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Ancient Greek Medicine Comes Back to Life

ancient greek traditional medicine
Hippocrates is the father of traditional Ancient Greek medicine. Credit: Raed Mansour/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Greeks take their traditions, including those related to food, holidays, spirits, dances, and arts, which have persisted for thousands of years, very seriously. Those cultural practices which have helped them in the healing of disease and maintenance of good health and wellness are referred to as Traditional Greek Medicine.

By Rachel Thomas

Traditional medicine uses herbal teas, nutritious foods, massage, aromatherapy, exercises, water therapies, and much more. It works by cleansing the organ systems, reducing inflammation, and improving the body’s own healing capabilities.

Traditional Greek Medicine is similar to other ancient medical systems. It diagnoses through observation, considers the elements of nature in the body, and relies on powerful medicinal plants.

Although traditional medicine is not widely accepted in the mainstream medical system in Greece, there are many other countries which combine their ancient wisdom with their modern technologies.

This is why Greek wellness professionals can find schools of Asian healing arts, such as yoga or acupuncture, more easily than they can find schools of their own ancestral healing legacy.

Home remedies and traditional Greek medicine

greek medicine
Greek mountain tea, a traditional remedy for illness. Credit: Kimchifan/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Of course, many Greeks practice traditional medicine without any special classes. Home remedies are still common in Greece. They are taught mostly by grandmothers and other elders based on generations of experience.

They rely on ingredients that are easy to find and generally safe for use. These ingredients are used to treat common, mild ailments, such as upset stomach, headaches, colds, and joint pains.

The most common type of home remedy is a tea made from medicinal plants. Traditionally, people go to a nearby mountain or natural area to collect the plants needed for the teas.

People are generally aware of when the best time to harvest them is, as well as which part of the plants to use—flowers, leaves, roots, fruits, or bark. If they cannot find the plants that they need nearby, Greeks often grow their own in flower pots or home gardens.

Teas made from chamomile, mint, sage, or mountain tea are very popular, but there are many other ways to use medicinal plants. St. John’s Wort flowers are soaked in olive oil to create a skin remedy.

Garlic is eaten whole or added to food to strengthen the body against disease while aromatic flowers are utilized to improve moods and lift spirits. Soaking St. John’s Wort flowers in olive oil turns it dark red.

This common home remedy in Greece is known as σπαθόλαδο (in Greek), which is called sword oil in English. It is used for healing all kinds of wounds, especially sword wounds.

Clinical Medicine

When home remedies are insufficient, healing treatments that might include pharmaceuticals, surgeries, or other advanced technologies are relied on.

This is called clinical medicine. It is practiced by doctors, midwives, and others who have become experts in their field through extensive study.

The most famous doctor was Hippocrates, who was born on the Greek island of Kos in 460 BCE. He studied existing forms of medicine, created complex theories about healing, and tested them out using the scientific method.

Hippocrates was not the first doctor to record his knowledge in writing. Some Egyptian medical papyri predate him by a millennium.

Instead, he is known for developing the method for practicing medicine which has been at the foundation of modern medical science for almost 2,500 years.

Hippocrates diagnosed by observing bodily functions, and he relied on the therapeutic means of diet, herbal remedies, and other natural therapies now considered alternative medicines.

He believed that the elements of nature (earth, water, fire, and air) are present in the human body; likewise, many other medical traditions around the world are of the same belief.

This approach, known as the humoral theory, was used by European doctors until it was replaced a few centuries ago by the germ theory. Since that time, ancient Greek traditions have mostly been excluded from the study of medicine.

Hippocrates developed a scientific method for organizing medicine. His humoral theory was the basis of modern medicine in Europe for two thousand years.

Traditional Ancient Greek medicine is revived

Greece has now joined the international movement to revive ancient healing wisdom. This movement includes alternative therapists, ethnobotanists, herbalists, and historians.

Some of these leaders are doctors who are already combining ancient Greek healing methods with their modern medical practices. There are many different possibilities for this kind of work, called Complementary Medicine.

Many Greeks are also making a difference at home, bringing back the use of their grandmother’s favorite remedies. For those interested in learning more, schools such as the Academy of Ancient Greek and Traditional Chinese Medicine are offering classes in the history and practice of ancient Greek healing and wellness tools.

The Panhellenic Conference of Traditional Greek Medicine offers virtual education in this field. This group is successfully promoting the recognition of Traditional Hellenic Medicine as an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Greece.

This movement encourages Greeks to be proud of their rich history in medical science and encourages the scientific investigation of traditional Greek remedies by facilitating the inclusion of Greek ancient wisdom into modern medicine.

Watch a variety of Traditional Hellenic Medicine classes for free in both Greek and English.

Rachel Thomas, wellness coach, writer, and teacher—Ancient Wellness Tools Consulting

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