The reason was simple: most ancient societies, the Greeks included, believed disease was caused by the wrath of the gods. To get your remedy you needed to find a person -- a priest, witch or magician -- to help you find out which god was mad at you and why. Then you'd have to learn how to make that god happy again so you would have a shot at getting better, explains Henry E. Sigerist in his book, "A History of Medicine." (1)
Yet the more common option, as Sigerist notes, was be to seek out your priest to learn what kind of offerings to make to the gods for healing in this way. This was more common because it was far less expensive than seeking a potion offered by a magician or witch. (1)
He may prescribe fore you a magic amulet, an incantation, and quite possibly an animal sacrifice, a pig perhaps, or a goat. Such a sacrifice would show the angry god that you value his wisdom over your own possessions. Since the gods were thought to live and breathe like men in the Heavens, the sacrifice was thought to provide a food offering to the god.
This was a common form of medicine in the ancient world, a bribe of sorts. I will provide you with this food offering if you make me well again.
A common ritual was to travel to the god's temple by walking, riding a horse, riding a donkey, or riding a cart. The temple belongs to one of the healing gods, such as Ascepius. You'd spend time amid the priests, who had the ability to talk to the gods and hear their advice for healing. Most often you'd sleep among them, and in the morning your cure would be revealed.
In this way, you received the healing benefits this god had to offer.
There were many such temples scattered around ancient Greece, and often they were associated with nearby hostels to house those who traveled for this purpose. Some early historians, Sigerist said, believed these "hostels attached to the Ascelpia were the first Western hospitals and poorhouses where indigent sick people stay and are treated by priest," writes Sigerist (1, page 73)
Later historians note that these weren't hospitals in the way we think of them today, as the sick merely spent time there to learn the cure; they did not stay in the hostels until they were healed, but just one night.
Priestly healing was very common during this era. In fact, the belief gods were responsible for good luck and bad luck, health and healing, made worshiping the god Ascepius very popular even up to the Birth of Jesus Christ. Sigerist explaines that it was for this reason the pagan god Ascepius was the greatest competitor of Jesus Christ. (1)
Sigerist said that one of the main reasons Ascepius was the greatest competitor to Jesus Christ was because he wasn't as greedy as the other gods, and he would accept even modest gifts. This made it possible for him to be worshiped by both the rich and the poor. (1)
This was significant, because poverty was one of the main attractions of Christianity. The poor couldn't afford physicians, nor the sacrifices demanded of most gods, and so Christianity was a viable option. Yet so too was the god Asclepius.
Over time there was another medical paradigm that was growing in popularity and significance in ancient Greece, and that was the belief in natural medicine. Some priest physicians were knowledgeable of which plants had medicinal and poisonous properties. As time progressed, even the common folks were privy to this knowledge.
A good example of this was explained in the Odyssey by the great Greek poet Homer. Henry E. Sigerist, explains the following: (1)
"There is relatively little mention of magic in the Homeric epics although the ancient Greeks believed in magic and, like everyone else in antiquity, practiced some... The drug given to Helen by the Egyptian lady, Polydamna, had strong euphoric properties, so that whoever took it forgot all unpleasant memories and would not shed a tear even if his closest relative died; this drug might be opium or hashish, but it could just as well be the kind of miracle drug found in many fairy tales." (1)As Sigerist explained, the Odyssey cannot be taken seriously, however, it was based on real life events. The Greeks probably had access to various medicines, such as opium, and simply told of this medicine as a magic potion crated by, say, witches or magicians. Since the gods created everything, then they must have also created the magical powers present in some plants.
Knowledge of the inner organs and what they did was limited, yet observations from experience working with the wounded and the dead gave soldiers a pretty good idea where to aim their weapons to produce the most damage to the enemy's body. They knew the best places to aim were the lower abdomen or to aim their arrows at the nipples.
Physicians had magic healing powders and soothing drugs used to help people who were wounded in battle. These tales also describe various poisons. For example, Sigerist noted a line from Homer's Odyssey:
"Circe was a beautiful witch who could transform human beings into pigs, and it is absurd to assume that Eurylochus who told the story had been the victim of hallucinations." (1)While these stories are twisted and turned into a memorable fairy tales, they may actually be descriptions of poisons used to punish or kill an enemy. What these drugs and medicines actually were we can only speculate.
While all ancient medicine started off as mythical, natural medicine was soon a viable option. Natural medicine may have been resisted at first, although through time its benefits were so obvious they couldn't be resisted. So, of course, natural remedies found their way to mythology.
Note: The dates chosen for this article are based on the estimated dates for the writings of Homer (800 B.C.) and the siege of Troy as described in Homer's Iliad (1194-1184 B.C.). The medical knowledge expressed in this post may also have effected you prior to and after these listed dates, which are mainly listed simply as a reference to make it easier to write a history, and easier to picture in your head where these events may have occurred. And even if you lived in Greece during these times, you may also have been subjected to primitive medicine, or pre-Greek medicine. I obtained the dates from Albert Henry Buck in his book "The growth of medicine from the earliest times to about 1800." (1917, London, Oxford University Press, page 46).
- Sigerist, Henry E, "A History of Medicine," vol. II, "Early Greek, Hindu, and Persian Medicine," 1961, Oxford University Press, pages 19, 20, 23, 28, 51