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Types of Ancient Greek Medicine

Types of Ancient Greek Medicine


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What do these three have in common?

  1. Asclepius
  2. Chiron
  3. Hippocrates

Have you heard of a healing god of Greece called Asclepius or Asculapius? He was Apollo's son, but his divine parentage didn't keep him alive after he became too good at his craft, depriving the Underworld gods of their denizens.

Alongside the mythology about demigods bringing the dead back to life and a centaur who taught generations of heroes how to tend to their future, battle or quest-incurred wounds, were Greek thinkers and observers who furthered the craft of healing to what we would probably consider scientific levels.

Ancient Greece is considered the home of rational medicine and the Hippocratic Oath, but that doesn't mean they rejected all forms of religious healing. Alternative and scientific medicine co-existed in the ancient world just as they do today. Lyttkens says that healing cults took an upswing at the time of the birth of secular medicine and doctors sacrificed to the healing god Asclepius. There were, of course, magicians, charlatans, and quacks, as well as midwives. The main divisions, according to G. M. A. Grube, were temple medicine, medicine connected with physical training, and the medicine of the medical schools.

Medical Schools

The two most important medical schools were those of Cos (Kos) and Cnidos (Knidos). Cos and Cnidos are in Asia Minor where there was contact with Asia and Egypt, as well as Greece. Practitioners from both these schools did not believe illness was connected with the supernatural. Treatment was holistic, involving diet and exercise. Typical physicians were itinerant craftsmen, although some physicians became public doctors (archiatros poleos) or attached to a household. They practiced rational medicine rather than deducing from philosophical theory.

Temple Medicine

The two main healing sanctuaries were located in Cos (again; remember religious and secular medicine were not mutually exclusive) and the birthplace of Asclepius, Epidauros (dating from the end of the 6th century). Following a sacrifice, treatment included incubation by which was meant the patient went to sleep. Upon awakening he would either be cured or have received divine instruction in a dream that would be interpreted by experienced priests.

Gymnasium

Gymnastic treatment, based on experience, relied mainly on athletic training and hygiene (mens sana in corpore sano). Henry says that the trainers were like chemists (druggists/pharmacists) to the Aesclepian priests. Gymnasium personnel administered enemas, bled, dressed wounds and ulcers, and treated fractures. The sophist Herodicus is called the father of gymnastic medicine. He may have taught Hippocrates.

Sources

  • "Greek Medicine and the Greek Genius," G. M. A. Grube, Phoenix, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Winter, 1954), pp. 123-135
  • "Health, Economics and Ancient Greek Medicine,"
    Carl Hampus Lyttkens
    January 2011
  • "Lectures On The History Of Medicine (Concluded)," Alexander Henry, The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 172 (Apr. 14, 1860), pp. 282-284


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