, Medicine, Pharmaceutics and Surgery existed and were being taught. To what extent we are not in a position to know precisely. We urge the reader to search for numerous scientific publications on ancient Greek and Graeco-Roman Medicine in our ‘Scientific Research‘ section.

280px-Medicine_aryballos_Louvre_CA1989-2183_n2

Then, Pindar stops Asclepius’ praise and describes his ‘fall‘. He starts by complaining that even wisdom can become bound to profit. That is, even beneficial knowledge for man can be diverted/distorted for the sake of profit. We all know how great a truth this is. For the sake of ‘gold’ and ‘majestic wages’, souls and consciences of scientists of all kinds are sold out. Obviously, what discussed here is the Passion of Avarice/Greed, that seems able to divert even the kind and wise man from the right path, which is to do Science only for the sake and benefit of Humanity. This Passion is directly and unbreakably connected to the other Passions of Voluptuousness, Ambition and Lust-for-Power.

Asclepius is presented by Pindar as trying to ‘erect a dead‘, stressing that it was not an ‘apparent death’ situation and a possibly reversible one, but that ‘death had grabbed him’, i.e. he was dead beyond any doubt. This has its meaning, which is great. Man has often tried (and is trying) to ‘rape nature’ and to change the course of natural things in his own interest, sometimes for glory, sometimes – mainly- for profit. But this is called ‘Hubris‘ and brings punishment from above. The non-acceptance of Nature as it is, constitutes practical blasphemy against the Creator. It is an overwhelming manifestation of Man’s Conceit/Pride. Pindar informs us, in his vivid/graphic way, that for such a disrespect, Asclepius was struck by a burning thunder and then died.

hqdefault

Finally, he urges every man to ask from the daemons (i.e., the ‘gods’, the Divine) only those things which are suitable/fit for our mortal brains; to seek for things from the share (‘μοίρα’ – ‘μερίδιον’ – ‘our share/our piece’) that belongs to each one of us, and from what this share accordingly has brought to our lives. It urges the soul itself to focus her every effort to things that are practical (he means to seek for accesible things) and not to fight for immortal life. This latter does not mean that Pindar challenges the eternity of the soul*. It is mentioned, as compared to the example of Asclepius, of man’s willingness to deal with things that are not ‘mortal’, such as the attainment of ‘immortality’ through material ways. Indeed, the person who deals with objects/objectives beyond his or her potential, whether perceptual or interpretive and analytical, at best, eventually loses his logic, ends up mad/insane. It is likely that a theological message is also implied here; that Divine willings/judgements are a great mystery to Man. As, of course, great mysteries are those of Life and Death. There will never be a day that a human will provide a sufficient answer for them two. And should not even be tempted of such a venture! Because his ‘mortal brains‘ and his limited (in everything) nature are not adequate for something like that.

*We have already posted enough articles on Pindar, we hope rather convincing that he was among the believers of the immortality of the soul.

[Important note: Asclepius was not honoured as a ‘god’ from the very beginning because, as various ancient writers inform us with clarity (among them Homer), he was just a human being just like anyone else. But, he had been an exceptional man, devising various cures and ways of healing for his fellow people. For these great deeds he was later on ‘deified’. This is a ‘procedure’ followed for almost all the ‘gods’ in Greek Mythology, who were humans of great deeds and benefactors of Men in very ancient times, and hence ‘deified’, so that they are ‘honoured eternally’ by the multitude and serve as ‘eternal examples’, too]

Isidoros Aggelos

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: