Why did the Hippocratic doctors use a dangerous method of purification for centuries to cure diseases?
Ancient Greek culture and its heritage are considered by many historians to be the basis of Western culture and all European cultures to this day. Meanwhile, the Greeks are also considered the founders of Western medicine, 2,500 years ago.
Prof. Yulia Ustinova, full professor in the Department of General History and in charge of the Anna and Sam Lupin Chair in History at Ben Gurion University, deals mainly with the history and culture of ancient Greece, with an emphasis on religion and worship, and uses research findings in neuropsychology, anthropology and sociology to understand historical phenomena.
According to her, "Health is one of the greatest aspirations of humans, since the dawn of time. Every person prays for health for himself and his loved ones and only a few manage to live a whole life without getting sick or injured. It is fascinating to understand how diseases are perceived in different societies around the world. For example, there are populations that attribute illnesses to supernatural forces. Today, every person can choose the methods of healing and balm that suit him, whether to contact a doctor, a therapist, a priest or a shaman. As in ancient times, sometimes the choice is not completely rational and stems from the circumstances of life and the type of illness." The remains of the temple of the Greek hero Amphiaraos (Amphiaraos) in Oropos, Greece, where those seeking a salve slept on benches and the way of healing was revealed in their dreams
Western medicine began to develop in the fifth century BC in Greece, with the establishment of the Hippocratic school (the first framework for medical studies in the Western world). Hippocrates (lived around 370-460 BC) was a Greek physician, born on the island of Kos, and considered the father of Western medicine. In his school, the doctors' oath that bears his name was written. While the ancient folk healers attributed diseases to supernatural and divine forces, Hippocrates and his students chose the path of logic and rational thinking and concluded that diseases are caused by natural causes that have nothing to do with religion and belief.
The members of the Hippocratic school devised a theory according to which there are four biles in the human body - black bile, yellow bile, phlegm (a type of lymph) and blood - and claimed that if external factors throw them out of balance (leading to an excess or lack of them), diseases develop. Therefore, they believed that the doctor's role was to expel phlegm (including blood) or to add it. For about 2,000 years, until about the 15th century, doctors adhered to this theory and many medical methods were based on it, even though they caused many suffering and deaths.
The Hippocratic doctors also believed in the gods of the Greek world, including the god of medicine Asclepius, who is mentioned in the Hippocratic Oath, and their healing methods, especially for internal diseases, were very similar to those of the ancient folk healers.
At the same time as this theory, the Hippocratic doctors also believed in the gods of the Greek world, including the god of medicine Asclepius, who is mentioned in the Hippocratic Oath, and their healing methods, especially for internal diseases, were very similar to those of the ancient folk healers. One of these healing methods was purifying the body with the Yachon plant; He caused multiple vomiting and diarrhea and thus allegedly contributed to the balance of mucus in the body (other healing methods included exorcism, ecstatic rituals, magic, sorcery, bloodletting and spells to stop bleeding). "The use of the Yahanon plant caused the patients painful contractions and great suffering and even led to many deaths due to overdose, even the mildest. And despite this, a variety of diseases of the body and mind were treated this way," explains Prof. Ustinova.
In her latest research, which won a grant from the National Science Foundation, the researcher sought to find out several issues, including the question of why Hippocratic, rational and supposedly progressive doctors continued to treat patients through harmful and deadly purification at the same time as traditional (folk) healers for hundreds of years (and not only in Greece), and why the patients were interested in it.
To answer the research question, the researcher collected ancient writings composed by doctors, historians, playwrights and other authors. Some of the materials were found in online archives and some in excavations of sites related to healing - for example, worship centers from ancient times in Greece and today's Turkey.
Thus the researcher concluded that the purification method was applied for hundreds of years due to a cognitive perception; The traditional healers claimed that the disease results from the entry of a harmful factor into the body, such as a god, a goblin or another source of impurity, and must be removed. The Hippocratic doctors provided a logical explanation according to which the harmful factor is the unnecessary fluids and their removal will contribute to the balance of mucus in the body. Therefore, the action performed by the traditional doctors and healers was the same - massive removal of material from the body. The patients (those who survived, of course) felt a sense of purification (catharsis) and liberation from the hostile influence, especially when they were treated by the traditional healers; These reinforced the drama of the physical purification through additional impressive effects, including rituals, spells and appeals to the gods.
"The concept of healing depends to a large extent on feeling and faith. In ancient Greece many believed that they were cured thanks to this method of purification and therefore it was considered effective. Such healing, based on faith, took place in ancient Greece and continues even today; The modern methods include prostrating on the graves of saints, bowing to a statue of the Holy Mary and burning objects. From this it can be understood that faith can affect the state of the body and that the head and the body work as one system. And it is fascinating to discover that people who belong to the same society use different and varied healing methods, depending on the cultural background, beliefs and opinions, and for some they do bring relief and balm", concludes Prof. Ustinova.
Prof. Yulia Ustinova, 61 years old, born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), lives in Be'er Sheva.