Ancient Science and Diseases
Many effective methods for curing diseases were developed in ancient cultures. However, the physical bases of diseases were not as clearly understood in ancient times. Many ancient views on diseases were related to the supernatural, to curses, and to lack of grace from the Providence. Most cures for diseases included magical oral formulas also.
So we find in ancient Egypt, China, India and Greece, references to diseases as resulting from the wrath of the gods or the intervention of harmful spirits. Medicines were often administered with fetishes and magic verses. Incantations were regarded as no less important than intakes. Sometimes patients had to repeat magic syllables several times, sometimes it was only the priest who evoked the spirits having control over the disease. There was widespread use of amulets to stave off evil spirits or to chase away the ones that had already made their way into the sick person’s body. The efficacy of mineral or metallic pieces depended largely on how well and how often the wearer repeated with submission the chants that were prescribed along with them. Since epidemics affected large groups of people in a community, they were often handled by collective appeals to the powers that be in the celestial sphere.
The plight of those afflicted with a disfiguring disease was often quite sad. These were believed to be possessed by evil spirits who had taken a particular fascination for their abnormal physique. Consequently, such patients were regarded as collaborators with the devil. In other words, they were looked upon as witches, and therefore had to face some very unpleasant treatment. Insanity was especially regarded in demonic terms. One historian has pointed out that perhaps more inhuman torture was carried out in medieval lunatic asylums in Europe than at any other time or place in all of history.
People with physical handicaps were not much better off. The blind were looked upon with suspicion. The deaf were considered irrational human beings. The Latin word for deaf, surdus, is the same one that describes the so-called irrational numbers, and has also given rise to the English word absurd. Likewise, the mute were imagined to be agents of the devil, and their inability to talk was regarded as an expression of their dull-headedness. Whence the double meaning of the word dumb.
Even such passing abnormalities as a cold that causes sneezing, were interpreted in terms of demonic possessions. The common reaction to a sneeze with the statement, ‘God bless you!’ is, in fact, a vestige of the belief that in the act of sneezing the person released the devil that had entered into him or her.
There was also the belief that physical and mental ailments could be caused by the evil eye. The idea was that envious individuals, by their ill wish, could upset the health and good fortune you might be enjoying. This could be avoided by taking appropriate protective measures. These included the uttering of prescribed chants, the burning of suitable incense after the suspicious party left the scene, the holding on to efficacious amulets, and the like. To this day little bells or trinkets are tied to the arms or ankles of children in some cultures so as to protect them from even the unconscious envious look of strangers or friends.
The microbial and viral bases of diseases and the psychological aspects of mental illness were not recognized or taken seriously in the framework of ancient science.