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Anti-Aging and Ancient Greeks

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Venus de Milo or Aphrodite of Milos. Anti-aging may have been considered sacrilege in ancient Greece. Credit: Bradley N Weber/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 2.0

Although medicine and healing were important in ancient Greece, anti-aging may have been considered unnatural by the ancient Greeks.

by Patrick Garner

In the last decade some branches of modern medicine have shifted from viewing aging as inevitable to treating it as a manageable disease.

Research labs in major universities are engaged in intense analysis of what triggers aging. Scientific discovery is focused on obscure topics such as AMPK, NAD+ and rDNA.

All of this exploration contradicts the timeless belief that aging is inevitable.

As Greek Reporter recently documented, Jeff Bezos has made a major investment in Alto Labs, a startup focused on eliminating aging. But Alto Labs is hardly unique.

For instance, Dr. David Sinclair, who teaches genetics, and founded Sinclair Lab at Harvard Medical School, has had a single focus for two decades: anti-aging. Similar research is being conducted across the world.

Medicine in antiquity

The pursuit of healing in all its aspects is hardly new. The ancient Greeks initiated the study of disease in the west.

Healers and early doctors founded centers across Greece as early as the sixth century B.C. Hippocrates of Kos — a famous Greek physician who was active during the age of Pericles in the fifth century B.C. — is often considered the father of modern medicine. He created what we know as the Hippocratic Oath. But Hippocrates was far from being the originator of the healing arts.

Centuries before him, restoration of health was practiced — if not invented — by a man named Asklepios. He is mentioned In Homer’s Iliad because his sons were the Greek army’s two physicians.

Asklepios himself was acclaimed as a son of Apollo, and in time he became worshiped across Greece as a god. The centaur, Chiron, was said to have taught him surgery and herbalism.

Like Hippocrates, his temples or sanctuaries were frequented by the sick. His powers were believed to be extraordinary, and he used dreams as healing recommendations from Apollo. But unlike modern practitioners, the Asklepiadae doctors — those who practiced his techniques — were essentially priests.

Their inspiration flowed from Asklepios, whose own powers were considered Apollonian.

His skill was so remarkable that he once brought a dead man back to life. It is said that Zeus was infuriated as he reserved such a power to himself, and struck Asklepios dead with a thunderbolt.

Yet, Asklepios’ influence lasted for centuries. It was so broad that many considered Hippocrates a mere upstart.

Essentially, Asklepios and Hippocrates created two competing schools of medicine. Their differences were stark. We might compare them to the practice of a shaman who calls upon spirits versus the procedures of a modern clinician.

In time, the school of Hippocrates won out. He systematized observed diseases and documented his failures and successes. In that, he mirrored Aristotle as he catalogued his observances.

Today, though, a radical change is occurring. Some scientists now hypothesize that illness is no more than an aspect of aging, and that aging itself should be treated as a unified whole — a disease itself.

Would anti-aging be considered sacrilege in Ancient Greece?

From the point of view of ancient Greeks, all of these actions would have been construed as profane, even blasphemous.

For more than a millennia, Greeks believed that the Three Fates, or Moirai, determined one’s destiny or fate. Their work included determining a person’s precise lifespan. Klotho, the Spinner, spun the thread of life; Lachesis, the Apportioner, measured it and Atropos, the third Fate, cut the thread when the person’s time was up.

Only Zeus had the power to interfere in the decisions of the Fates. For an ancient Greek, the concept of anti-aging would have been an unimaginable assault on the domain of the Fates, and considered intolerable.

The theme of anti-aging has begun to appear in modern culture. For instance, my first work of fiction, The Winnowing, describes how the Fates return to the contemporary world to prevent exactly what scientists are now trying to achieve.

In that work geneticists are on the verge of extending life and even ending death. The Fates, long dormant, awaken, aware of the sudden threat to what they consider the proper order.

The three begin to maneuver to modify the output of scientists. Their intent is to twist the test results, to skew the apparent findings in order to halt the inevitable.

For the Fates, death is inextricably linked to the immutable laws of Gaia. In their divine view, blocking human death will disrupt evolution and alter millions of years of natural growth.

Other writers and pundits are focusing on this same theme. Yet for the public, the argument that death can be delayed for decades falls into the realm of science fiction.

However, as Jeff Bezos, Dr. Sinclair and others demonstrate, mankind may be on the verge of life extension that was, during the time of Asklepios and Hippocrates, unimaginable.

Patrick Garner is the author of three novels about Greek gods in the contemporary world. He is also the creator and narrator of the breakout podcast, Garner’s Greek Mythology with listeners in 134 countries.

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